Continued from here, here, here and here on Gerhard Richter, Uncle Rudi and a quiet confrontation. These posts are informed by Gerhard Richter Portraits from the Yale University Press and Art of Two Germanys: Cold War Culture from Abrams.
Gerhard Richter painted Uncle Rudi in 1965, 20 years after the Russians took Berlin. For a variety of reasons, including the sheer magnitude of Germany’s shame, it took German artists about that long to begin to examine their nation and its responsibility for the Nazi years.
The crimes of the Bush-Cheney torture regime are not as horrific, and while the United States is still coming to grips with them — some on the right such as Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) even argue that ‘it’s in the past, so who cares?’ — artists have already begun to address questions of national responsibility for torture committed in America’s name.
Yesterday I detailed how Richter’s dry, confrontational-whisper approach to Germany’s past in Uncle Rudi (and, in a different way, in Aunt Marianne) created a new, influential, just-the-facts-ma’am way for artists to address controversial topics, particularly when an artist spotlights a nation’s shared responsibility for terrible acts. Today I want to talk about how several artists have adopted Richter’s deadpan in addressing Bush-Cheney-era torture.
Take Israeli artist Jan Tichy, whose 1391 (2007, at right) was exhibited last year at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. (At the top of this post is a 2007 Tichy video installation also titled 1391.) 1391 is a paper architectural model of Camp 1391, a once-secret Israeli military base, a Bagram-like secret installation used by the Israelis in a manner similar to how the United States used its black sites. According to journalist Jane Meyer, the United States’ torture regime was informed by Israeli practices, including those likely used at Camp 1391. In her book The Dark Side, Mayer reports that a former CIA officer told her: “The Israelis taught us that you can put a towel around a guy’s neck and use it like a collar, to propel him headfirst into a wall.”
Camp 1391’s existence was revealed in 2003, five months before America’s abuses at Abu Ghraib became public. Three years later Tichy created an artwork that imagines the physical structure of the Camp 1391 as simply as possible — what’s simpler than white paper on the floor? — puts it in a dark gallery and blasts it with intense white light. Tichy’s approach both emphasizes that a secret site used for state-sanctioned illegal detention and, probably, torture has been revealed, but the darkness in the rest of the gallery emphasizes how the place was once hidden from the world. It is confrontational revelation as artwork, an installation every bit as dry and matter-of-fact as Richter’s Uncle Rudi.
The best-known American art about the torture era are Richard Serra’s three 2004 works featuring Serra’s take on the most iconic of the Abu Ghraib photographs. The work at right, as well as this piece, are prints produced by Gemini G.E.L. Serra exhibited a lithocrayon-on-mylar version (below) at the 2006 Whitney Biennial. All three feature a straightforward sketch of the central figure in the horrible photograph from Abu Ghraib, an approach right out of the Richter playbook. (Like Uncle Rudi, the Tichy and all three Serras are black-and-white, as if the lack of color serves to reveal truth.)
However, for the Whitney Biennial version, Richter included an extra element: The hooded torturee was surrounded by the phrase “STOP BUSH.” Serra exhibited his Uncle Rudi-influenced Stop Bush just after he had borrowed from another artist, Goya, for an artwork that was reproduced on the back cover of The Nation. That Serra was a cheap, one-off Photoshop trick, so reactionary as to be cringe-worthy.
No surprise then that when I saw Stop Bush at the Whitney I thought of it in the context of Serra’s Goya-plus-Bush. Stop Bush seemed like a similar grimace-causing one-note. I thought it was too pointed, too specific, too immediate and time-sensitive to be the kind of art work that lasts. I was pretty sure that once the biennial was over that I’d never think about the piece again. (I wasn’t alone in shrugging at Stop Bush: In Michael Kimmelman’s review of the show, he mentions the Serra only enough to note that conservatives would dismiss it.)
In the three years since the Serra was installed at the Whitney, we’ve learned more about the Bush-Cheney torture regime. Stop Bush has come to seem less an exhortation and more of a plea. Given the art work that has come since — work referenced here and plenty more — Stop Bush seems like something else: Permission from a venerable, successful figure to y
ounger, less institutionally-sanctioned artists. More and more it seems like Serra’s way of saying to other artists: Go confidently where your heart tells you that you must go. Uncle Rudi may have provided us with one way for an artist to address a calamity of his own nation’s doing… but you know what? It’s good to learn from the past, but you don’t need to be too careful. Look at how I signed Stop Bush in the lower-right — it’s mine and I’m proud to take responsibility for it. Go ahead and bring passion and urgency into your work. Be explicit again.
Related: Kathryn Hixson interviews Jan Tichy.
Related examination of art and torture on MAN: George Grosz at the Hirshhorn; the Abu Ghraib photos part one, part two; the Hirshhorn acquires Martha Rosler’s ‘The Gray Drape;’ Bruce Nauman at the Venice Biennale: Double Steel Cage Piece (1974) and America’s torture of Abu Zubaydeh, Nauman’s hanging chair sculptures, part one, part two.