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UCLA, the mandala and the big taboo

October 20, 2008 |  8:15 am

Mandala is not the name of one of Todd and Sarah Palin's children; instead, it's a Sanskrit word used for a geometric design that symbolically represents the cosmos. A mandala's design tries to focus outer thoughts on inner worlds.

Maya_lujan_artwork_3 A dust-up over a mandala in UCLA's graduate art program could also use some focus. As my colleague Diane Haithman reported in Culture Monster, a portion of a student work in a recent show at the school was removed over the objections of the artist. She said the geometric linear form, part of a larger installation (and seen on the side wall in the photograph at the right), is a mandala. But the exhibition's curators weren't so sure. They were concerned that it too closely resembled a swastika.

Like mandala, swastika also comes from Sanskrit. This ancient symbol always had positive connotations of life and good luck -- until Adolf Hitler, failed Austrian artist, wrote Vol. 2, Chapter VII of “Mein Kampf.” That's where he described how he came up with his red, white and black graphic symbol of National Socialism. For him, and soon enough for everyone, the bent-arm black form signified “the struggle for the victory of Aryan mankind and at the same time the triumph of the ideal of creative work which is in itself and always will be anti-Semitic.”

Horrible stuff. I didn't see the UCLA show, which closed earlier this month, but it's easy to see why nerves might be rattled.

You can make up your own mind about what happened with the student exhibition. As for the artist and the curators, however, I suggest they get together and make a bee-line to the Museum of Contemporary Art downtown. There, a painting in the current retrospective of the late German artist ...

...Martin Kippenberger addresses the very issue they wrestled with.

Kippenberger_0032_2 The painting is not about the power of symbols, but about the power of taboos.

For German artists, the taboo problem has obvious connotations. Swastikas were forbidden from public display when Kippenberger made the painting, which is a jumble of rectangular bars painted over a serpentine tangle of plastic rope against a dingy, dark gray field. As soon as you know the work's sly title -- “With the Best Will in the World, I Can't See a Swastika” -- you start looking for one in the grim muddle of geometric forms.

Ah, the triumph of the will.

Just to complicate matters, the painting at MOCA is from the collection of Christian Flick -- grandson of Friedrich Flick, the arms manufacturer and steel magnate who supplied the Nazi regime, and who was sentenced at Nuremberg for exploitation of slave labor. Kippenberger painted it in 1984.

Hmmm. 1984. What could that mean?

--Christopher Knight

Photos: Top, Maya Lujan's “White Magic and Xanadu,” by Ben Duggan; below, Martin Kippenberger's “With the Best Will in the World, I Can't See a Swastika,” by Christopher Knight.

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