The Aesthetics of Terror (part 1)
[Editor’s note: Manon Slome abruptly quit her position as chief curator at the Chelsea Art Museum last fall and her controversial exhibition, The Aesthetics of Terror, co-curated by Joshua Simon, was cancelled. Which occurred first—the termination of the exhibition and Slome’s decision to leave her post—has since been a topic of dispute. No longer an exhibition in the traditional sense, The Aesthetics of Terror is now a virtual phenomenon, and thus, we made the decision to present it as such. The artwork discussed in Slome’s curatorial essay can be viewed online at http://www.aestheticsofterror.com and in an upcoming volume printed and distributed by Charta Art Books, 2009.]
The use of “aesthetics” and “terror” in the same sentence is more than disturbing. What is meant by each term, and how can they be linked? From the start, let me emphasize that I do not equate the word terror only with the actions of “terrorists” and war with its opposition, as in, “the War on Terror.” The Iraq War, which began in 2003, was entered into under false premises. Thousands of soldiers have died; tens of thousands have been horrendously wounded. Over three hundred thousand Iraqi civilians have been killed, maimed, displaced and traumatized. Through government sanctioned abuse and torture of detainees, and the refusal to abide by the Geneva Convention, we have squandered our claim of spreading democracy in the world: indeed, former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales called such a conception of politics “quaint.” These circumstances must also be seen and understood as terror. As critical theorist Giorgio Agamben asserts that, “a state which has security as its sole task and source of legitimacy is a fragile organism; it can always be provoked by terrorism to become itself terroristic.” 1
As for aesthetics, I use this term in a neutral sense—as in a study of the forms and principles by which image under investigation are used—not with a reference to the word’s popular connotations of beauty or value. I am in search of what can be termed the “aesthetics of terror,” much in the same way that the nomenclature “fascist architecture” immediately connotes a style of building. At this stage, we may not have the clarity of distance as in the aforementioned example, but such an aesthetic of terror is, I believe, permeating our popular culture. As Henry Giroux expressed it in a powerful book, Beyond the Spectacle of Terrorism: Just as the necessity of fighting terror has become the central rationale for war used by the Bush administration and other governments, a visual culture of shock and awe has emerged, made ubiquitous by the Internet and 24-hour cable news shows devoted to representations of the horrific violence associated with terrorism, ranging from aestheticized images of night time bombing raids on Iraqi cities to the countervailing imagery of grotesque killings of hostages by Iraqi fundamentalists. 2
The link between terror and aesthetics first became apparent to me in the preponderance of images I kept seeing in galleries that seemed to belong more in the pages of Time magazine than in an art space—depictions of tanks and soldiers, riots in the streets, bodies strewn on the ground—the “aftermath” of conflict. As striking as many of these photographs were (some meticulously printed and presented, others “raw” with the negative edges of a contact sheet kept as part of the composition, some real footage, others staged), I questioned their function in the museum/gallery setting. Were they protests? Did they make visible (a claim I have heard) images that the newspapers would not print because of their inflammatory nature—disclosing what the government wanted to keep hidden? Or did this translation or appropriation of war imagery, images of suicide bombers—real or fictional—itself become another trope: a kind of pop art, in the sense that it was an uncritical mirroring of images already circulating in our culture, only now the soup can has become a gun? Did they move viewers closer to an apprehension of truth, allowing them to get closer to an independent experience of terror, or did they simply isolate and aestheticize the experience, projecting and protecting at the same time?
A seemingly unconnected incident heightened this questioning. I was in a department store in New York and saw a coat that was “designed” to look like the coat worn by a homeless person. A sleeve was fastened with safety pins to the body of the coat, a twisted piece of rope formed the belt, mismatched buttons were poorly stitched along the front, and threads dangled everywhere. The price tag—$3,500—made it one of the more immoral objects I have seen and I was struck yet again by the principle of absorption, by how the market/fashion apparatus can transform and thus make palatable (invisible) aspects of our world that don’t conform to consumer visions of America or would somehow challenge prevailing fictions. If the coat becomes an example of “urban chic” and thus removes us from noticing the “homeless” connotation, cannot the same be done with warfare? This question is central in Martha Rosler’s series Bringing the War Home. If, in a sense, our life of comfort and security can be assured by a war “out there,” fought by others, what price do we put on a human life, a limb, a dying child, a bombed village? “Some things money can’t buy. For everything else there is Master Card,” goes a contemporary advertisement. For the illusion/delusion of being “tough” on terror and protecting our access to oil, it seems that we are, indeed, often willing to exchange the priceless for profit.
