Essays

At the Limits of the Image: Torture and its Re-Presentation in Popular Culture

Spring 2009

iconoclastia 1

On April 28, 2004, a series of images from Abu Ghraib prison were aired on CBS’s 60 Minutes II. This was the first time that these photographs would be seen in public and they counted amongst their number an image that was to become instantly iconic. A man, in a penitential shroud, stands aloft a box with a hood on his head and what appears to be electric wires attached to his fingertips. The image is poorly taken, stark, and under-lit but, in all its purgatorial undertones and abject hopelessness, it would sear its way on to television screens and the front pages of newspapers worldwide; its iconographic wretchedness acting as a lightening rod for both anti-American and anti-war protestors alike.[1] And yet, for all the opprobrium and shock directed towards both this image and the perpetrators of this ghastly scenario, I have to admit that I did not find this image shocking as such. More images would follow this one, some more disturbing in their content, some obviously depicting torture, others showing a dead and obviously abused Iraqi—later identified as Manadel al-Jamadi—packed in ice and wrapped in cellophane. A significant number of images depicted forced acts of prisoner-on-prisoner fellation and masturbation; prisoners in enforced stress positions with women’s underwear draped on their heads; and prisoners stacked one upon another in a grotesque human pyramid. Others showed a man with a leash around his neck being led naked from a cell and a faeces-besmeared man standing forlornly with his arms akimbo in the face of his gun-toting tormentor. Amidst this abecedarium of abuse, specific images stood out, none more so than a petrified prisoner with a snarling dog inches from his face. But none of these photographs were as redolent as the hooded man standing on the box. This was surely, in all its casual arbitrariness and yet methodical application, the brute fact of what Giorgio Agamben has termed “bare life”: the application of a brute sovereign form of power upon that most vulnerable of entities: the rightless and thereafter forsaken subject. (more…)

What Was Lost: Manifesta 7 and the Soul of Modernity

November 2008

Stefano Graziani, The Museum for Franco Basaglia, 2008. Photos © Wolfgang Träger.

Following on from the faddishness surrounding the critical uses and abuses of the term ‘postmodern’ in the 1980s and 1990s, a singular and somewhat disconcerting question came to light, one less involved with the apparent ‘post’ of modernity as it was with finding out whether we were indeed modern or, perhaps more gnomically, whether we were even premodern. A significant part of this project found purchase by enquiring into that which modernity had elided along the way, namely, the disavowed alter-modernities that consistently threatened to usurp any univocal global claim to postmodernity. It was with these and other issues in mind that Manifesta 7, with a firm eye on the so-called ‘residues’ of modernity, set out its latest curatorial stall. Taking place over four different locations, all in the shadow of the South Tyrol Dolomites in Northern Italy, and employing three curatorial teams (made up, in turn, of six curators), Manifesta 7 included over 200 artists and collaborators, not to mention 100 off-site projects. It was, in fine, ambitious. Travelling north to south, the first venue on the itinerary was Fortezza, an impressive fort which is also known locally as Franzensfeste, the latter being its original Austrian name. Since its completion in 1838, the only forces to have breached its defences are a road, two railway lines and a motorway. There is certainly a moral to be had in this tale and the curators, all three groups in this instance, set out to exploit it: a fort that had never been overrun subsequently becoming a white elephant of sorts and eventually a venue for an international exhibition of contemporary art – that had to be worth a curatorial gambit or two. However, and despite the size and the uniqueness of the location and its legacy, this section of Manifesta, entitled ‘Scenarios’, was the least interesting, and not only because there was so little to actually see. (more…)

