Santiago Sierra, a Spanish performance artist, pledged on Monday to hold talks with Jewish community leaders outraged by his project to give people a sense of the Holocaust by pumping lethal car exhaust fumes into a former synagogue and letting visitors enter one by one with a breathing apparatus.
Sierra, known internationally for his controversial work, led hoses from the exhaust pipes of six parked cars into the building in the town of Pulheim-Stommeln near Cologne to create lethal levels of carbon monoxide there.
Around 200 visitors who lined up for the first gassing session on Sunday had to sign a declaration that they were aware of the risks before being allowed in wearing a breathing apparatus and accompanied by a fireman.
They were allowed to spend a maximum of five minutes in the synagogue, which is no longer used as a place of worship and only survived the Nazi era intact because it was sold to a farmer and used as a storage hall. "The smell of the exhaust may cling to clothing," visitors were warned.
The Nazis used gas chambers to murder many of the 6 million Jews they killed.
Sierra, 39, who lives in Mexico, was not present at the start and could not be reached for comment. He said in a statement distributed outside the synagogue that he was trying to counter the "trivialization of our memory of the Holocaust."
The performance was to have taken place each Sunday until April 30, but next week's session has been cancelled in the wake of fierce criticism from Jewish leaders and media commentators.
"We are suspending the project for a couple of weeks. The artist wants to use the time to talk to the people who have criticized his project," said Dirk Springob, spokesman for the town of Pulheim. "He thinks he will be able to convince them in face-to-face talks and that the project can be continued."
Given the outrage his project has caused, Sierra has a tough task ahead of him.
Holocaust Remembrance Seen Damaged
The Central Council of Jews in Germany called the project a scandal and said it was hurting efforts to keep younger German generations aware of the crimes of the Nazis. Its general secretary Stephan J. Kramer said: "Anyone who thinks it's art to simulate a 'gas chamber' via highly toxic car exhaust fumes, and in a former synagogue at that, in an attempt to convey supposed authenticity, is hurting not just the dignity of the victims but also that of the Jewish community. This has absolutely nothing to do with a culture of remembrance."
Pulheim, which uses the synagogue as an occasional exhibition center, commissioned Sierra to undertake an art project of his choice there and defended his work on Monday.
City official Angelika Schallenberg said she had been impressed by Sierra's treatment of difficult issues in the past. "You can't impose compromise on art," she told SPIEGEL ONLINE, adding that the project would be continued despite the criticism. "The artist is making a statement, not I. He must be allowed to make a statement and convey it without any distortion. I don't engage in censorship. The artist thinks what he thinks," she said.
Sierra said he was seeking to honor the memory of the Jews murdered in the Holocaust. He called the work "245 Cubic Meters" in allusion to the empty space of the synagogue. "Above all, however, 245 cubic meters is meant to be a work about the industrialized and institutionalized death from which the European peoples of the world have lived and continue to live," his statement said.
There has been damning criticism from the German media. The Kölnische Rundschau newspaper said Sierra's "art horror light" led to just the kind of trivialization Sierra claimed to be fighting. "What Santiago Sierra is doing in the Stommeln synagogue indeed takes your breath away, unless you're a visitor, in which case you get plenty of oxygen, take zero risks and are even caringly accompanied by a fireman," it wrote.
"That's quite a contrast with the countless victims of the death camps. How pretentious to seek to evoke their horror and fear of death in such a cheap way! In a cynical game which yields no insight whatsoever."
"At a time in which ever fewer authentic witnesses are alive to tell of the Nazi terror, we have to find serious and appropriate ways to give young people a sense of responsibility for the present and the future, without apportioning guilt," the paper said. "Sierra's work degrades history to a fictional spectacle and only does damage in this respect."
Some of the people who visited the synagogue on Sunday were moved by it, local media reported. The Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger newspaper quoted Cologne resident Wolfgang Rieger as saying with tears in his eyes: "I'm really beaten up about this. None of the previous projects has affected me like this." One former local teacher, Ingrid Willamowski, told the paper that the project made her recall how the Nazis experimented with killing Jews by locking them in trucks and pumping exhaust fumes in before they invented gas chambers.
One 60-year-old-man said: "I wasn't afraid but I felt a sense of threat. This realisation shouldn't be lost in this day and age."
Controversy is Sierra's forte. His past projects have sought to highlight exploitation of the poor and the power of money. He has paid unemployed people to have lines tattooed on their backs, to masturbate in front of a camera and to carry heavy beams around a gallery.
Author Ralph Giordano, who survived the Holocaust, told German public broadcaster Deutschlandfunk radio: "I would resist calling Santiago Sierra an artist, at least in this context. I see no art in this tasteless project."