People, places, things tracing trauma
For contemporary artists who search out new ways of coming to terms with the continuing cycles of wars, armed conflicts, and systematic tactics of violence that mark our era, many seek to reveal the traumatic vestiges of on-going local wars at the intersection of photography, social media, video and multi-media installations. These artists engage in aesthetic experimentation in order to manifest social and political realities within image-making that run counter to those programmed within the image supply-chain dominated by mass-produced culture. Destabilizing any illusion that a photograph can show ‘the truth,’ that past events are safely consigned to ‘the past,’ these artists instead create indelible encounters with often unspeakable realities, which may become the seeds for an unforeseeable elaboration by their audience. By mediating affective ‘thruths’ not so much through dissemination of information or data, but through an appeal of the temperaments via multiple sensory impressions, artists may expose and subvert our usual blasé media encounters, mixing the contingent and abstract, the symbolic and political in an ethical stance, a turn toward the other.1
Richard Mosse, an Irish artist now living and working in New York, is recognized for making powerful large-scale photographs of war-torn villages, their uprooted inhabitants, combatants and temporary conquerors. Mosse is an artist highlighting the limitations of photojournalism and photography, and who engages a distinctive aesthetic approach which he ties to an ethical stance. The Enclave (2013) is Mosse's six-screen video, photography and sound installation shown at Jack Shainman Gallery, New York. Mosse has photographed and made videos in Iraq, Iran, Gaza, Haiti, Pakistan, and the former Yugoslavia, and since 2010, Eastern Congo. The Enclave, made over several years in and around Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo, was shot with infrared Kodak Aerochrome film, a false-color reversal film in which greens become hot pinks and magentas, rendering the often lush landscape and soldiers' uniforms shades of pink and red. This visual disruption creates the deception of otherworldly beauty and throws the viewer into doubly unfamiliar territory. We are forced to ask ourselves what exactly we are looking at and what meanings might be embedded in these filmic images, especially in a digital world shaped by new methods of editing, morphing and remixing. Mosse deliberately seeks the pressure points at the limits of the visible, opening up his terrain to the imagination, tapping into affective regions rather than relying solely on empirical certitude.
Mosse's Enclave is also a collaboration with Ben Frost, a minimalist electronic composer and musician, and Trevor Tweeten, cinematographer. It is projected onto six transparent screens arranged asymmetrically in a darkened room, accentuating claustrophobia and uncertainty. Haunting and visceral, emanating from multiple directions, Frost's recordings were gathered on site in North and South Kivu, Eastern Congo. The combination of changing, unpredictable scenes on six transparent screens and within enveloping sounds creates a sensory assault. The pacing of the film's alternating action, stillness and caesuras, is irregular; cinematographer Tweeten developed long tracking shots using infrared film with an Arriflex 16mm camera mounted on a Steadicam platform which was several feet taller than the average height. We pan a line of soldiers carrying machine guns whose camouflage uniforms are a mix of crimson and pink, coordinated with the tall elephant grass of the same coloration. Infrared Kodak Aerochrome film seems to visually sever the connection between intent and effect, setting in motion a series of ambiguities that the uneasy viewer must decode. Mosse deploys strategic unpredictability and the aesthetic seduction of vibrant color and a variety of local sounds. His aesthetics disorient us; we may feel vertigo, a sense the vulnerability of impending chaos, which heightens our awareness of the instabilities of everyday life and death in a war zone.
Congo had been brutally colonized in the late 19th century by the minions sent by King Leopold II of Belgium; an estimated 10 million Africans were massacred during the reign of the ‘rubber terror,’ setting in horrific motion what anthropologist Michael Taussig has labeled a ‘culture of terror’ and a ‘space of death.’2 The DRC continues to suffer from the ravages of colonialism, war and refugees seeking protection in the region, but few journalists had focused on the current wars in Congo until 2008; Mosse sought to bring to light in the West the horrors of the conflict in visual/aural form. From 1998 to 2013, the wars in the Congo have left more than 5.4 million dead, both from violence and from the associated problems of disease and starvation. One million people have been displaced and over 200,000 women have been raped. In recent years, three main categories of armed groups have operated in Eastern Congo: the Rwandan Hutu FDLR; the Rwanda and Uganda-backed M23; and various local armed ‘Mai Mai’ groups. In addition, the Congolese army has committed many human rights abuses. All of these groups have attempted to seize control of natural resources, raw materials integral for new digital technologies much in demand, and paramount among the reasons for the continuing fighting.3
There are many memorable scenes in Mosse's Enclave that link birth and death, the longing for a home thwarted by constant displacement. A group of men and women carrying a small wooden house on their shoulders down a street in Goma. An abandoned town in ruins with people searching for survivors and carrying away goods on their backs, while children use iPhones to take pictures of the dead for identification. A man by a lake, a machine gun strapped over his shoulder, slowly walks into the lake until he and his gun are totally submerged as the sun sets on the horizon.
