Histories of Violence
by Dore Ashton, Thomas Micchelli, Hrag Vartanian and Yasmeen Siddiqui
Two concurrent Chelsea exhibitions tackle the aesthetics of violence within the context of war: Thomas Hirschhorn’s Superficial Engagement at the Gladstone Gallery and the projects of Walid Raad/The Atlas Group at The Kitchen under the title The Dead Weight of a Quarrel Hangs.
What differentiates these exhibitions is significant. With Superficial Engagement, Hirschhorn breaks down elements of war by concocting a cabinet of curiosities—photographs of splayed bodies and rolling heads, mini-prayer mats situate the wars being criticized, newspaper clippings, tree trunks decorated with nails, as well as distracting insertions of nail and wire art. These geometric formations anchor the eye and impose an interspersed graphic order amidst the otherwise chaotic tableaus. All of these elements are situated on platforms alongside unemotional mannequins dressed in nails—perhaps a base allusion to the suicide bomber’s weapon, or a suit of armor. Slogans configured to resemble headlines like “Toughing Out,” “NO CAUSE FOR PANIC” and “A Future With Nowhere to Hide” serve as a backdrop. Photocopied pages from old-school history textbooks that paper the installation describe fascist monuments and an art historical figure (Emma Kunz) interested in the potentiality of art as a tool for healing.
Hirschhorn’s assemblage draws on strategies that resonated in 1970s Paris, when deconstruction was in vogue and cynicism dominated cultural production—a revolutionary era that proved remarkably ephemeral. The icons he has collected form an environment that contrasts childhood coping mechanisms (string art, doodles, etc.) with images of butchered bodies ripped from their specific contexts. He has created an environment that, confusingly, hovers in the emotional field of repulsion, but fails to bring the viewer to anger. While the human body is ever-present in Superficial Engagement, it is notably absent in Raad’s The Dead Weight of a Quarrel Hangs.
Raad draws on the promises of modernism—that formal invention can reconfigure the way we understand and live our lives. This association supports the efforts Raad makes to cut through the current media profusion of sensational and spectacular imagery.
In contrast to Hirschhorn’s bloody corpses, Raad eliminates all visual references to flesh. This strategy cleverly mocks, when necessary, the romanticism and glamour of war. Raad shies away from the obvious, never resorting to spectacle or gore. Violence is abstracted, hidden in the folds of the mind, under the surface, mirroring how memory toys with the past in order to cope in the present.
Raad’s video, “Hostage: The Bachar Tapes (#17 and #31) English Version” (2000), is a narrative describing the relationships among six hostages—one Lebanese and five Americans—during the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1991). The character of Bachar explicitly describes the sexual tensions among the all-male hostages, conveying a complex layering of anticipation, desire, and anxiety that draws on archetypical sexual fantasies as dominant narratives that decide and question the hostage/captor dichotomy.
Like Hirschhorn, Raad looks back to the 1970s for strategies to represent violence, and he peppers the video with minimalist references. A Richard Tuttle-like fabric hangs behind the narrator as he tells the stories of the other hostages. Once his perspectives are disclosed, thick colorful vertical bars intervene. This abstract moment forces the viewer to confront the screen as object—a reference to early video. The character Bachar insists that his story be translated into the native language of the viewer, with his voice dubbed by a woman. By this decision, Raad has emphasized that representations are, necessarily, fictional. The second tape in the Bachar series eliminates narrative altogether, leaving us with a close-up of a radiant Mediterranean resembling television static, like an interrupted transmission, a metaphor for disrupted lives and experiences.
Raad and Hirschhorn both troll archival and media representations of historical events, but while Raad objectifies his medium (video projects, graphic prints, or black-and-white photography), Hirschhorn’s critique involves the objectification of his subjects. The ethical quagmire Hirschhorn creates mimics the political quagmire he allegedly deplores: the underlying assumption that no one will engage the images of the dead beyond a superficial level. This assertion is particularly galling in light of Hirschhorn’s appropriation of Kunz’s artwork and his espousal, in his artist’s statement, of art’s healing powers. In dramatic contrast, Raad employs a rigorous conceptual framework of inquiry and excavation that allows space for thought and emotion. Through the contemplative act of bearing witness, Raad invites viewers to position themselves in relation to the causes and effects of violence—stake a claim, take a position, or pass judgment.
