1. Shimon Attie’s The Writing on the Wall, 1991-1992
Walking in the streets of the city that summer, I felt myself asking over and over again, Where are all the missing people? What has become of the Jewish culture and community which had once been at home here? I felt the presence of this lost community very strongly, even though so few visible traces of it remained.
— Shimon Attie
In Berlin in 1991, after weeks of research, Shimon Attie projected images from the 1920s and 1930s that belong to a lost Jewish past. These slides were projected onto the same or nearby spaces where the photographs have been taken sixty years earlier. He wanted to confront a city haunted by the absence of its murdered and deported Jews. The Writing on the Wall project was realized in one of Berlin’s former Jewish quarters, the Scheunenviertel, located in the Eastern part of the city, close to the Alexanderplatz. Each installation ran for one or two evenings for the local audience and passersby to see. Attie also photographed the installations themselves in time exposures lasting from three to four minutes. This project is part photography, part installation, and part performance.
2. Marcelo Brodsky’s Buena Memoria (Good Memory), 1997
In Argentina over 30,000 people were tortured and killed during the Dirty War that started after the military junta, led by Army Commander in Chief Lieutenant General Jorge Rafael Videla, dissolved in 1976 the Argentine Congress. During that period, some 10,000 people “disappeared,” or more precisely, were disappeared, considered a political or ideological threat to the military junta. When Marcelo Brodsky came back to Argentina from exile in 1994, after having lived more than a decade abroad, he tried to locate his old classmates. Taking as his starting point the graduation photograph of the class of 1967 at the Colegio Nacional in Buenos Aires, he found out that 105 of them had disappeared. His installation Good Memory exhibits photographs and video of the intensive research he undertook. It includes a blown-up photograph of his eighth-grade class taken in 1967, in which he has circled 13 out of the 32 figures to indicate friends who, as adults, went into political exile or disappeared. Good Memory also shows the last picture of the artist’s brother, Fernando, before he was taken to a military prison, where he was jailed and murdered, as well as a video that shows a memorial organized by the artist that included a public reading of names of his disappeared schoolmates.
3. Susan Meiselas’ Reframing History, 2004
In July 2004, for the 25th anniversary of the overthrow of Somoza, Meiselas returned to Nicaragua with nineteen mural-sized images of her photographs from 1978-1979, collaborating with local communities to create sites for collective memory. The project, Reframing History, placed murals on public walls and in open spaces in the towns, at the sites where the photographs were originally made. (Source: Susan Meisela’s website.)
It was not only its escalation and its geographical expansion that set apart the violence experienced throughout the so-called “war against drug trafficking” in Mexico. It was also the brutality of the executions; its expressive level of cruelty, which is impossible to forget. The violence exercised by the narco-gangs or the narco-machine as Rossanna Reguillo calls it, is determined to dissolve the singularity of human beings by turning them into suffering bodies, sometimes fragmented –heads, torsos, legs, arms. These bodies, exposing their own vulnerability, are a mirror of Mexico’s inoperative political and judiciary system, one that allows a contagious spread of criminality and leaves thousands of crimes, related and unrelated to drug trafficking, unresolved. For Felipe Calderón’s office –which declared war against the drug cartels in 2006 with an over-confident discourse that assured that “we are not going to war if we are not sure that we are going to win” –the dead became a negative image. And because we are not talking about one or two, but more than 120,000 violent murders in a six-year term, the constant representation of the dead became evidence of an explosive national crisis.
Contrary to President Calderon’s wishes –who urged the media to “give violence its proper dimension,” and criticized the press for “amplifying” the problem of Mexico’s violence– Mexican artist Carlos Aguirre (Acapulco, 1948) started collecting violent imagery from local “sensationalist” tabloids of the state of Morelos. Aguirre belongs to a tradition of artistic activism similar to that of its Latin American counterparts who criticized the military dictatorships and dirty wars of the 1970s and 1980s. As part of a generation that responded to the political and social unrest that emerged in Mexico in 1968, he has positioned himself as an artist who emphasizes the tensions between economic, social and political realities.
