In the wake of violence, what is the function of images that look back on the traumatic past and question its future? “Image in the Aftermath” at the Beirut Art Center (BAC) presented photography, video, text and installation works by seven international artists, as well as two documentary archives, which together explored the production, utilization and dissemination of images that emerge in the wake of conflict.
The idea of absence occupies a palpable space in the exhibited artwork. Absolute truth, certainty and meaning are all lacking in media images, especially those pertaining to violence, as in French photographer Sophie Ristelhueber’s doctored pictures of conflict sites, filmmaker Jalal Toufic’s video and text installation on visual illusions and tricks in mediated representations, political or cultural, and German media-theorist Boris Groys’ video installation on the problems of information transmission and meaning construction through the pairing of disparate images and words. Images also prove irretrievably scathed following traumatic events in New York-based Lebanese artist Walid Raad’s exploration of the impact of disaster on culture.
The production of images as an act of resistance against the vacuum of representation imposed by occupation, exile and censorship is explored in the works of two collectives, the Nakba Archive and Sahara Occidentale, Con Poche Immagini (“Western Sahara, Few Images”), while Cairo-based Hassan Khan and Japanese artists Masao Okabe and Chihiro Minato question the impossibility of representing trauma through imagery, with new means of production sought to trump the expressive limitations of visual images.
Among the works most evocative of the complexities inherent in representing violence and its impact is “The Dark Face of Light” (2002/2011) by Okabe and Minato. The work grapples with the representation of both history and the continuing passage of time in Hiroshima, a site that was first an emblem, then a victim, of military expansion and imperialism. The Ujina Railway Station, created in 1894 to service the needs of the Japanese army, survived the United States’ nuclear bombing of Hiroshima in 1945. Rather than sensationally render the site a memorial to the war by investigating lingering psychological scars, Okabe and Minato create a frottage of the station’s platform, tracing the crevices, cracks, scratches and eroded surfaces that bear the history of the stone structure from the time of its construction to its demolition in 2001.
What results is a painstakingly laborious and intimately detailed textural study, carried out over the course of nine years, which attests in physical terms to the complexity of the site’s multiple legacies, the convoluted nature of history and historical narratives, and the inevitable ingraining of the past and its traumas in the memory of the future. Shown at the Venice Biennale in 2007, the frottage works take on another significance in 2011 following the recent nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant.
While Okabe and Minato’s work evokes the psychological dimensions of trauma through the study of its physical traces, Hassan Khan’s Mystery (2011) creates an almost tangible form for psychological disturbance. The work, a 14-page text printed on the blank pages of pulp novels from the 1980s, powerfully conveys images of frustration, anger and resignation through the vivid tales it articulates of endured class-related workplace humiliation, itself a form of violence.
Through the images absent and present, “Image in the Aftermath” resolutely made issues of representation, specifically of conflict, controversy and trauma, visible. The artworks and archives displayed as a whole produced a strong statement on art in general—inherently unauthoritative, accessible and open to interpretation—as an ideal forum for bearing witness, documenting or presenting history, inciting memory and undertaking activism while questioning the motivations, limitations and biases of these actions and suggesting alternative approaches. Artistic practice and presentation were shown as tools with which to respond to a given situation, capture how we are left affected by it, and intervene and potentially instigate change.