The mechanisms for selling war were much like any other commodity-based campaign. New York Times reporter David Barstow revealed the attempt by the US government to achieve “information dominance” through the use of “message force multipliers,” retired military officers acting as “military analysts” whose supposed long service has “equipped them to give authoritative and unfettered judgments about the most pressing issues of the post-September 11 world”:
Hidden behind that appearance of objectivity, though, is a Pentagon information apparatus that has used those analysts in a campaign to generate favorable news coverage of the administration’s wartime performance. The effort which began with the buildup to the Iraq War and continues to this day, has sought to exploit ideological and military allegiances, and also a powerful financial dynamic: most of the analysts have ties to military contractors vested in the very war policies they are asked to assess on air. 3
In relation to the “homeless” coat and the marketing of war (via the circulation of terroristic motifs such as camouflage, masked models and war-oriented video games), I was reminded of Slavojiek’s comment: we should be aware of the dangers of the “Christification of Che,” turning him into an icon of radical-chic consumer culture, a martyr ready to die for his love of humanity.4 One thinks immediately of today’s resurgent fashion for Che T-shirts which sport an image of that wild haired, handsome, and defiant revolutionary whose stylized portrait used to decorate every college dorm wall in the 1960s. Slavojiek’s words indicate a seemingly inevitable connection between authentic revolutionary liberation and violence: when “belief” meets the commodifying mechanisms of society’s paradigm du jour, either oppression of the “radicals” or savage resistance of these “revolutionaries” must result. Regardless of how the situation might be framed, it often seems that violence is a tacit premise in the argument for liberation. But perhaps another approach to examining Che’s transfiguration from terrorist to T-shirt icon would be to suggest that a “Chicification of Che” that has allowed designers to capitalize on a perceived element of “coolness” in defying authority figures. The ideologically vacuous popularity of Che and his representation on fashion products likewise devalues the incalculable human cost of a violent revolution, without regards to side or sensibility. Perhaps the most damaging effect of these cultural purchases, however, is that they appease the consumer’s (supposed) guilt about being “socially conscious” or “politically active.” Rather than heightening our vigilance, participating in the “Che aesthetic” serves to sanitize our national or personal self-perception by making tolerable—even fashionable—narrative threads of violence that we are exposed to through the media or in our lives. It is utterly irrational (but nevertheless psychologically expedient) to venerate and glorify militant activism and principled resistance to foreign influence (as with Che) while concurrently maintaining that insurgency and ideational dissonance in the Middle East are inherently the result of a radical unreasoning evil. 5
The iconography of what I am terming “terror” can be said to have entered world consciousness with the attack on the World Trade Center (I am aware of writing from the relative security of America—for those who have lived their whole lives with terror, imagery, or its starting point are of little concern). What emerged in terms of the visibility of the act was the power of terror as an image-making machine, an exploitation of spectacle. Thousands died in the attacks, but billions of people endlessly watched the falling towers until those images were etched into the global psyche. Many writers and artists considered 9/11 a work of art with which few could compete"kind of like an artwork in its own right. It was wicked, but it was devised in this way for this kind of impact. It was devised visually.” 6
Thomas Ruff also did not see the need to elaborate on this new visuality: in his Jpeg series, he simply downloaded from the Internet images of the falling towers, as well as other natural and manmade disasters, preserving intact, as Baudrillard wrote in the Spirit of Terrorism, “the unforgettable incandescence of the images.” 7 Baudrillard continues: Among the other weapons of the system which they turned round against it, the terrorists exploited the “real time” of images, their instantaneous worldwide transmission just as they exploited stock market speculation, electronic information, and air traffic….The image consumes the event, in the sense that it absorbs it and offers it for consumption. Admittedly, it gives it unprecedented impact, but impact as an image event. 8
I want to make it very clear that I am not resorting here to talking about images of terror as the final stages of a society of spectacle as described by Guy Debord. In addition, war is far from an “image event” as Susan Sontag has eloquently pointed out in Viewing War Photography. 9 To speak of spectacle or an image war in this way is to deny the horrendous reality of those who suffer, in real time and space, from violence that has been released and which rages without apparent end. What I do refer to, however, is the way the paradigms have changed in the current fiascos of our War on Terror and contemporary issues of terrorism. Image making has become a significant weapon in a distinctly new kind of warfare; as much as in politics, war is fought through ideological representation in the media as well as on the bloodied streets of Iraq and Afghanistan, Mumbai and Madrid. Cyber Jihad and Celebrity Terrorism (the latter term coined by CNN following the dissemination of images of the terrorists through the global media following the assault on Mumbai) are fought out in media images whose worldwide dissemination can influence a generation in the making. As the Mumbai attacks and grisly executions in Iraq and Pakistan so clearly illustrate, hostage taking is no longer about meeting demands, but rather to ensure international coverage. As W.J.T. Mitchell says in a powerful essay, “The Unspeakable and the Unimaginable Word and Image in a Time of Terror”:
Terrorism, then, is a war of words and images carried by the mass media, a form of psychological warfare whose aim is the demoralization of the enemy and not the direct destruction of military personnel or equipment. I don’t mean by this that it is not a real war, but that it is an updated version of a very old kind of war, one that is conducted mainly by symbolic gestures of violence, one that attempts to conquer the enemy through psychological intimidation rather than physical coercion. Terrorists do not occupy territory. They deterritorialize violence, making it possible for it to strike anywhere. The randomness and unpredictability of terror, coupled with its sense of over determined symbolic significance, produce a different kind of battlefield, one that has no front or back. The whole notion of a conventional, military “war on terror” in this light is quite incoherent, confusing one kind of war with another. It is the sort of asymmetrical warfare that is doomed, not just to failure, but to actually strengthening the enemy against which it is waged. 10
What Mitchell points to (besides the fact that our current war strategy is hopelessly out of touch with the realities on the ground) is that we are beyond a “camera mediated knowledge of war” (Italics mine): the camera, and all its media extensions of film, video and Internet and cell phones have become active participants in a struggle that is as symbolic as it is brutal, as the image is elevated to “a prominent feature of social and political power.” 11 Yet, at the same time as we are bombarded with images of the violence of terrorism, the War on Terror is rendered as invisible as possible by the government propaganda apparatus supported by the networks. As Ara Merjian wrote in an edition of Modern Painters devoted to the issue of art and war:
Despite the refinement of surveillance technology, we grasp far less about events in Iraq and Afghanistan—their textures, tempos, bodies, banalities—than even citizens of the first “television war” saw of Vietnam. 12
The lists of soldiers’ deaths are tucked deep inside the newspapers while any imagery that is released by the media is censored and sanitized. What we are fed instead are carefully crafted speeches or photo-ops like “Mission Accomplished” (see Top Gun) or the inside of Sadam Hussein’s mouth as the devil incarnate is “brought to his just deserts” and humiliated in the public media by a dental inspection. The dangers for the Administration of unregulated imagery were, of course, brought to a head with the Abu Ghraib photographs, which showed our troops engaged in anything but the spread of democracy.
This dialectic of visibility and concealment, of disclosure and obfuscation and its echo in contemporary art is central to the investigation in The Aesthetics of Terror. This contrast and distinction was articulated by Israeli artist, Roee Rosen, on the principal gap between representations of underground terrorism, produced by terrorist groups, and the obfuscation of images of State Terror—banning images of returning coffins or maimed soldiers, the replacement of war coverage by blurred night vision or thermal imaging, censored documents, and the like. In terms of the “aesthetics” of terror, this gap becomes the space between figuration and abstraction. The representational apparatus of State Terror, says Rosen, is based on the blurring or erasure of central figures, exchanging it for abstraction: smart bombs’ aerial views of bombardments, for example, or the blocking of visibility by grids or satellite type images that obscure rather than illuminate. On the other end, representations of underground terrorism strive for a central, powerful figure or symbol—the portrait of a suicide bomber, collapsing skyscrapers and the icon of bearded Osama bin Laden with his golden gown and triangular composition—“this is an icon in the religious sense: a human, semi-divine person whose very appearance defies the divide of life and death,” Rosen claims.13
What I would further suggest is the emergence of an artistic sensibility that has been informed by the imagery and politics of terrorism in the current culture as they have been formulated and conveyed through the popular media. Artworks might imitate or mirror this media rhetoric, identify its mechanisms to the viewer, critique it, push back or protest against it. For example, Coco Fusco’s examination of the apparatus of psychological torture used in interrogation is filtered through the rubric of a reality show. Harun Farocki and Johan Grimonprez dismantle news coverage of highjackings and war coverage; Jon Kessler creates war machines with imagery derived directly from magazines and action heroes, while he exploits the concept of real time action and documentation. The artists in The Aesthetics of Terror map the relationship between abstraction and technology; color and violence, pixilated images and sovereignty, saturation and contour, authenticity and resolution.