Naomi Safran-Hon's solo exhibition Hard Times: Paintings at Slag Gallery, Brooklyn, places the viewer within the bruised, tactile landscape of walled interiors, long deserted but full of the touches of domesticity, ruptured and now decaying. These once private enclaves have become desolate, dilapidated and broken, with abandoned objects strewn about: rocks, plastic bottles, boxes, broken frames, old gas cans and tangled water hoses. Safran-Hon's paintings are rooted in photographic reality, their structural framework is architectural, but her large-scale color ink-jet prints of interiors mounted on canvas are only the underlying foundation of a layered process. Cutting holes on the reverse side of the canvas, the artist stretches decorative lace along the back and pushes cement through these openings, creating intricate patterns on the paintings' surface. Patterns of tiny cement stalagmites emerge through the holes: a raised sculptural landscape emanates from the photograph's peeled walls, cement oozing out to create 3-dimensional projections on a 2-dimensional surface. The artist then paints over the surface selectively, mingling acrylic paint with concrete, fabric, sequins, and glitter in order to transform the whole into a relief-like scene from the imagination, yet based in the palpable world of the everyday. While certain passages are abstract, corroded Mediterranean blues, cyan, and burnt umber, juxtaposed areas clearly articulate recognizable objects. This multiple layering of the actual and abstract calls out to be touched; our eyes as well as our hands feel textures and trace the outlines of objects, their borders protrude and we can identify with familiar objects, imagine the inhabitants and their stories. An overwhelming sense of absence and loss pervades the paintings, revealing the vulnerability and ephemerality of life, echoed in the abandoned interiors which convey a sense of a once vibrant community.
Although the artist has been living and working in New York for some time, the origin of Safron-Hon's work begins in her native Haifa, Israel. The titles of her work reveal their specificity: Wadi Salib: 3 Windows and a Door; Wadi Salib: Glitter and Doom in Gold; Wadi Salib: Hole in The Wall. Walid Sabi, in the heart of downtown Haifa, was a Palestinian Arab neighborhood whose residents left their homes when the state of Israel was established in 1948. Nifkadim Nochehim, the Hebrew term for Absent Present, refers to Palestinians who during this war were absent from their property but present within the borders of the newly established state of Israel. ‘Internally displaced Palestinians,’ they are legally citizens of Israel, but they could never return to their homes. Safran-Hon's work begins with her photographs of these old neighborhoods, recently erased, bulldozed under the ground. Thus her work is a hauntingly literal trace of the now invisible, while simultaneously imaging the internal landscapes wrought by Israeli-Palestinian conflicts, the way in which war becomes an intimate mark on the lives and memories of people. The destruction lying in the heart of the paintings' creation reiterates actual destruction, imbuing an intense subjectivity, while the incidental beauty of decay is linked to the unstoppable flow of time.
The artist's Negative pencil drawings on paper installed alongside and mirroring the paintings' compositions make clear the artist's process: outlining and shading-in the holes with pencil before the lace and cement layers. Absence is an ‘inverse geometry’ like deferred puzzle shapes in disarray, yet to be assembled. This artistic strategy reveals a parallel reality of the Israeli Defense Force's ‘overground’ tunnels which form contiguous horizontal and vertical ‘tunnels’ through domestic and civic spaces in the West Bank and Gaza: ‘design by destruction.’4 According to the Israeli urban architect Eyal Weizman, the extreme new global policies of warfare shared by the United States, European and Israeli militaries do not deploy ‘in city streets, roads, alleys or courtyards, or any of the external doors, internal stairwells or windows’; instead they move ‘horizontally through walls and vertically through ceilings and floors.’ Military strategies have redefined the inside as outside: ‘domestic interiors as thoroughfares.’5 Soldiers use explosives or hammers to break large holes in walls so that they can pass through homes and apartments. The IDF's strategy of ‘walking through walls’ is a re-conception of cities as ‘the very medium of warfare – a flexible, almost liquid medium that is forever contingent and in flux.’6
Safran-Hon's work reminds us that civilians are experiencing the unexpected penetration of war in vast numbers. Our illusions of stability and comfort reside in the home, where we may also face the most profound trauma and humiliation. Her paintings bear the physical and metaphorical ruptures in domestic spaces, revealing that the idea of home remains a contested site, psychologically and politically.
