“To kill, like to die, is to seek an escape from being, to go where freedom and negation operate. Horror is the event of being which returns in the heart of this negation, as though nothing had happened.”–Emmanuel Levinas
Contemporary art is replete with allusions to death. This contemporary fascination with death nevertheless has little to do with the sublime aspect thereof with which the death of the tragic hero was coated in classical drama, sculpture and painting; here one could recall the statue of the Laocoön and His Sons, attributed by Pliny the Elder to three sculptors from the island of Rhodes. Based on a lost play of Sophocles, the sculpture presents the Trojan priest Laocoön and his offspring as they are being devoured by sea serpents sent by Poseidon, after the priest attempted to expose the ruse of the Trojan Horse. In the 18th century, the German critic Lessing was profoundly impressed by the paradox embodied in the work, in which beauty, death and failure blend into a single piece. According to Lessing, the artist could not realistically translate the physical suffering of the victims, as this would be too painful. Rather, he had to express suffering while retaining beauty.
Expressions of suffering in art were never considered contradictory as it is said – this time by Schopenhauer – that tragedy is a tonic. The Crucifixion as a tradition of representation in Western art is but one example of the duplicitously affirmative value of tragic art. The philosopher Sarah Kofman asserts that while on the one hand, “Rigorously speaking, an art that is harmful to life, that negates life, destroys itself as art and can only abusively be called art”, it is also true that “Tragic art is fundamentally affirmative: it leads neither to pessimism nor to optimism but to a “virile skepticism”: it teaches us to love life the way one loves an unfaithful woman, whose beauty is still acknowledged despite her duplicity.” Tragedy in fact was considered a supreme aesthetic category in that – now more or less defunct – tradition of thinking about art that ran between Plato and Hegel. But the situation of contemporary art is rather different, where death is dislocated from the traditional hierarchy of correlations between things, meanings and representations.
Lessing comes in handy here when he writes in his essay about the Laocoön that nothing is easier to represent than extremes. While it is all too tempting for contemporary artists to shatter the aesthetic mediation of dealing with death that was once afforded by classical aesthetics, it is also true that the proliferation of photography and video as documentary forms – whether art or not – has made it imperative for art to perform yet one another transgression. It is not because death is no longer a subject of inquiry and contemplation but because the essential qualities associated with death have been eroded in the course of the violent history of modernity, in particular the quality of its individuality. Thus, death is not necessarily the personal experience of leaving life and entering an unknown realm. Sublime or not, the technological possibilities afforded by the modern era, brought us into direct confrontation with deathless death: A death that is not personal or individual. Genocides, massacres, exterminations, wars and more wars. An impossible death.
Contemporary artists that have confronted the question of death have resorted to symbolic transitions whose common denominator is asking the question, “Was this his/her/mine own death?” or was it simply a bureaucratic operation, a political calculation, a biological task performed without the essential meaning or lack thereof which is associated with dying? The shift of the 20th century in which the distinction between art objects and crass objects perfunctorily evaporated – not without adding complex layers of subversion – allowed artists to explore death through objects, traces and self-referential symbolic orders. Artists like Colombian sculptor Doris Salcedo with her re-humanizing of furniture left behind by victims of violence in her country’s long civil war, Palestinian artist Mona Hatoum mapping the Oslo Accords on Jericho soap, factories of which had been destroyed by the Israeli army or Iraqi artist Adel Abidin installation paying homage to the emo teenagers stoned to death in Baghdad in March, 2012.
“Of what one cannot speak”. That is the main question begot by these works. To talk about death unmediated and without the access to certain symbolic orders, is that not a way to de-humanize the victims and take away their dignity as much as the autonomy and dignity of the work of art itself? A conversation between Hannah Arendt and Eric Voegelin about the horrors of the concentration camps in the 1950’s revealed the perils of such a journey: The fact of simply recounting the cold facts of the concentration camps is making them speakable, and insofar as they’re speakable, they are also understandable and therefore, condonable: A semantic distance ought to be established. The two-part installation of Abidin, “Symphony”, produced in Amman and part of the group exhibition “The Move”, presented at ARTER Istanbul in October, 2012, is characterized by a subtle gesture that makes a tragic event incomprehensibly poetic and therefore unforgettable in memorializing spatially, but yet clean from references: The work is an extension also of a clean white, so clean that it almost blinding and ineffable to the eye.