Several interesting questions present themselves. Are these artworks concerned with the operations of terror behind and through the media representations, and not so much with any actual experience of violence? Does that gap take the viewer one further stage away from the apprehension of violence and terror, too? When an image of war or terrorism moves from the newspaper or news networks to the gallery or museum, what causes the shift from an image having "documentary" relevance to it becoming an aesthetic object circulating in the art system? As artists navigate these boundaries, either through direct translation or through appropriation, does violence retain its power to inspire fear, or does this contextual transposition fetishize violence, stripping it of meaning through aestheticization? Does this art “bight” as I referred to Leon Golub’s work in an earlier exhibition catalogue, Anxiety (Chelsea Art Museum, April 2003) just as America was entering the war? (Works by Leon Golub, Joshua Neustein, Mona Hatoum, Reynold Reynold and Patrick Jolley made palpable the physical and psychic disruption of that period. 14) Can the work be said to carry a sense of moral denunciation and outrage akin to say Goya, Grosz or Dix? Or does this work itself become a self-conscious participant in the spectacle of consumerism of images, an appropriation of which “terror” becomes merely one more trope? It is with these questions in mind that The Aesthetics of Terror was born and in the light of which I offer the following observations on a selection of artists.
Visual representation of the war, as has been argued, can be characterized as being divided between “spectacular visibility” and “near invisibility”—of keeping some images present in the memory and by consigning others to obscurity and oblivion. The work of Josh Azzarella, both in video and photography, begins with this examination of personal memory, collective memory and the question of iconicity. What characteristics mark an image as iconic and keep it in the public mind as an emblem of an era or as the identifying image of an event? What is being shown and what is conveniently being left out? Azzarella scans the media and Internet for such images and then subverts their power by painstakingly erasing their volatile content and offering a glimpse of trauma undone: the lone protestor from Tiananmen Square walks into an empty arena, the phalanx of Chinese tanks eerily absent; the planes fly by and the Twin Towers don’t fall; Lyndie England poses in an empty hallway in the Abu Ghraib prison, pointing at nothing; a guard looks into the face of his digital camera next to an empty box. While simultaneously positing a sanitized alternative, the works call into question the influence that these images, disseminated by the mass media and replayed ad nauseum, have in constructing a historical narrative and their subsequent imprint on how we remember a charged political or catastrophic event. By manipulating images of these climactic moments and damaging evidence, in his words, “the worst possible copy I can get [at first] only from the Internet because this is where everyone else has access to them,” Azzarella’s work reminds us, yet again, that the image can, and frequently does, distort reality into a given bias.15 The manipulations, framings, arrangements, and omissions inherent in the very birth of photo journalism, in the Civil War photographs of Mathew Brady, Alexander Gardner, Timothy O’Sullivan et al., whose dramatically arranged images that effected the perception and consumption of war, are still proliferated by some of our most trusted sources.
The intersection of political/personal outrage and the public realm has characterized the artistic trajectory of Jenny Holzer’s work. From her posters to her short, pithy statements or “truisms,” to her kinetic LED installations and her xenon projections on the landscape and architecture, Holzer has used language and the power of text, of words and ideas, to attack violence, ignorance, bigotry, sexism, rape, and war in such memorable “truths” as Abuse of Power comes as no surprise, The Beginning of the War will be secret. In her newest work, however, Holzer abandons her compelling use of language and focuses instead on the “black stain of invisibility” created by the obliteration of language through censorship. 16 In her Rendition Paintings, damning reports (recently made available under the Freedom of Information Act) that document the abuses of power, covert operations, prisoner abuse, particularly the use of officially sanctioned torture in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay, are silk-screened onto large canvases complete with the censor’s ink which blots out names and other sensitive material sometimes to the point of illegibility. Going back to her early years as a painter where she speaks of being influenced by the minimalist aesthetics of artists like Judd, Rothko and Louis, she uses seductive painterly surfaces and color as imperatives to look more deeply where the “sense” of wartime anxiety might cause us to “turn a blind eye.” As Robert Storr writes in the catalogue of her exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, comparing these paintings to Andy Warhol's "Death and Disaster” series, "...the very dissonance between the obscene realism and formal elegance, tabloid violence and domestic intimacy does nothing to soften the horrid fascination of the depicted subjects or alleviate the existential queasiness they provoke." In an early review of this body of work, Roberta Smith commented that these paintings serve to “hang those dirty linens in public.” 17 In Smith’s words, however, there is a veiled critique of Holzer’s move to painting from her signature LED and engraved works (painting being a more saleable commodity) to make visible these damning documents. But the move to painting allows for that abstraction, that blurring or erasure of the pictorial that I have suggested as essential to the apparatus of State Terror. This work strikingly references the entanglements of aesthetic form and political formations and deformations. Whether through fluorescent staining or marks and grids made by the censor, which create an elaborate pattern across the document, these paintings play on visibility and its obverse, and work as a powerful exposure of the politics of censorship and the normalization of the obscene.
