Fuse Visual Arts Review: Questioning the Image

But The Image in Question begs a crucial question: Isn’t modern media supposed to be flashy, colorful, and loud beyond all sane toleration? Aren’t  shrill, unceasing proclamations a part of what drives some individuals away from television and video-games to art galleries, the concert-hall, and the cinema?

THE IMAGE IN QUESTION. WAR — MEDIA — ART. Curated by Antje Ehmann and Harun Farocki. With work by Peggy Ahwesh, Kota Ezawa, Harun Farocki, Jean-Luc Godard, William E. Jones, Lamia Joreige, Allan Sekula, Wael Shawky, and Fazal Sheikh. At Harvard University’s Carpenter Center through December 23, 2010

Interrogating the video game: Peggy Ahwesh, SHE PUPPET, 2001, video, 15:20 min. Courtesy of the artist

By Dylan Rose.

The Image in Question is a collection of digital media pieces concerned with the representation of violence in new media. Antje Ehmann and Harun Farocki, curators of the exhibit, describe it as “a collection of art works dealing with the question: how can the wars of the present and the experience of war be adequately represented?” The task posed for the viewer/critic is obvious: how well did The Image answer its own question? In other words, is an exhibit like The Image an adequate representation of “the wars of the present and the experience of war?”

The answer, for me, was mixed; I struggled to connect intellectually and emotionally with most of the exhibit’s pieces. War is an emotional powder-keg, and artistic representations of violent conflict understandably play on this volatility. The size and scale of modern military conflicts, whether the Great Wars of the early 20th century or the guerrilla wars of the latter 20th and 21st, demand this dialogue. War consumes frightening  amounts of resources, shapes nations, ends families, presents opportunities for moral and spiritual growth; conceptions of modern man are shaped, often negatively, by combat. Over the previous century, literature, political theory, and philosophy have chimed in on the significance of war.

Allan Sekula, WAR WITHOUT BODIES (detail), 1991/1996, 9 color photographs mounted on aluminum, 20 x 30 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Christopher Grimes Gallery, CA.

With such rich source material, I had to ask another question: why did most of The Image’s works fail to move me? The ones that did garner an emotional reaction offer some clues. One piece, a collection of nine digital photographs of tourists with their fingers in the barrel of a machine gun, was particularly compelling. Both the horror and the black comedy of war are captured exquisitely by an image of a chubby tourist-baby with his finger stuck deep into the barrel of a high-powered death machine.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is “She Puppet,” a mixed-media piece combining audio recordings and footage taken from the Tomb Raider video-game. When I first received my assignment, I was particularly excited to see “She Puppet.” Although video-games have received increased recognition as a force that both shapes and expresses the lives of younger generations, the controversy has been primarily negative and concerned with their role in stimulating youth violence. That they might be co-opted to serve an artistic purpose promised a refreshing change of perspective.

Alas, my hopes were dashed; “She Puppet” suffers from crippling technical and stylistic difficulties that keep it from reaching its potential. The sound set-up in the screening-room is poorly arranged, so much of its audio track becomes lost amid the dying screams of the character. Whatever grace and fluidity the arrangement of readings and footage might have captured is lost due to the character’s blocky movements and the game’s bland scenery.

The most discouraging thing about some of “She Puppet’s” problems was that they were in no way the fault of the artist, Peggy Ahwesh. Tomb Raider is now nearly 10 years old, and the technologies that make modern video game avatars appear lifelike were only then being developed.

FAZAL SHEIKH CHILD KILLED IN A SOVIET BOMBARDMENT, Afghan refugee village, Ghazi, Northwestern Frontier Province, Pakistan, from The Victor Weeps, 1997. Carbon pigment print, 23 1/2 x 23 1/2 in. framed.

Another issue with using video-game footage in this way is that video games are designed with user activity in mind. Without direct, physical participation, most video games come off as boring. Because video games coordinate the player’s sensory and muscular systems in real time, they approximate real-life experience. The experiential gulf between watching a virtual character attacked by buzzards and a player having a psycho-behavioral stake in avoiding virtual buzzard attacks is enormous. Paradoxically, elevating video games into media art work in this in this way clips their wings, because their power to move us depends on a particular type interaction, not contemplation.