His work Paisaje mexicano (Mexican Landscape), which is exhibited permanently at the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana in Mexico City, is a large-scale mural (3 x 12 meters) that consists of the recompilation of approximately 1,400 nicknames of drug dealers and hundreds of newspaper clippings of photographs of violent deaths. These nicknames, arranged chaotically, one on top of the other in different opacities of black, create, from a distance, an indecipherable mural. When one gets closer, the words become clear: one can recognize famous capos, such as “El Chapo” and “El Barbas,” printed in large bold letters, as well as lesser-known nicknames, such as “El Harry” or “El Koreano,” in smaller fonts.
Aguirre’s overwhelming universe of drug-dealers can be seen as a powerful interpretation of the narco’s strategic multiplication throughout Mexico’s geography. According to Reguillo, the narco-machine’s power relies on its unfathomable presence, on the fact that it is always strategically de-localizing itself. Aguirre’s Mexican Landscape deliberately follows a traditional composition of a landscape, in which a horizontal line is used to enhance an open view of the scenery, giving a sensation of vastness and continuity. This horizon is constructed by pasting hundreds of color photographs of violent deaths, following one editorial criteria: selecting “the most violent images” found, since, according to the artist, “these images respond to the cruelty that has escalated.”
Aguirre’s usage of sensationalist photographs is his own way of depicting his contemporary abject version of a Mexican landscape, opposing the celebratory and colorful landscapes of the Mexican valley by famous Mexican landscape painters, like José María Velasco (1840 –1912) and Gerardo Murillo (Dr. Atl) (1875 –1964), with the latter turning Mexican geography into a positive symbol of post-revolutionary national identity, through the use of lively blue skies, rich foliage and mighty volcanoes.
Conversely and quite unexpectedly, Mexican Landscape also reminds me of Rothko’s No.5/No 22 (1949). More precisely, what it recalls is Anna Chave’s symbolic interpretation of the canvas. Her controversial take suggests that the horizontal framing derives from earlier depictions of dead figures lying horizontally. If Chave was right and Rothko’s pictorial segments have symbolic references to entombments, in the case of Aguirre the reference is more than just symbolic: it is obvious. Moreover, in Aguirre’s horizontal placement of the images of the dead a far more wretched image is implicit: that of a massive grave.
What does it mean to protest suffering, as distinct from acknowledging it?
Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others.
In last week’s entry, I inaugurated my participation in this blog with a quote by Jay Prosser, from his book Picturing Atrocity (2012):“Atrocity is going on all around us —he said— the least we can do is acknowledge it.” In the third chapter of her book Regarding the Pain of Others (2003), Susan Sontag explains how we have acknowledged suffering since the Christian depictions of hell or representations of famous biblical decapitations (like that of John the Baptist). But when did we start to use the iconography of horror to express our disagreement? Sontag recalls Jacques Callot’s (1592–1635) eighteen etchings titled Les Misères et les Malheurs de la Guerre (The Miseries and Misfortunes of War) from 1633, which depicted many atrocities committed against civilians by French troops during the invasion of his native Lorraine in the early 1630s.
In his etching No. 5, “Plundering of a Farm,” Callot uses both image and text to describe a scene in which soldiers murder, kidnap, steal and rape.
Here are the fine exploits of these inhuman hearts
They ravage all over, nothing escapes their hands
One invents forms of torture to get some gold,
The other, having committed 1,000 crimes, encourages his accomplices
And all in accord, they maliciously commit
Theft, kidnapping, murder, and rape.
Between 1810 and 1820 Goya created Los desastres de la Guerra (The Disasters of War), a series of works that could be seen as a “visual protest” against violence, specifically the atrocities perpetrated during the occupation of Madrid by French troops during the Peninsular War (1807–1814). He used various sketches to narrate violent scenes, such as the depiction of a disfigured body found mounted on a tree, and also included a brief caption which, rather than serving as a description of the event, functions as an expression of dissent by the artist: “This is worse” wrote Goya below one of these pieces.
Is Goya’s “protest” implicit in the image, or is the caption the element that “protests”?
At first it’s easy to agree with Susan Sontag that, when it comes to photographs, the image cannot offer itself an interpretation; that protest requires a caption in addition to an image to have any sort of political meaning. But we can also take another second and contest this view. Judith Butler, in her book Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? (2010), explains that framing already presupposes decisions and practices that leave substantial losses outside the frame. Inclusion and exclusion already affect the political meaning of an image. Despite the fact that Butler agrees with Sontag that we need captions and analysis, the frame, she argues, is never neutral. The image has already determined what will count, whose life will be grieved, what is perceivable and what isn’t.