In her short film, Wall (2006), Catherine Yass also invokes the blockade of visibility as the dominant viewing condition of State control. As with much of her work—be it film, light boxes or photographs—Yass renders the urban environment less in its physical manifestations than through the psychology of the space, inverting the familiar with substitutions of positive and negative and dissolving buildings with moving cameras into abstractions of shape, color, and light. Yass shot Wall during a visit to Israel in 2005, while driving along various sections of the Separation Wall, some still under construction. The wall takes over the frame, besieging it, blocking out everything but a highly textured surface, a raw material from which a violent reality bursts forth, attesting to the splitting of a territorial sequence. This non-narrative film depicts no people and records no voices but coolly lingers on this seemingly endless snaking form. The film portrays terror as an enhanced process of abstraction—the wall, with its monolith-like presence, is deciphered only by the tempo of seams between its blocks as the camera crawls along its path.
As much as our visual culture is intent on avoiding the “consciousness of war,” it can be argued that there is a very deliberate sublimation of issues of humiliation and horror into a sham spectacle of the real. The ironic, though perhaps not accidental, rise in popularity of the Reality Show genre—where the humiliation or “betrayals” of the perceived weakest member and “sudden death” scenarios are intrinsic to the entertainment value—serves to normalize standards of behavior that would have been inconceivable in popular culture until recently. Coco Fusco enlists this reality show ethic in Operation Atropos (2007) and her military performances.18
Björn Melhus’s video installations, too, offer not just a critique of media culture, which has inflected all aspects of our lives, but an insider’s awareness of being part of a generation that has been indelibly shaped and manipulated by media imagery and media “speak.” Subsequently, he is not only the analyst and producer/creator of the works, but their main protagonist. His characters are types, if not clones, of media creations of the human, programmed to mouth the network’s (and their sponsors’) version of reality and their political/consumer agenda. In The Oral Thing (2001) for example, Melhus focuses on the power of the talk show host as he descends like a priest and forces “confessions” from his cringing guests while in Weeping (2001), the TV evangelical is portrayed as a posturing film star. In Melhus’s latest work, the cutting edge of his vision descends on the media coverage of war—emptied out of real content of the conflict and related in sound bites and carefully screened images.
In Still Men out There (2003) a sound collage comprised of original quotes from government officials is mixed with phrases appropriated from Hollywood war movies. The TV monitors, arranged in three circles on the floor in a flower-like pattern, with a central monitor accentuating this pattern, contain no imagery but instead flash greens, reds, yellows, and blues to the rhythm of heroic music also culled from the movies. This abstraction, as it were, ties in again with the notion of the obfuscation of damaging imagery mandated by the Pentagon, to allow only a scripted “official” version to be told. As the soundtrack suggests, we can no longer distinguish the real from a Hollywood production—and images cannot be any more trusted with portraying any form of “truth.”
The often content-free but dramatically presented evening news is the focus of Deadly Storms (2008). Based on appropriated audio footage from Fox News, which has become one of the most influential and powerful networks in the United States, the work conveys the atmosphere of permanent alert and fear disseminated by this highly effective propaganda machine. Nine identical figures (all Melhus), which have been separated and arranged into three triptychs, repeat stock phrases of alarm and catastrophe—though without ever losing their composure. “We have no further information at this time” is rendered in the same tone as “sentenced to forty lashes.” The repetitive elements and segments are set to a composition of rhythms and visual sequences of frame changes that exercise a hypnotic power on the viewer and serve the traditional rhetorical strategy of seduction and persuasion of consumer advertising. An empty band of color moves below the talking heads recalling the tickertape-like “text” that scrolls the latest headlines lest we lose a moment of breaking “news” or the sense of emergency generated after 9/11.
