September 22 – November 18, 2018
New York, NY
A VOID at 601Artspace welcomed me with a deluge of handouts. The exhibition’s curator, the artist Paul Ramirez Jonas, provides a six-page essay that weaves together descriptions of the nine exhibiting artists’s works with notes on his own contribution—a series of nine black wall vinyls that represent destroyed or lost paintings. Ramirez Jonas’s artwork and essay shape this exhibitionary exploration of loss—how artists reckon with it, or even attempt to restore or repair it. He begins by writing that one of the obscured paintings is Gustave Courbet’s The Stone Breakers (1849), which was destroyed during the 1945 bombing of Dresden, during which more than 20,000 perished, including the nieces of a man named Karl-Heinrich Fiebiger.
This initial pairing of historical events was odd, but the show’s thesis comes together when Ramirez Jones expounds his personal history with Courbet’s painting. A college professor showed a slide of The Stone Breakers’s two laboring subjects in one of his classes, but did not mention that the physical painting no longer existed. It’s this anecdote that brings us to Ramirez Jonas’s intent with A VOID: His question behind both the projection of The Stone Breakers and Karl-Henrich Fiebiger’s nieces is, “How come the absent painting can speak and they can’t?” Ramirez Jonas’s focus on Fiebiger’s life and his nieces’ deaths, none of which are considered historically notable, forefronts the attempts by him and his peers to reckon with how personal or collective losses fall prey to time and neglect, and how this results in, as he concludes, “injury to all.”
Like Ramirez Jones, the nine other artists included in the exhibition investigate how singular and systemic injustices—genocide, war, abuse—constitute enduring injuries. Some contend with the implications of lost objects, specifically ones that reflect communal narratives. Three sculptures from Michael Rakowitz’s project May the Obdurate Foe Not Be In Good Health (2016–ongoing) are reconstructions, in found papers and other detritus, of artworks stolen or destroyed from the National Museum of Iraq after the American invasion in 2003, while Emily Jacir’s series Untitled (fragment from ex libris) (2010-2012) centers on Palestinian books catalogued as “Abandoned Property” in the Jewish National Library. Jacir zooms in on the handwritten notes in the margins, which point to caring ownership, suggesting they were looted from, not abandoned by, Palestinian owners displaced during Israel’s creation in 1948. Others focus more directly on the loss of human lives, like Suzanne Lacy’s video De tu puño y letra (2015), documenting a 2014 performance in Ecuador for which participants read aloud letters written by victims of domestic violence. The event, with hundreds reading and conversing in a bull-fighting stadium, visualized the sheer number of those who endure what is often private, silenced suffering, or even death.
Oscar Muñoz’s looped, two-channel video Linea del Destino (Line of Destiny) (2006) sits in the gallery’s furthest corner, but acts as the uniting talisman of its constellation. On the left monitor, the artist paints his portrait in water on hot pavement, while on the right, a pool of water in his palm reflects his face. Both continually evaporate with the heat of a sidewalk or his hand. His self-inflicted disappearance acknowledges those lost and forgotten in the Colombian civil war.
Within Ramirez Jonas’s framing, the videos assert that even if Courbet’s painting can speak, and Fiebiger’s nieces can’t, all reside in the memories of human bodies or computer hard drives that will eventually disintegrate. Linea del Destino acts as a universal symbol of total loss, pointing to how the other artists’ reclamations of lost or suppressed atrocities will also perish. Perhaps for this reason, the works echo the forms of historical or anthropological research we’ve developed within the humanities and social sciences to handle our impermanence—without containing the excessive pinning of texts to a wall that’s common to “research-based practices.” Though Aida Šehović’s Family Album (Što Te Nema): Wall 6 and 7 (2018), a project on the 1995 Srebrenica massacre made in collaboration with the grassroots activists Women of Srebrenica, requires a written handout outlining the atrocity’s history, its form of a wallpapered photo installation of life-sized portraits is more effective than text alone at humanizing the thousands of Bosnian Muslim men who were murdered.
Ramirez Jonas’s instrumentalizing of his own work within a curatorial endeavor provides an artistic framing for what otherwise appears to be your standard, poetically political, group show. Therefore, while A VOID is small and represents only a handful of artists working with lost or destroyed histories, the show is devoid of the pressure plaguing curators to create a sweeping survey or biennial. This exhibition convinces me that artists are perhaps best positioned to answer the unanswerable question of what loss does to us, because they can employ the methodologies of any discipline in more nuanced ways. As an artwork that takes an exhibition form, Ramirez Jonas’s A VOID is also rightfully unresolved. It suggests that what’s lost cannot be fully resurrected or explained—especially not in a Chinatown gallery—and that’s okay.
MADDIE KLETT is a writer and independent curator based in San Francisco.