Towards a Politics of (Relational) Aesthetics

May 2007

The aesthetic criteria used to interpret art as a practice have changed radically since the 1960s. To note as much is to observe a truism: the idea (or should that be the ideal) of a universalist aesthetic point of reference, or even the notion of aesthetics as a nominal interpretive baseline, has been discursively displaced by identitarian, theoretical, political, economic, ethical and social interventions. And yet aesthetics as a topic, far from fading into a minor role, has become something of a notional cornerstone in recent discussions about contemporary art.[1] Putting to one side the pre-eminence of performance and installation art in debates about aesthetic form, one of the more prominent statements on the matter has come from Nicolas Bourriaud’s influential volume Relational Aesthetics (2002), a book that has attracted much by way of both criticism and support.[2] Stemming from essays published from 1995 onwards in Documents sur l’art – a journal jointly edited by Bourriaud and Eric Troncy – and in part from the 1996 show ‘Traffic’, curated by Bourriaud for CAPC Bordeaux, Relational Aesthetics was first published in France in 1998 before being published in English in 2002.[3] For a relatively short series of essays the book has attracted a considerable amount of interest; a consequence, no doubt, of Bourriaud’s rather grand claim that he has not only isolated a new aesthetic ‘movement’ in contemporary art (albeit one that is formally diverse and based on loose rather than close associations), but also a critical language within which to discuss this development. (more…)

Yto Barrada A Life Full of Holes: The Strait Project

September 2006

On first viewing, the image appears to be an eccentric map of an uncharted world. The filigree-like coastlines of these unfamiliar islands are realistically defined and clearly delineated, whilst the land mass – albeit in a reversal of traditional maps – is a clear-blue aquamarine. Study the picture further, however, and this inverted map resolves into something other than it first appeared to be. As to what that something else is, there is still some doubt until we read the accompanying title: Container 1 – Rust holes in the top of a shipping container – Tangiers (2003). The blue of these ‘regions’ is in fact the colour of a sky seen from the inside of a rusting shipping container; a corralled sky not so much boundless as claustrophobic. The photograph, now less visually ambiguous, becomes an illustration of confinement and restriction rather than exploration or travel. And it is between these two often reciprocal poles – stasis and movement – that Yto Barrada’s photographs address the state of conditional ennui that pervades Tangiers, a city both the nodal point for the illegal passage of Africans entering Europe and stagnation for those who remain there. (more…)

Miniatures

Steve McQueen, ‘Once Upon a Time’, South London Gallery, 17 September–7 November 2004

April 2006

Steve McQueen, Once Upon a Time, 77 of 116, 2002. Supermarket. Photo: Herman Eckermann, NAIC Staff Photographer. Courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery, New York & Paris and Thomas Dane, London.

In 1977, NASA sent 115 images – the so-called ‘Golden Record’ – into space on board the Voyager space probe. They also included greetings in 55 different languages and a number of audio clips, including (amongst others) Beethoven’s 5th Symphony and Blind Willie Johnson’s Dark Was the Night. Projected onto a double-sided, cinema-sized screen, these images – but not the audio clips – are the basis of Steve McQueen’s solo show ‘Once Upon a Time’. The images range from photographs of children being born to family portraits, the monumental (Jupiter) to the miniature (a leaf), and the poetic (a sunset with birds) to the mechanical (a calibration circle). There are ordnance photographs of the Sinai Peninsula and an intimate portrait of a nursing mother. Ethnographic portraits, perhaps inevitably, feature too and, despite the generally auspicious and upbeat tone of the Golden Record, there are also premonitions of more immediate concerns: a picture of rush- hour traffic in India, for example, and a so-called (and curiously empty) ‘modern highway’. Each of these images in ‘Once Upon a Time’ slowly dissolves into the other, giving an effect that is both nostalgic and reminiscent of a time when such images were indeed seen by some as ‘representative’ of life on earth – not to mention a time when images dissolving into one another seemed the height of technology. (more…)

Critical Imperatives: Notes on Contemporary Art Criticism and African Cultural Production

Spring 2006

Bodys Isek Kingelez (Germany/Congo), La ville de Sete en 3009, 2000, paper, cardboard, paint, sequins, glue; covered by polyester in wooden frame, 210 x 300 x 89 cm. Collection Musee International des Arts Modestes, Sete, France.

