Guest post by Lise Haller Baggesen.
The Doris Salcedo show, recently on view at the MCA, was a hard one to watch. Not because it was a bad show; numerous reviews pointed out it is an extremely well curated, beautifully executed, and timely show of the monumental oeuvre of a major Latin American artist.
Major female Latin American artist.
The latter only added to the shows importance, in case you were wondering. But none of all this is what made the show hard to watch. Salcedo’s visual language is worldly, and spoken by an international elite of sculptors such as Rachel Whiteread, Jannis Kounellis, Boltanski, Anselm Kiefer and Joseph Beuys; a universally understood shorthand, whereby dark wood furniture and cast concrete reads like a history of human suffering. That language we speak, and read, and understand, as an important part of the so-called “post-colonial” discourse. (So called, because who are we kidding?)
What made Salcedo’s show so confronting was the silence in between. A silence that is uncomfortable, not as in awkward, not at all, but as in loaded. Like sitting next to your child’s sick bed, or worse yet, waiting for a child that does not return home; you understand that this is not about you, there is nothing you can do, and you would rather be anywhere else than right here, right now –yet right here is the only place to be, the only place you can be, right now. It is torturous.
Salcedo is no stranger to the idea of torture –her diligently researched body of work deals largely with its after effects—but neither are we: The principle of torture is inflicting pain, while willfully withholding relief. The deaths of innocent, unarmed men, at the hand of armed police officers, is pain inflicted not only on the victims and their families, on society as a whole. The refusal of relief, in the form of justice, as administered by a supreme court who refuses to indict the responsible parties, is torture.
Into this torturous silence, Kirsten Leenaars inserted three performances, each of an hour’s duration. Clad in a uniform black, her motley crew of mourners, performed the ceremonial task of animating the negative spaces in and between Salcedo’s work by supporting, comforting, hugging, healing, touching each other –and their audience by extension—while breaking the silence with chants and short monologues. The whole exhibition space carried the sound of what by association would be a funeral drum, was it not that Dan Bitney’s synchopated beat was teeming with life. In the invitation to the third performance, Leenaars explained:
“The idea of the witness is explored in relationship to recent events in America – the death of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray. The performance questions specifically, what does it mean to be a witness today? And how do you realize that you are not the origin of your own empathy but it is the other who triggers you to imagine yourself in the place of the other. And how can this be a position of hope?”
I will spare you Susan Sontag’s “Regarding the Pain of Others,” and her insistence that we derive an almost pornographic pleasure from bearing witness, from a safe distance, to other people’s suffering. Although she (obviously) has a point, her thesis begins and ends with the premise that we are capable of empathetically feeling other people’s pain, but does not attempt to illuminate the origin of this capacity.
In a recent issue of New Scientist, however, Barbara Finlay offers some insight into the evolutionary mechanics of pain. In her article “The Unique Pain of Being Human,” she argues that since certain types of pain, such as labor pain, seem to be a specifically human trait, some biological and sociological benefits must be derived from it:
“The basic function in pain is the same for all vertebrates: it alerts an animal to potential damage and reduces activity after trauma. It is often argued that pain must be different in humans because of our ability to anticipate it or imagine its effect on us. But independent of whether cognition and culture can modify pain, I am suggesting a more basic difference in humans compared with animals: that some varieties, such as labor pain, appear only in humans, and others such as post-trauma pain are magnified.
These forms of pain appear in tandem with the ability to recruit help, to elicit an altruistic response in others.”
So pain is social glue. In this double bind we not only the cause of each other’s pain (literally) but also its remedy. Hell is the other, but so is help.
By mourning our dead together, by protesting the injustice suffered, and by ending the silence laid upon us, we not only overcome, we become. Human. Social beings.
Social beings remember each other, even when separated –for a time, or forever. Part of the performers’ script consists of testimonies to the memories the victims. Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray. Not only their names: what they looked like, what they wore, or how they walked, talked, moved in this world.
Performance art will not bring them back (and neither will sculpture) nor is it a match to the police state –but art can be a powerful reminder that powers operate within our society, other than the powers that be. It can be a wake-up-call to walk away, from oppression and silencing, if not from pain. But first we need to stand up and feel again.
With their closing lines, Kirsten Leenaars performers command us to do just that:
“Stand up. If you’ve ever known love: stand up! Stand up, if you want to love again. Stand up for lives and loves lost.”
Disclaimer: Those of you who know me well, knows that I know Kirsten Leenaars very well, and that I am writing this review, not from the objective position of an art critic, but from that of a very subjective friend.
Leenaars will present an iteration of “Notes on Empty Chairs” at Gallery 400 on Tuesday, July 21 at 6:00pm–
“The Imaginary Center of Perception”
A collaborative performance by Kirsten Leenaars
Albeit highly mediated in TV and the Internet, artist Kirsten Leenaars responds to the witnessing of the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, to name a few. Leenaars’ performance responds to the anger, the pain, the injustice, a flawed system and the senseless loss of lives.
Performers: Marvin Tate, Matthew Robinson, Regin Iglora, Kim Chayeb, Monica Brown, Wa Chontong, Toni Zhao, Opel Smittinet, Valentina Vella, Alison Auwerda, Udita Upadhyaya, Kekeli Kodzo Sumah. Drummer: Dan Bitney.
Lise Haller Baggesen left her native Denmark in 1992 to study painting in the Netherlands. In 2008 she relocated to Chicago with her family. In the meantime, her work evolved from a traditional painting practice toward a hybrid practice including curating, writing and immersive multimedia installation work. Her first book “Mothernism” was published by Poor Farm Press and Green Lantern Press in 2014.