This power of the media—both apparent and subliminal—is central to the construction of Martha Rosler’s photomontages, Bringing the War Home, which serve to address the issues of visibility and exclusion, accountability and subterfuge inherent to our visual culture. The combination of disparate images to create a new visual reality, pioneered by the Berlin Dadaists, has long been an art form associated with criticality of the dominant imagery of the status quo. Combining Richard Hamilton’s pop aesthetics of his 1956 collage, Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?, with the Dada sense of subversion, Rosler converges interior design and political violence as an act of image sabotage in a world in which the idealizing tactics of Photoshop have become the norm. In her two series of photomontage, Bringing the War Home (1967–1972 and 2004–2008) news photos of the Vietnam War and the war in Iraq are combined with images and advertisements from contemporary architectural, lifestyle and design magazines. In both series, the prosperity and leisure of America is integrated with images of soldiers, interrogators, corpses and the wounded, raising not only questions about the connections between advertising, journalism and politics, sexism and violence, but also the constant manipulation and commoditization of war imagery.
The surrealist clashes in these montages of the public and private, the national and the domestic, undermine, by their very incongruity matched with their seamlessness, the fiction that they are separate spheres. What is the price they seem to be asking, of that cozy family scene on the new mattress? What access to markets were we given to get the fabric for the drapes, the sparkling technology for the dream kitchen? What is the relationship between the aggressive posturing of the fashion models applying their lipstick and the gun toting army seen through the patio doors? The price of the life, the limb, I questioned earlier, is actively raised here. How do our consumer/cultural realities tie in with our foreign policy in the interests of pervading ideologies? In an exhibition in Mitchell-Innes & Nash Gallery, Great Powers, Rosler displayed a sculpture of a giant leg and foot prosthetic, Prototype (Freedom is not Free), made in 2008. An internal motor moved the foot up and down and cut-outs of designer shoes were pasted to its limb. How does this “prototype” turn into an object of desire—like the designer shoe? Its location in the Chelsea Gallery with its high price tag does indeed enter it into the circulation of high priced, “classy” goods that only the luxury brand few could approach or, rather, buy. But my slip here is to the point: Rosler gives the viewer a choice whether to enter and approach the issues raised here. Pay a quarter at the turnstile on your left to enter (freedom is not free) or go to the interactive videogame on the right and play war games. What Rosler’s installation seems to be suggesting—and this is the very issue of the photomontages—is the total complicity of the whole system. Everything is made palatable by the wrapping, the slickness and the seduction of the mechanisms of persuasion. But as the image of the turnstile suggests, we have a choice—we can play the game or we can engage in deconstructing the spectacle and approach an understanding of the underpinnings of violence that support our comforts and our seeming safety.
That art can be a tricky balancing act of such content and artistic practice is understood by David Reeb, who sees the act of painting somewhat akin to walking a tightrope, or stepping between raindrops: “On the one hand the political stance which does express itself in the paintings after all, and on the other the creation of objects of art…” 19 Working from projections in a half darkened room, Reeb paints from photographs (particularly the work of Miki Kratsman) or from images taken from the television news covering the Arab-Israeli conflict, but he is conscious that these painterly creations are being remade by him for the “aesthetic” eye that will be viewing them in museums or galleries. In conversations and interviews, Reeb always stresses the primacy of the painting process rather than its “content”; he wants the eye of the viewer to focus on the surface, the movement of paint on the canvas, and as much as possible, retrace his steps of the painting as he transformed photographic image to paint. Yet through this very primacy of vision, of placing the viewer back in his process of transformation, the images are “refreshed”—we see them with a clarity that is often lost in the constant stream of network media image production. This consciousness of the relation of vision to location—both as in the position of the camera to the subject, the painter to the image, the viewer’s relationship to both and, from the metaphorical/political sense, the ideological position of where one stands—has its painterly expression in the dissection of the canvas into frames. In the series Let’s have another war (2005), the paintings are dissected into two images along the horizon line of the painting’s slogan, two competing senses of occupation/security, power/liberation, oppression/freedom et al. all being enacted in the juxtaposed images. In Jerusalem Picture, #2 (1997), for example, the upper section of the canvas depicts army tanks rolling through the streets of Jerusalem while the lower section shows Hasidic Jews praying at the Temple Wall. Military power and might is pitted symbolically against religious law (with memories of persecution), those who fight brought against those who refuse, and rights of existence against displacement. However from a compositional point of view, the painting is dissected by the line of the front tank wheel and its mirroring in the dark leg of the central player. The diagonally opposite sections of the painting are united by a much heavier application of black paint on the one hand, balanced by a lighter brush stroke and paint application on the other. In this way, the world of overt politics is fused into the space of art as a referential trace.
