Art of Confrontation
Janette and record player. Image courtesy the artist Simone Mangos and VB Bild Kunst r.V.
Simone Mangos is not afraid to go where others fear to tread. A long-time resident of Berlin, the Australian artist took aim at Germany's Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in a 2007 book, A Monumental Mockery, claiming it was a symbol for continuing German disrespect for the victims of Nazism.
''An underlying bid to take the place of the victim and subsequently blur the distinction between victim and persecutor was apparent throughout the construction procedure,'' she wrote.
An associated photo exhibition and installation, The Ideology of Memory, revealed the memorial had been built on the site of the bunker that belonged to Hitler's propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels's.
Stigma ... Case 5 by Simone Mangos.
Mangos's Damaged: Thalidomide Victims in Medical Documents investigates a similar whitewash of history.
The exhibition, which opens at the Art Gallery of NSW on June 2, features 10 large oil paintings of thalidomide victims based on medical photographs and documents.
Mangos's interest in people maimed by thalidomide was triggered by her research into the memorial and how history was being revised by the persecutors.
''Why deformed persons?'' she asks. ''Because they are one of the most stigmatised, misunderstood, misrepresented and disliked groups of people there is.''
Developed by German drug company Grunenthal, thalidomide was marketed as a treatment for morning sickness in the late 1950s, leading to thousands of pregnant women using it to relieve their symptoms. It is still used, with success, to treat a number of illnesses, including leprosy and cancer.
When she began sifting through medical literature, Mangos says she was struck by the crude way in which thalidomiders and congenitally deformed children were photographed and handled.
''German children were usually made to pose stark naked before the camera while being held in place, often severely, by unidentified persons,'' she says.
Children in other countries were similarly mistreated, forced to pose semi-naked, manhandled and portrayed as criminals.
Mangos's large oil paintings replicate this careless documentation of the disabled: in one portrait, an adult hand roughly grabs a child whose eyes are blacked out; in another, a child is depicted naked, again being manhandled.
She points out that sympathy for deformed and disabled children often dissipates when they reach adulthood and are ''aged, probably unattractive or considered ugly, in pain and most likely poor''.
Mangos left Australia more than two decades ago, having established her reputation as the creator of innovative works using materials such as honey, straw, chalk and salt.
But painting with oils was a means of referencing the historical depiction of disabled and deformed people as monsters, criminals or low lifes. ''I decided to paint large oil portraits as a means of enlarging and representing the events,'' Mangos says, ''but also because I wanted the work to have a monumentality and weight not easily dismissed.''
While art may not have the academic rigour of a historical text, it can make an event seem more real than a dry text, says the art gallery's head curator of international art, Tony Bond.
Mangos's oil paintings may not amount to an authentic history of the children involved in the thalidomide tragedy, but Bond expects her artworks will affect viewers by conveying the reality of the sufferers' plight.
''I would be making the case there are times when art is able to viscerally take you there,'' Bond says.