A group of teenagers were kidnapped, tortured and murdered in Baghdad in March, 2012, because of their emo dress style that has been associated with Satanism and homosexuality. After the Iraqi Morality Police issued a statement, criticizing the emo lifestyle, and threatened to eliminate those associated with the phenomenon, the dead bodies were found in dumpsters after being beaten to death with cement blocks. In an interview with Basak Senova, curator of “The Move”, the artist spoke about how he started researching the event: “I was traumatized once I started reading further about the issue and watching interviews with some officials who were against the killings. What further shocked me was that the same officials were at the same time stating that ‘emos’ are bad for Iraqi society, as their ideology is imported from the west. This made me laugh, given their clearly westernized attire. Some clerics even suggested that ‘emos’ should be sent to court and put in jail.” As it is often the case with victims of violence in the Middle East, the perpetrators are on the run and an investigation is said to be open, which will never materialize.
The work is composed of a sculpture-based installation with ninety small doors built-in on the wall giving the effect of entering a morgue – white is often a metaphor for being de-sensitized to horror – some of which opened in the direction of the viewer and contained small white gypsum-statues of the young men, resembling the texture of stone and in their pristine whiteness, bereft of any of the commonplace references associated with the narrative of death: There are no IDs, no traces, no names, no photographs, no signs of mourning, no traces of life. The second part of the work is a video-installation with the same statues of the installation standing in lieu of their bodies. The mouths of the heavy-looking statues are threaded to the legs of white doves in a moving stand-still frame, pulling in two different directions: As the doves attempt to escape and flee into higher realms, the weight of the stone reminds the viewer of deathless deaths, and the frapping sounds of the doves attempting to escape, though somewhat soothing, recreate an inescapable confrontation with an unmastered past that is yet not passing; it is made of stone.
In the interview with Senova, the artist speaks about his choice of material: “These young people were not hanged or shot. They were stoned to death, their skulls actually smashed. I wanted to express this dimension in the work and therefore chose to make the sculptures from cheap gypsum, as it has the color and feel of stones.” In the making of the video-installation he speaks about the vision of 17th century philosopher Ibn Sina that he adopted: “Ibn Sina made an analogy between the soul and a dove in one of his poems. He believed that the spirit is ancient and eternal and it landed from the highest truth onto humans by force. This idea always attracted me. I always wondered: When the body is gone, what happens to the soul? Does it stay near the dead body; does it wait for something to happen? Does it vanish with it? Or, does it return to where it came from? In this imagined massacre, the doves are connected to the dead bodies with thin threads so that they cannot fly away. Yet this experience is accompanied by a symphony, performed by the desperate fluttering wings of the doves.”
It is not the first time that Abidin – an Iraqi exile in Finland – touches in his work on the cruel socio-political realities of Iraq and elsewhere, although his work, marked by this enslavement to history, typical of many conceptual artists from the Middle East, is aesthetically clean, ambiguous, melancholy and not politicized. His 2006 installation “Abidin Travels” promotes exotic adventures to Baghdad as an ironic form of thanato-tourism and invitation for a journey in a war zone, fraught with indescribable dangers. Two monitors featured montage of (violent) real life in Baghdad narrated by an American woman and an animated commercial advertising a special offer to win a holiday in Baghdad. It is complemented by brochures, ticket reservations and a website.
Why or how is this installation-project a symphony? He expressed his personal reaction to this tragedy interwoven in distinct aesthetic elements, creating a poetic scenario that reinforces the nature of the atrocity – it leaves it in the hands of the viewer as an open field from which it is impossible to withdraw one’s gaze. To listen to this transparent and colorless symphony is to recognize that what is paralyzing about death is not the occurrence of the event, but rather, the metamorphosis of death into a cyclical, nameless and predictable discontinuity of the flow between life and death that we receive as a gift at birth. It is this discontinuity what we have to bear witness to, or in the words of Mascha Kaleko, from her poem “Memento”: “Going away does not hurt half as staying does.”
Follow Arie on Twitter @Dilmunite
Iraq, Middle East, Violence