The “border” or divisions in the canvas referred to above in this series of paintings refer of course to physical geopolitical borders between Israel and the West Bank and Gaza. Deeply involved and integrated into the struggle against Israeli occupation of these areas, Reeb questions the area where his political activism and painting meet. As Israeli critic Ariella Azoulay remarks in one of her texts on Reeb:
Reeb’s painting in general can be seen as a sort of training facility meant to train the eye to see anew under its current conditions, those of a camera lens. Reeb’s painting is painting executed under the conditions of a camera lens. It is lean painting (“a thin layer of paint applied onto canvas”), an optical plane that radiates a flattened occurrence lacking in depth….However, Reeb’s paintings cannot be understood only as paintings that deal with painting under the condition of a camera lens. These are paintings that deal with painting under the conditions of OCCUPATION. The conditions dictated by the camera lens and the conditions dictated by the state of occupation are the view’s borders of possibility, and these, rather than the occupation itself, are what appear on the canvas, appearing and vanishing, winking on and off, flashing and blinding. 20
What Azurella is pointing to in Reeb’s work (and at something that is the basis of her own critical/curatorial practice) is the notion of the rights of representation that are directly related to power. The Israelis, as occupiers, can choose what Israelis and the world see in terms of Palestinian suffering (ironically the banning of international journalists from the current Gaza War, January 2009, meant that the only images seen were those taken by Palestinian photographers who focused, understandably, on the large numbers of dead and wounded Palestinian civilians), much as the Americans can suppress images of civilian casualties in Iraq, wounded veterans and returning coffins. Those to whom visuality would be denied have, it could be argued, staged the kind of events—the terroristic act—in the effort to break through the barrier of invisibility. I am not, of course, pitting art against terrorism but looking back to the terroristic act as an image-producing event. What Reeb strives toward is, like Rosler, not just making the invisible seen, but to enable viewers to see the image to which they have become immune because of familiarity in a new light. Through his artistic reworking of media images, he presents them in ways distinct from their normal viewing, literally, as Azurella says in the same text, “reframing” them for the gallery setting. But of course, as Simon Falkner points out in an essay discussing two of Azoulay’s curatorial projects: There is no guarantee that this kind of artistic reworking of media images will have the desired effect. Relocating press images within the space of art is just as likely to mute their political meanings, as it is to radicalize them. 21
In Chic Point: Fashion for Israeli Checkpoints (2003–2007), Sharif Waked again seeks to open our eyes to the daily indignity of the powerless by the fusion and juxtaposition of two seemingly disparate elements—the fashion show and the body searches at Israeli checkpoints in the West Bank and Gaza. The juxtaposition of the fashion show with the checkpoint is far from random. While in the world of fashion the body is both reified yet forced to conform to a societal view of beauty, in the checkpoint, the body of the Palestinian is also viewed within the norms of societal prejudice, a source of constant threat and a potential armed weapon. Says Waked:
For this video, Waked designed and staged a fashion show in which male models, to the background of a heavy rhythmic beat, parade and display clothes which prominently feature nets, hoods, zippers, and split fabric, all designed to strategically reveal their lower backs, chests, and abdomens through holes, gaps, and splits in the fabric. As the stylized fashion show with its “cutting-edge” designs comes to an end, the catwalk fades and the viewer is transported to the reality of the checkpoints. A series of black and white still photos documents the systematic searches of Palestinian men shown lifting articles of clothing for inspection by Israeli soldiers. Shirts, robes, and jackets are lifted or removed to reveal the naked torso and ascertain whether they are wearing suicide belts or concealing weapons. As the images flash before our eyes, only to be replaced on the loop by the return to the fashion parade, the question of what becomes “normative” hauntingly lingers.
