David Zwirner | January 10 – February 9, 2013
Has language effectively usurped the air around contemporary art objects? Today, it feels a bit like a foregone conclusion. We rely upon object labels and critical writings to provide context that blank walls cannot; in most cases, we expect such textual explanations even if we despise them. But when it comes to art that addresses violence and war, our impulse is often to shy away from language. Such images seem to live beyond the realm of words. How are we, as viewers or as writers, to respond to the experience of such a fundamentally “indescribable” display?
Often these questions arise in confronting works of photojournalism. Some images—simply too explicit—leave no room for language. But for now, I’d like to pose these questions against a recent series of paintings by Francis Alÿs, an artist who regularly relies upon titles and footnotes in constructing his visual analogies.
Alÿs is a Belgian-born, Mexico City-based artist known for his Sisyphean performative acts. There’s “Sometimes Making Something Leads to Nothing” (1997), in which he pushed a block of ice through the streets of Mexico City until it dwindled to a dribbling pebble; or there’s “Rehearsal I” (1999 – 2001) in which a red VW Bug repetitively charged up a dirt hill in a Mexican border town, failing to crest every time. For the past two years, Alÿs was in Kabul filming “REEL - UNREEL” (2011), a 20-minute film commissioned for dOCUMENTA 13.
Despite having spent the last 20 years of his life in a city decimated by drug wars, Alÿs’s experience in Afghanistan was profound. He has spoken publicly of how he couldn’t quite process what he saw. His color bar paintings from 2011 – 2012, shown at David Zwirner in January, are the artist’s direct response to this psychological block. Here I wish to focus only on these specific works, in an attempt to isolate the relationship Alÿs establishes between what can be depicted and what can be said.
The paintings are small, some only the size of a postcard, and at Zwirner they were hung in varying clusters. At first glance, the collection appears to constitute a simple and repetitive formal exercise. Each composition contains a rectangle divided into six vertical bars of various colors, resembling the colored bands one used to see when adjusting the chromatic scale of a television. As one looks at each object one after another in the gallery, this visual uniformity establishes a sense of monastic rhythm.
In some works, the color bars have become an imposition. Many of the paintings include collage elements, with the bands of color appearing within colloquial scenes of Afghan life: a mountainous desert, women gathering in hijabs, a tank barreling down a dusty road. The color bars are harshly opaque and predominant; they cut off any chance to see what lies behind. In one painting hung close to the floor, a cropped photograph of a helicopter is haphazardly taped to a cloudless blue sky. Beneath, Alÿs has painted an armed, turbaned man crouching in downtrodden grass.
Some of the paintings are paired into diptychs: one a realistically rendered Afghan genre scene, the other an abstracted rainbow of flat color. These are not seamless collages in which two objects fluidly become one. Instead, two worlds stubbornly remain two. Alÿs thus preserves the selective opacity that has characterized almost all American action in the Middle East.
The paintings speak of failure on many levels: Alÿs’s failure to coherently translate his experience in what remains a war-torn nation; the American military’s failure to understand Afghan culture and the people it rushed off to rescue; and the failure of our own limited perception. As the administration quietly pulls the last troops from Afghanistan, we still refuse to speak specifically about the people who lived through war in language that acknowledges their complexities and distinct humanity.
“I cannot paint violence,” Alÿs told Julie Belcove of the New Yorker last month. In the same conversation he explained the color bar paintings as an exercise in distancing, a ritual meant to console and recalibrate his eyes. Yet what is it that we, as viewers even further removed from the subject, are supposed to see in these paintings, other than failure? Should Alÿs be praised for illustrating this paradox of understanding? Is it enough merely to gesture towards such grand failures, or can we ask the work to do more?
I’m afraid these paintings cultivate a dangerous attitude, one founded on an implicit claim that within an experience of war, nothing can be said. That language has no place, that there can be no poetry after Auschwitz, that understanding is impossible. While Alÿs’s work usually relies on language, here, words are shut out. I fear these paintings, in aestheticizing cultural and linguistic failure, preemptively strike down any possibility for dialogue.
We live in a post-war era that desperately needs translation. The consequences of the past decade of war—both at home and abroad—somehow continue to remain largely abstract to a majority of Americans. This cannot suffice; we need the concreteness of words. We need artists, poets, and writers to attempt to fill this abyss of understanding.
Yet it has always been the case that alongside images of violence, words incite anxiety. Nearly a century ago, at the dawn of World War I, Henry James wrote in the New York Times, “The war has used up words; they have weakened, they have deteriorated.” Susan Sontag then used this quote in Regarding the Pain of Others, arguing that while harrowing photographs may shock, it is narrative—words—that can help us understand. Concern for the place of language, its alternating impotence and hegemony, has only grown exponentially in the shadow of the digital image. We’ve seen an infinite number of photographs depicting bloody desert battlegrounds or body parts strewn across Afghan streets. Again, what words could possibly be introduced?
It seems to me that it is precisely in these situations—when language feels impossible—that it is essential. Where there is no language, there is room left for silence and oppression.
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