—Yasmeen Siddiqui & Hrag Vartanian
Back in 1997, an exhibition called Photographs from S-21: 1975-1979 opened at the Museum of Modern Art. It was a collection of ID photos of men, women and children detained at the Tuol Sleng Prison in Phnom Penh, a converted high school that later became Cambodia’s Museum of Genocide. After being photographed, the captive was interrogated, tortured and executed. Only seven prisoners out of fourteen thousand survived.
The show touched off a furor about the appropriateness of these images in an art museum. The photographs weren’t created by artists or documentarians, but by the subjects’ executioners and their lackeys. That alone was cause enough for moral queasiness and categorical ambiguity, but the exhibition’s critical reception was further complicated by an uncomfortable awareness that the images’ formal rigor could be appreciated on the same aesthetic grounds as a Weston or Avedon. In his New York Times review, Michael Kimmelman compared the poses of the doomed Cambodians to St. Sebastian, Oedipus, and Orion, admitting that the questions of sensationalism, aestheticism and exploitation were beyond his ken. But by evoking classical models, Kimmelman stumbled upon the key quality, however problematic, that transcends the photographs’ original function and rationalizes their incorporation as cultural artifacts: these images, unmediated by artifice or intent, are authentic purveyors of pity and terror, the core emotions of Aristotelian tragedy.
Thomas Hirschhorn, a Swiss artist based in Paris, seems to have had the power of unmediated imagery in mind as he put together his ambitious installation, Superficial Engagement, which ran at the Gladstone Gallery through February 11th. The show generated a lot of press, both pro and con, for its documentary depictions of extreme violence, mostly the blown-apart corpses of Iraqi and Afghani civilians. While I sympathize with Hirschhorn’s frustration over Americans’ complacency and willful ignorance of their government’s Middle East endgame, he is assuredly not rubbing it in the noses of those who need it the most. In fact, you could safely assume that most of the gallery’s visitors—a politically microscopic subset by any scale—would have arrived at the show with a predetermined antiwar mindset. So what did Hirschhorn hope to accomplish with this artwork, other than vent his personal outrage onto a small, supposedly enlightened audience?
Unlike the Cambodian photos at MoMA, Hirschhorn doesn’t present his images straightforwardly, but tosses and pastes them into a hodgepodge of other elements, including department store mannequins bristling with screws and nails like faux nkisi nkondi sculptures (known in the West as nail fetish or power figures) and photocopies of geometric abstractions by the Swiss spiritualist and artist Emma Kunz. According to his artist’s statement, Hirschhorn utilized Kunz’s artwork as “healing-images against war, terrorism, violence, resentment, fear and ignorance.”
Depending on your own metaphysical disposition, Hirschhorn’s transformative aspirations might strike you as either latter-day Wagnerian idealism or just plain hooey. But if, for the time being, we take it as a given that Hirschhorn’s installation, now disassembled, hasn’t rid the world of violence, we’re left with its failure to illuminate the nature of the unspeakable crimes it depicts so mercilessly. The slogans emblazoned on the walls—“Oasis of Capitalism,” “Oil Brothers at Odds,” “Nation grow as war goes on”—hint at the invasion’s hidden agenda but are too cryptic to make an impression. It’s not clear whether the carnage is the result of American bombardment and urban combat, or from retaliatory actions such as car bombs or IEDs. All we see are body parts, blood, and pinkish spilled brains.
