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Creation amid death

Unimaginable for all but those who fell victim to it, the Holocaust poses multiple problems for any artist. Most obvious, perhaps, is the difficulty of approximating, in material form, an experience of such unprecedented scale and stunning cruelty. Other, more radical voices would protest that any established aesthetic is by definition inappropriate to that unique calamity. Or, in the words of the philosopher Theodor Adorno, "To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric."

Visitors to the touring exhibition "After Auschwitz: Responses to the Holocaust in Contemporary Art", (a title which deliberately echoes, and perhaps challenges, Adorno's declaration) are given ample opportunity to ponder these issues. An exhibition featuring the work of 20 artists, it will leave many onlookers shocked, intrigued or, in some cases, baffled.

Fabio Mauri's "Western or Wailing Wall", the undoubted centrepiece of the exhibition, should cause few difficulties. A high wall of battered suitcases, some with old holiday stickers, readily evokes memories of the mounds of inmates' luggage still visible at Auschwitz. As such, the exhibit tellingly complements one of two paintings by Mick Rooney, "Why Are We Leaving?", a claustrophobic, panic-filled study of Jews crowding a railway platform, all pathetically clutching household knick-knacks.

Equally poignant is Shimon Attie's "The Writing on the Wall", in which the artist projects ghostly images of past Jewish residents against the very walls of the Berlin streets where they once lived; no interpretation problems here. Nor is there any mistaking the meaning behind "We Are Not the Last", Zoran Music's stark, spare sketches of inmates at their last gasp or, in one case, grotesquely beyond. Several other displays, though, draw puzzled frowns. Ellen Rothenberg's "Anne Frank Project", for instance, or Deborah Davidson's "Trace": equally abstract and thereby enigmatic, they seem almost self-indulgent in their ordered obscurity. The same might be said of Daisy Brand's work, a series of small-scale ceramic sculptures that, says the exhibition guide, "create beauty out of hell". Yes, perhaps: but is this not to deny the hell that was?

This question, like so many others on the relationship between representation, history and reality, will hopefully occur to art students who visit this multiform and sometimes moving exhibition. That said, all students stand to gain from confronting the issues presented here. Teachers should ensure that subject boundaries do not prevent them from doing so.

Laurence Alster Royal Festival Hall Galleries, London, until April 17; Manchester City Art Gallery, May 13 - July 2; City Library and Arts Centre, Sunderland, October 9 - November 18; City Art Centre, Edinburgh, December 2 - January 20 1996. Further information from The South Bank Centre 0171 921 0886

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