In his solo exhibition at Baxter Street, Camera Club of New York, Objects: A Two-Part Documentary, Ido Abramsohn's crisp, clear and minimalist aesthetic at first seems to remove any trace of human touch from the objects he photographs as still lifes, as nature morte. Born and raised in Jerusalem, now living and working in New York, the artist has focused on collecting, processing and photographically recycling materials that are deeply embedded in local collective memory and cultural constructs of identity. These objects, highly charged psychologically and historically, are recreated and represented by Abramshon in subtly understated, even austere formats.
For his conceptually and formally rigorous series, Objects: A Two-Part Documentary, Abramsohn deployed a large format 4 x 5 inch camera to achieve very sharp, pristine images and strobe lights for a consistent, even luminosity. At first glance, the installation of photographed objects appeared seamlessly evidentiary; in one rhythmically integrated sweep, from the show's title printed on the right-hand wall by the viewer's entryway, flowing naturally to the left encircling the entire gallery space. But the ‘two-parts’ of this single-rowed presentation were interspersed with two ‘types’ of photographed objects: some objects were touristy tchotchkes, with biblical, military or patriotic references, purchased either in Israel or online, as actual ‘proof’ of having visited Israel or signifying Jewish or national identity; some objects were stored and displayed in the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, representing possessions apparently confiscated from Palestinians by the Israeli Army (IDF). These confiscated items had to be photographed by Abramsohn onsite in the Information Center, used by Israeli, U.S. and European military officers to show new recruits the variety of camouflaged bombs, weapons or benign objects, seized by the IDF as punishment. While certain items such as rockets, pipe bombs or mortar shells are easy to identify as weapons, other objects, such as a small carved wooden camel, an open pack of Marlboro cigarettes with a radio earplug dangling outside, and a bright cobalt blue toy gun were more ambiguous items, slippery to attribute to a category or identity.
Abramsohn photographed all the objects within a perfect, airlessness and horizonless white space, a contiguous unspoiled surface of invisible parabolic curves known as a cyclorama, while the strobe lights diminished shadows to a minimum. This technique allows for the decontextualization of objects against a blank screen on which to project any fantasy. ‘Objectivity’ is displayed and yet confounded, subverted in a disorienting way, felt bodily and palpably while walking and viewing the exhibition. Generic titles on the checklist do not always help to classify: Clay Pot, Crown, Key Chains, and Radio. Rather than entering a programmatic ‘documentary’ space, the viewer becomes a participant in a discomforting puzzle of memorabilia, fakes, or camouflage items: a Snow Globe with a vertical map of a reversed outline of Israel, a female suicide bomber vest with detonator to be worn under a niqab, and toy guns for training defensive maneuvers in martial arts classes. Unharnessed from their use-value, ownership, environment or production, these objects, deadly or innocent children's toys, seem to float like apparitions, almost transcendent, with their substance drained or attenuated. At the same time, the objects demonstrate a thriving fetishistic consumerism tapping into the language of advertising, exhibiting a level of commodification that strips-down narratives into readily digestible and often deceptive imagery.
Certain photographs become iconic, such as Abramsohn's Clay Pot, which looks like a severely cracked ancient vessel of uncertain origin, reconstructed and conserved as though displayed in a museum. In actuality, it is a 3-dimensional puzzle for children to assemble, purchased online. Its shards come boxed within actual dirt, simulating an archaeological find in which pieces are buried, ready to be dug up and glued back together, categorized and identified. The photograph of the damaged clay pot, as well as the entire exhibition, embodies an allegory of our and Abramsohn's own search for the invisible, an unconscious trauma of collective memory brought to light by removing and revealing hidden layers. Clay Pot suggests a descriptive image found in Judaism comparing the world to a broken vessel needing repair. The shattered shards, the artist's subjects, become attractors, sparks of light trapped within the material of creation. The exhibition suggests that the role of human responsibility and action is a kind of light-catching and turning toward the Other in an ethical movement, a gesture of repair.
- See Hagi Kenaan, The Ethics of Visuality: Levinas and the Contemporary Gaze, Trans. Batya Stein (London & New York: I.B. Tauis, 2013).
- Michael Taussig, ‘Culture of Terror – Space of Death; Roger Casement's Putumayo Report and the Explanation of Torture,’ Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 26, No. 3 (July 1984): 167-197.
- Eyal Weizman, ‘Walking Through Walls: Frontier Architectures.’
DEBORAH FRIZZELL PhD is Adjunct Assistant Professor of Art History at William Paterson University in New Jersey, where she teaches modern and contemporary art history and theory.