Thus the exhibition operates as a diffuse indictment of war’s inherent cruelty and barbarism. We are revolted and shamed by our complicity, but not moved. The sheer awfulness of the imagery hinders our efforts to relate to the victims on a human level, but beyond that, the unknown circumstances of their deaths leave our imaginations unable to construct a narrative to empathize with their fate. With the Cambodian photos, as with other iconic 20th-century images such as the My Lai massacre or the piles of corpses at Buchenwald, the anguish we feel is accentuated by the knowledge of who did the killing and how it was done.
Narrative and context are the primary ingredients of the politically charged, photo-based installations that Alfredo Jaar has been constructing for more than twenty years. Born in Santiago, Chile, in 1956, Jaar was a teenager during his country’s own 9/11—September 11th, 1973—when the Allende government was violently overthrown in a fascist coup. Although Jaar’s fiercely humanistic political stance was presumably born within one of the western hemisphere’s most violent and repressive crucibles, he expresses it through a quiet, poetic indirection. Eschewing shock and awe, he instead compiles elaborate critiques of the governmental, financial and media power structures that have colluded to turn the world into such a godawful mess. In fact, he goes out of his way not to depict the atrocities that his projects painstakingly document.
In one of his many pieces on the Rwandan genocide, Real Pictures (1995), he placed photographic evidence of the massacres in 372 sealed archival boxes inscribed with textual descriptions of the unseen imagery. And in his astonishing The Eyes of Gutete Emerita (1996), one million 35mm slides were dumped onto an enormous light box, each slide holding the identical image of the eyes of a Rwandan woman who had witnessed the machete murders of her husband, children and 400 others. Like a classical tragedian, Jaar understands that the most horrifying images of violence are the ones that happen off-stage, inside of our own heads.
And so it is quite a departure for Jaar to present his first film, Muxima (translated as “heart” from the indigenous Kimbundu language of Angola) – a complex and beautiful work that, without shrinking from the grim realities of Angola’s past and present, is about peace and maybe even hope.
Superbly shot on digital video, the film is structured into ten cantos based on various interpretations of a folk song of the same name that was written by “Liceu” Vieira Dias, the leader an Angolan band called Ngola Ritmos. The band members, as Jaar states in his “Notes on Muxima, the song,” were “all nationalist militants and their leader … was one of the founders of the MPLA, the Movement for the Liberation of Angola. He was arrested in 1959…” Jaar describes the political connotations of the lyrics, which deal with witchcraft and madness, as a “demand for the end of the occupation and liberation of Angola.”
The dream of deliverance from Portuguese colonialism was realized in 1975, but liberation was a far way off. A civil war ensued between the MPLA and UNITA, the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola. The conflict was one of the many proxy wars fought by the superpowers during the Cold War, with the Soviet Union and Cuba supporting the MPLA and the United States and apartheid South Africa backing UNITA. One million died and 18 million landmines were planted across the country before a cease-fire took hold following the death of UNITA’s leader, Jonas Savimbi, in 2002.
Jaar’s film treats Angola’s legacy of subjugation, war, poverty and exploitation with characteristic restraint. In the first canto, six boys pose in honey-kissed twilight with their hands over their hearts (“muxima”) in front of a distant seaport teeming with cargo ships and storage tanks. This is followed in subsequent cantos by shots of a river journey, a metal-roofed shantytown, colonial statues with broken-off feet and dissolving noses resting in an abandoned villa, a WWII-era fighter plane, revolutionary street signs, a child playing in the surf, and an empty open-air movie theater. Without Jaar’s descriptive text in hand, or, for that matter, a detailed knowledge of Angola’s history and socioeconomic conditions, these images can feel random. But if it were necessary to understand a work’s pretext in order to appreciate it, most Westerners would be shut out of the majority of the world’s art. The humanity of the images and Jaar’s poetic intuition hold the piece together with invisible thread.
Some scenes reflect on worldwide crises such as land mines and AIDS, while others, like the glorious sequence of bathers at a seashore, their backs glistening in the blinding sun, seem to be included for their sheer beauty alone. Throughout, the movie exudes the kind of cinematic purity found in the revolutionary Soviet films of Eisenstein and Pudovkin, in which monumentally composed montages grant a profound dignity to every person inhabiting the camera frame.