The Image’s tangled relationships between media form and media content forced me to reconsider my initial thoughts on the collection. Significant time and technical expertise went into the composition of these pieces, but they lacked the vibrancy and vitality that the exhibition’s subject matter should have delivered.

A curiously muted color-palette—mostly blacks, whites, and sepias, even in the videos—was at least partially to blame for the monochromatic feel. This is understandable, because many pieces were made up of old photographs or, as with “She Puppet,” that level of design was not available to the artist.

But it begs a crucial question: Isn’t modern media supposed to be flashy, colorful, and loud beyond all sane toleration? Aren’t shrill, unceasing proclamations a part of what drives some individuals away from television and video-games to art galleries, the concert-hall, and the cinema? Given that the artists featured in The Image set out deliberately to question and explore the representation of violence and warfare in media by appropriation, how is it that their work is missing this galvanic energy?

Kota Ezawa, DEAD TROOPS TALK, 2007, paper cutout collage, 40 x 24 inches framed. Courtesy of the artist and Murray Guy Gallery

What answered these questions for me was French director Jean-Luc Godard’s Je Vous Salue, Sarajevo, which is also on display as part of the exhibit. His film—a two-minute exposition on the relationship between mass culture and art—highlights the violence done to individual perception by the proliferation of images. Thus it is the key to the entire exhibition.

The photograph that forms the visual backdrop for Godard’s voice is of two soldiers on a cigarette break, standing over the bodies of fallen civilians in Sarajevo. Rather than create a slide-show or short video, Godard focuses instead on individual pieces of this image, highlighting small sections to punctuate his monologue. His goal is to re-focus our attention on the objects that made image-making possible, to help us see beyond the photograph and into the reality that generated it.

What is real, he suggests, is the singular and the individual. In contrast, mass culture produces cigarettes, soldiers, and photographs in response to the massed needs of many unique persons. This is acceptable insofar as we recognize the fruits of mass culture for what they are: images.  We join political movements or go to war, but we never see the “reality” of war. Pictures of war are at most a bad copy or an attempted model of that experience, developed according to the rules of a community and frozen into breath, ink, oil, marble, film, or a micro-chip.

For those quick to cry out that I have conflated “mere image” and art by way of this definition, I would point to the success of pop art. The line between art and image has become increasingly thin: the boundary between them depends almost entirely on the viewer’s personal history, the context of viewing, and, yes, on the choice of medium.

Jean-Luc Godard, JE VOUS SALUE, SARAJEVO, 1993, video, 2 min.

That the choice of medium could separate art and image should come as no surprise. When an artist commits to expressing themselves in stone, they are taking exceptional pains to make use of a communicative form that few others have access to. Try though I might, I cannot reproduce the sculptor’s full experience of creating a piece in marble by simply looking at it.

To understand their messages, to receive the full communicative impact of the work, I would have to know the feel, the weight, the resistance to carving the marble offers to trained senses. I may still appreciate the beauty of the work they have produced without this knowledge, but content and form combine. In contrast, “new media” forms—such as video games or television—are designed to communicate information in the most widely accessible fashion. To do this efficiently, their form must be reduced to a few, simple dimensions of sensory experience. They are, in most cases, all breadth without depth.

Using images to communicate is an obviously effective technique for relaying information, but it is also risky. Much of the danger posed by images comes from their portability. Although I can instantly pass an important piece of information across the globe through a video or a photograph, when robbed of context “the image in question” is often conflated with the reality of the persons, events, or objects which it depicts. When I am so affected, I lose my ability to critically evaluate what is presented to me as I otherwise might.

It is this confusion that The Image addresses, and for this reason it is difficult to evaluate its success as an exhibit. When we use digital media to transmit information, it is as images; the point is pure communication. On this score, The Image is an enormous success. The contributors have succeeded in pointing out the relationship between the viewer’s (read: my) disordered responses to events that ought to shock me and the forms by which I receive information about them. However, this statement becomes the limit of what it is possible for an exhibit like The Image to do. In relying upon images to convey a particular message, even if that statement is placed within a critical, self-reflexive context, these artists reduce art to a placard.

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