It is perhaps the most iconic photograph in contemporary American politics. Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and other top officials sit pensively in the White House Situation Room, watching a live feed of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
But what, exactly, are they seeing? In the video installation “May 1, 2011” (2011), Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar, who lives and works in New York, explores the power of images, and their absence, in the post-9/11 campaign against al-Qaida.
The piece consists of two large screens, as well as a pair of smaller drawings placed to resemble gallery labels or wall texts. On one screen, Jaar presents the appropriated White House photograph, which was broadcast worldwide shortly after the raid. The other screen is left blank, perhaps symbolizing the moment of death, or the public’s inability to witness the action directly, or the white noise of electronic snow. The effect is to create a new sort of history painting, one that depicts momentous events but also interrogates the documentary value of contemporary media.
In January, the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum will present “May 1, 2011” as part of “In the Aftermath of Trauma: Contemporary Video Installations.” Exploring both the experience and lingering effects of tumultuous events, the exhibition showcases the work of five video artists from around the world: Yael Bartana, Phil Collins, Amar Kanwar and Vandy Rattana, along with Jaar.
Employing a semidocumentary format, these artists combine fictional and historical elements to engage with traumatic events ranging from the Holocaust and the Vietnam War to German reunification, the post-9/11 war on terror and the ongoing conflicts between India and Pakistan. Confounding expectations about truth and reality, fact and artifice, history and memory, they investigate the nature of trauma but also seek distance from it, questioning and challenging conventional notions of representation and closure.
Recovering (from) the past
Between 1964 and 1975, the U.S. Air Force dropped 2.7 million tons of explosives across Cambodia — a fact concealed from the U.S. public for decades. Today, the Cambodian landscape remains dotted with large, circular, still-toxic depressions that fill with rain each monsoon season.
Cambodian artist Vandy Rattana was born in 1980, shortly after the fall of the Khmer Rouge. Growing up, schoolbooks omitted his nation’s recent violence. Yet the craters endured — a physical embodiment of secret history. For “Bomb Ponds” (2009), a one-channel video installation, Vandy traveled to the Cambodian countryside, interviewing survivors and quietly documenting sites of destruction. Poised between photojournalism and contemporary arts practice, the piece captures the stubborn endurance of memory and the gap between official accounting and personal loss.
Themes of repressed history also inform Amar Kanwar’s “The Lightning Testimonies” (2007), which confronts sexual violence on the Indian subcontinent — and the silence that frequently surrounds it. Kanwar, who is based in New Delhi, revisits the chaos unleashed by the Partition, in 1947, as well as its enduring cultural, political and societal effects. Encircling the viewer with interviews, archival materials, symbolic images, everyday objects and scenes of natural beauty, this eight-channel video installation investigates how violence is resisted, remembered and recorded by individuals and communities. The result is a powerful testament to both human resilience and our inability to ever fully recover the past.
In “marxism today (prologue)” (2010), British artist Phil Collins explores cultural forgetting of a different sort. In the years following German reunification, few lost more than East German teachers of Marxism-Leninism. Bereft of position and philosophy, marginalized by history and circumstance, these men and women were forced to begin life again, assimilating to the capitalist West with varying degrees of success. Combining interviews and archival footage — from sporting events, state television and teacher-training films — Collins depicts the human toll and melancholy afterlife of a vanished ideology.
Past and present, fact and fiction, trauma and memory, perpetrator and victim: all collide in “Mary Koszmary (Nightmares)” (2007) by Israeli artist Yael Bartana. Deploying the visual style of early 20th-century propaganda films, particularly Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will” (1935), Bartana introduces viewers to The Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland, a possibly fictitious campaign advocating the return of 3.3 million Polish Jews — the approximate number murdered during the Holocaust. Set against an ominous sky in Warsaw’s dilapidated Decennial Stadium, “Mary Koszmary” is a provocative act of political imagination, blurring the line between the real and the performative.
“In the Aftermath of Trauma: Contemporary Video Installations” is curated by Sabine Eckmann, PhD, William T. Kemper Director and Chief Curator of the Kemper Art Museum. The exhibition will be on view Jan. 31 to April 20, 2014, in the museum’s Ebsworth Gallery.
A fully illustrated catalog accompanies the exhibition. Featuring an essay by Eckmann with contributions by Rakhee Balaram, Svea Bräunert and Ila N. Sheren, the publication provides an examination of the contemporary aesthetics of the semidocumentary video and an in-depth consideration of each artist’s work within the context of their artistic practices overall. Published by the Kemper Art Museum, the volume will be available through the University of Chicago Press and on site at the Kemper Art Museum shop.
Support for “In the Aftermath of Trauma: Contemporary Video Installations” is provided by James M. Kemper Jr.; the David Woods Kemper Memorial Foundation; the William T. Kemper Foundation; Anabeth and John Weil; Elissa and Paul Cahn; Nancy and Ken Kranzberg; the Missouri Arts Council, a state agency; the Hortense Lewin Art Fund; and members of the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum.
Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum
The Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, part of Washington University in St. Louis’ Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts, is committed to furthering critical thinking and visual literacy through a vital program of exhibitions, publications and accompanying events. The museum dates back to 1881, making it the oldest art museum west of the Mississippi River. Today it boasts one of the finest university collections in the United States.
The Kemper Art Museum is located on WUSTL’s Danforth Campus, near the intersection of Skinker and Forsyth boulevards. Regular hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily; 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. first Friday of the month. The museum is closed Tuesdays.