A social and historical critique which does not consider the conflictual structure of its own discursive operations will only produce the constraints it is seeking to displace. (Weber 111)

‘Africa Remix’, the recent showcase of African art at the Hayward Gallery in London, prompted a number of mixed but largely positive critical responses. In the Observer, Emma Lindsey extolled the ‘ground-breaking and electrifying work’ (26) on show and encouraged everyone to see it. Elsewhere, and in a more mixed response in the Guardian, Jonathan Jones was impressed by the art in the show but equivocal about his own reaction to it. Towards the end of his article, Jones wrote ‘but that’s enough criticism. In the end, this is a subject I probably shouldn’t even be writing about. What do I know? Racism is limitless’ (22). The sense of bemusement in Jones’s article is worth dwelling on here, not least for the fact that its disposition reappears in more ‘critical’ reviews of ‘Africa Remix’.[1] In Art Monthly, Sally O’Reilly’s review of the same show started with the above quote from Jones’s article and went on to engage in its own series of caveats. ‘It was not my idea of fun to review ‘‘Africa Remix’’ either,’ O’Reilly wrote, ‘and the idea would be horrifying, I imagine, to most European art critics especially those from European nations’ (27). For O’Reilly, this ostensible conundrum is made manifest in a number of ‘double binds’ including, but not limited to, the manner in which postcolonial liberalism can often translate into ‘colonialism itself when applied to interpretations of ‘‘the other’’’ (27). In the subsequent issue of Art Monthly, O’Reilly was taken to task on the letters pages for both an ‘unreflexive’ response to the show and the reiteration of a view of African art as somehow culturally (and hence critically) other (Jelinek 14). To Art Monthly’s credit – being one of the few journals in this country, alongside Third Text, to consider the question of art criticism and its purpose to be worthy of any enquiry at all – it allowed this discussion to continue into the following issue where Jones’s take on the show was criticised for being ‘intellectually cowardly’ – a response, in sum, that merely re-codified a number of obstacles to formulating an effective critical response (LaFuente 17).

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Grub For Sharks: A Concession for the Negro Populace

March 2005

Kara Walker, Grub For Sharks: A Concession for the Negro Populace, 2004, Courtesy of the Artist and Brent Sikkema, Photograph Tate Liverpool 2004.

In 1840 J M W Turner painted Slavers throwing overboard the Dead and Dying – Typhoon Comingon (The Slave Ship). The subject matter concerned the ‘Zong’, a slave ship that had departed from Liverpool in the 1780s en route to Jamaica where, on arrival, the master of the ship had slaves – both dead and alive – thrown into the shark-infested seas. This nefarious practice was regularly employed by slave traders to claim insurance monies for slaves who had become so enfeebled by the journey they could not be sold on arrival. The issue was one of remuneration: if sick slaves died a ‘natural’ death, the ship’s owners received no compensation; if, however, slaves were thrown overboard in order to expedite the ship’s passage in the face of a possibly ruinous storm, the insurers would pay out. In sum, the loss of a few slaves, when compared with the loss of a ship, was infinitely more palatable to insurance brokers and slave traders alike. (more…)

The Spectacular Difference of Documenta XI

March 2003

Since its inception in 1955, Documenta has established itself as an institution that not only presents a survey of contemporary art historical issues but, more recently, the social and political milieu in which we live. Add to this the considerable amount of critical attention focused on who is chosen to curate Documenta, and the entire project would appear to be becoming more of a multidisciplinary inquiry into the ethics of curation and the institutionalising effect of exhibitions per se. In opting to not only investigate the structures and conditions of present-day artistic production but also interrogate its institutional status, Documenta XI appeared to be indicative of this trend. As the first major exhibition of the twenty-first century, moreover, this interrogative stance is hardly surprising – indeed, given the wider developments in museological, curatorial and institutional conventions, it would seem to be obligatory. (more…)