Ivana Spinelli takes the notion of “terrorist chic,” as suggested by Waked, one step further in her Global Sisters: Series 2 (2008). In these drawings and paintings, Barbie-like glamour figures hold hands, don gas masks and hoods, and strike coquettish poses with suicide belts and hand grenades strapped across their otherwise nude bodies. Spinelli feels that the codes or stereotypes that fashion employs to represent women are linked to the codes with which the media represents war and terror, a connection that serves to link desire and fear. The use of the stereotype, of course, blocks complexity; it is intended for easy consumption—absorb the idea and move on or, as Spinelli says, “we use empty shapes to fill them with fast understanding about world.”23 Using photographs taken from the web or newspapers and copying the poses, Spinelli has generated an archive of the new female warrior, without context, without narrative, just the silent white background of the paper on which they are drawn. Spinelli likens this silent blankness to Naomi Klein’s scenario of the psychic shock that envelops a population following a traumatic disaster—be it war or a natural calamity. Capitalizing on this collective shock, the government can suspend civil rights to establish a new economic or social system without opposition, a scenario which came only too real in the violation of so many protections and rights in the aftermath of 9/11, Spinelli bolsters her branding of these global pin-ups in bright pink headlines, marketing them through dolls, tote bags, posters, and books, because, in pink, “everything becomes fascinating.” 24
In a similar updating of a fascinating American icon, Marilyn Monroe is reborn as Chechen Marilyn (2005) in the hands of the Siberian collective known as Blue Noses (Vyacheslav Mizin and Alexander Shaburov). Indeed, in work after work we see the “defrocking” of the world’s political icons: Milosovich reveals his decidedly plump feminine body, sporting sagging tan-lined breasts and propped on a couch next to a bikini-clad
Saddam Hussein and a George Bush wearing nothing but cheap boxers and a prodigious beer-belly. Another work shows a stern Osama Bin-Laden sitting cross-legged in tiny black briefs with his arms draped around the flanking figures of a naked and seemingly ecstatic Hillary Clinton and Condoleezza Rice. Russia's Minister of Culture, Alexander Sokolov, publicly denounced the artists referring to their photographic arrangements as "a shame of Russia" and their work has subsequently been banned.
In Chechen Marilyn, the iconic image of Monroe standing above a subway grate, her dress blown up above her waist, is transformed into a suicide-bomber in a burqa, her skirt uplifted to reveal a battery of grenades. The famous line “Isn’t it delicious?” which accompanied Monroe’s pose in The Seven Year Itch, inflects Blue Noses’ terroristic avatar and suggests that this is the new prototype for spectacle. When I was planning the original exhibition, it is interesting to note that this image proved particularly troubling and I was asked to remove it from the catalogue and show. It is clearly an image intended to provoke and its humor is dark. But with the growing phenomena of women suicide bombers, such an image can hardly be seen in itself as irreverent.
Avdey Ter-Oganian, accused of a similar “desecration” of canonical work, in this case Christian icons, was forced to leave Russia and request refugee status in the Czech Republic. In Radical Abstractionism (2004), Ter-Oganian’s investigation into the relationship between truth, belief, and image-making led him to juxtapose what appears to be apolitical visual pleasure, suprematist-like abstract imagery with provocative phrases such as “this image calls for hatred on a National basis”; “this image calls for the changing of the Russian constitution”; “this image calls for threatening the life of the political figure Vladimir Putin for the purpose of terminating his political activity.” The unbridgeable gap between text and image, the inaccessibility of truth and the possibility of putting whatever spin we choose on innocuous imagery are the preoccupations of this series.
As an artist working in multimedia and at the very core of the news network systems, Daniel Bejar’s prints provide pungent visual metaphors on global, political, and economic current events. Influenced by World War II propaganda posters of the Nazis and Russians, as well as posters of the Cuban Revolution, these images found in the pages of the New York Times, Time, Newsweek et al. with that cartoon-like condensation of meaning and suggestion would take many paragraphs to describe. In Rules of Jihad, a gun toting mullah body is formed by language, detailing who and in what circumstances killing is permitted; the smoking twin towers take form in the page ends of a partially open book, clearly linking violence and religious teaching. Like the cartoons of Mohammed in the Danish newspapers that caused such an incendiary response, these works could clearly be seen as inflammatory through another ideological lens, a visual lightning rod condensing stereotypes and cultural perceptions.