The last canto opens with a view of a waterfront cityscape—obviously a boom town—crowned with a tiara of construction cranes, and it ends with a jazz pianist, who has just finished yet another version of “Muxima,” walking out into the night and, presumably, an uncertain future. A peaceful scene, if a bit stagey. But even if the violence of war is receding for Angola, the sub rosa violence of globalization has just been unsheathed. With this work, Jaar seems to assert that the insidious reach of international corporate corruption is the next escalation of the culture wars. His weapons aren’t shock shots of torn flesh, but the majesty of unspoiled landscapes, the richness of indigenous cultures, the beauty of the human body, and the nobility of compassion. For an artist like Jaar, the momentous currents and cataclysms of our time aren’t the stuff of manifestos; they’re part of the air he breathes.
I watched Muxima twice before I learned how Alfredo Jaar came to make it. After the first viewing I thought: this is a perfect tone poem. Each phrase—whether it is a visual image or an auditory one—opens out to the next, and all, gathered as they are into Cantos, form a single and unforgettable whole. A tone poem, but for a chamber music ensemble.
Muxima, Jaar’s first video, is in fact based on a haunting popular Angolan song. Its variations by different performers over the years, as Jaar says, tell the country’s whole sorry history.
The movie’s unforgettable images and the great delicacy of its editing, so rare in video works, reveal a consummate artist at work—one who is rife with passions that range from history to architecture to politics, but who finally yields all to the constraints of art. Does the allusive subtlety of this work undercut Jaar’s lifelong sense of moral indignation or engagement with injustice (which has earned him the dubious designation of “political” artist)? I should say no.
He trusts, as I do, that the well-pondered image lingers, mingles with other images, and creates unmistakable meaning. A hospital scene—one of the most carefully crafted images I’ve ever seen of the advent of AIDS—is abruptly interrupted by shots of a dilapidated oilrig. Elsewhere, workers fearfully probe tropical underbrush to detect and detonate land mines. A crumbling Portuguese-style palace, followed by a sequence of street signs—Lenin, Che, Salvador Allende—tell Angola’s melancholy history from colonial abjectness, to a short-lived experiment in socialism, to civil war manipulated by the United States on one side and the Soviet Union on the other, on to the ravenous greed of foreign investors as the country reaches “freedom” and full-blown capitalism. Ruined dreams and nightmares of the 20th century.
When I saw the word Canto, I thought not only of Dante but also of Jaar’s countryman, Neruda, and I was reminded of a book of photographs of Neruda’s savaged seaside home, ruined, ruined, by Pinochet’s hoodlums. That in turn reminded me that Jaar’s very first “interventions” (a term I don’t like very much) occurred in Pinochet’s Chile. And that reminded me of Jo Ann Pottlitzer’s interviews with survivors of Pinochet’s terrors, from which it emerged that of all possible art forms, it was song that became the most powerful channel of dissident expression.
In her account, “Under the Music: Signs of Resistance under Pinochet” (in the web magazine, Crimes of War, August, 2001) Pottlitzer offers a full history of how the underground resistors recognized each other, communicated with each other, and moved each other to action by means of song alone. And that brought me back to the bittersweet melody of Muxima, which may well do the same thing.
The many indelible images that Jaar has created over the years are like metaphors in the long poem of his life. I carry many of them in my memory, and they revisit me often. Once, I happened to be in Mexico when the Bush regime announced its amazing decision to put up a wall along the border. The Mexicans, from right to left politically, were appropriately outraged. I immediately recalled an image from a work Jaar made on the San Diego-Tijuana border, a photograph showing the positively silly border fence wandering into the ocean. Kafka and the Great Wall of China, and of course the Israelis, come to mind. Such things are what Jaar’s commentary is about. But it is also about what transcends such global idiocy, and that can only be art.
— Dore Ashton
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