Recently, 2020 Democratic candidate Pete Buttigieg and his husband, Chasten, came under intense criticism for a 2017 picture taken in the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin.
Posted on Chasten's personal Instagram account, the image is of Buttigieg captured in the soft light that comes through the headstone-like concrete slabs that compose the memorial. With a slight smile and his sunglasses casually shoved back on his head, he looks back at us. Not directly, but just off to the side, as if he's gazing at the photographer. "This guy," the caption reads. This guy. This one.
It's a simple statement of desire which only homophobes would find upsetting, but it's the context in which this desire was expressed that's alarming. Pete's slight smile. The coy look in his eyes. Encased in all that concrete.
It's certainly not the first time that selfies and Holocaust memorials have clashed, with multiple people being criticized on the internet for taking self-centered, kinda horny pictures within sites that memorialize millions of people who were brutally and systematically exterminated by anti-Semitic and fascist forces. The disconnect between remembering the ways in which humanity has committed unimaginable horror against each other and the sometime frivolous nature of the selfie is huge.
The site itself—the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe—is near the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, designed by architect Peter Eisenman and engineer Buro Happold. Open to the public in May 2005, it consists of 2,711 concrete slabs (stelae) of varying heights (from 8 inches up to 15.5 feet tall) on a 200,000 square foot site. The number of stelae have no symbolic meaning, but are arranged in an offset grid pattern, the ground beneath them sloping downward to a central point, engulfing the viewer into all the concrete.
When I visited the memorial last summer, I remember feeling overwhelmed. As I went deeper into the stelae field, I could only see sky and a row of grey slabs extending before me. I easily became separated from my companion, randomly running into other tourists, increasingly desperate to find my way out. Within a couple of minutes of being "in" the site, time and space became disorienting concepts. I remember feeling emotionally shaken being in that space, emerging to see tourists laying down on the slabs, directing their mates to take pictures of them in repose against the otherwise lush background.
This unnerving relationship between this memorial and the lustful selfie is something that San Francisco-based artist Marc Adelman explored in his controversial photo piece "Stelen (Columns)." The installation was composed of 150 photos taken off the German gay dating website GayRomeo.com of men posing within the memorial. Coming together over a four year period when Adelman lived in Berlin (and just a few years after the memorial was officially open to the public), the men in the photos did not know of their involvement in the project.
So when "Stelen (Columns)" was exhibited in 2012 at the Jewish Museum in New York City, a man in the piece recognized himself and threatened legal action. The museum then controversially decided to take the piece down because of privacy concerns.
In an interview with Hyperallergic, Adelman called these images of gay yearning in the memorial "captivating but somewhat inexplicable." He continued, "Why strike these playful, flirtatious, and [some]times overtly sexual gestures at such a historically vested public monument?" And while Buttigieg is not necessarily fashioning or holding himself in an explicitly sexual manner, the contrast between the way in which he is captured and his setting is vast. It's even vaster when considering his husband then uploaded the image to Al Gore's internet, with the innocuous-but-also-in-bad-taste caption, "This guy."
Adelman pulls apart why the memorial site became something of a popular backdrop for gay men to pose in, saying that loss is a central aspect of both gay and Jewish life, connecting the photos within "Stelen" to the cultural history of HIV and AIDS. He goes on to say, "None of this is to write off what I think is a deep affinity between gay men and minimalist form. There is something to be said for the obvious appeal of the butch aesthetic and cruising ground that the concrete columns appear to create in 'Stelen.'"
And while some of the rhetoric and hype surrounding this photo of a man publicly lusting for another man can certainly be attributed to a homophobic impulse of the national media, this photo not only puts the Buttigiegs' lack of good judgment on display, but also their complete and utter inability to read the fucking room. Butch aesthetics of the minimalist form be damned.