Reading, Writing, and Jana Leo’s Rape New York

June 24, 2009 · Print This Article

This week, Jana Leo’s Rape New York, subtitled An Open Archive, went on view at Invisible Exports in New York City. The exhibition consists of boxes of photographs, documents, transcripts and other material relating to the artists’ rape seven years ago.

The gallery’s press release describes the project as follows:

The documents assembled here, seven years in the making, accompany the release of (Leo’s) book RAPE NEW YORK. The archive consists of photographs from her emergency visit to the hospital, police reports, crime scene photographs, notes from her therapist, as well as records from the civil suit and other assorted items and documents related to the rape and the legal case that followed, none of which can be reproduced, or even reviewed without the victims’ consent. The documents are kept in organized boxes to be retrieved by the archivist, not displayed on the gallery walls. The archive is not presented to the visitor; instead, each guest must fully identify oneself (photo ID is required), and request materials from the archivist. This way, the visitor takes responsibility for what’s requested, making private again what was made public by Leo—the latest revolution in a cycle of public and private that began with the rape itself.

The outlines of Leo’s project recalls that of a number of 1970′s era feminist works dealing with traumatic exposure–Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece (link is to a video of the performance) and 1968 film Rape come foremost to mind–but the heart of Leo’s piece seems to lie within the viewer’s decision to take responsibility, in a public way, for looking at material that is private in the deepest sense of the word. Does the artist’s complicity in the exposure negate its voyeuristic qualities? Does the decision to study Leo’s rape archives signal compassion, curiosity, or cruelty on the part of individual viewers? Perhaps, a bit of all three.

Yoko Ono, Cut Piece, performance

Yoko Ono, Cut Piece, performance

Yoko Ono, Rape (still from film)

Yoko Ono, Rape (still from film)

Lately I’ve been mulling over a bunch of questions that essentially revolve around blogging and personal responsibility. Yesterday I came across mention of Leo’s show in a brief blurb on one of the art news blogs. I initially decided not to reblog the item, because there was only minimal information about the show itself. It felt sensationalistic, somehow, to just shoot the item out there once again without providing any further context. As coincidence would have it, this morning I randomly came across Caitlin Roper’s lengthy and fascinating interview with Jana Leo on Bomb’s blog, which contains a few reproductions of images and documents from the archive. Roper’s piece, I think, provides enough background context to give Leo’s project meaning even to those who can’t see the show in person.

To be honest, I feel somewhat relieved that I don’t live in New York and therefore don’t have to decide whether or not I want to visit Leo’s show and read her archives. I have an easy out, this time. But I did have to make the decision about whether and how I should write about it, particularly in the zippily superficial context of a blog post. So in that sense, I am still a participant in Leo’s project, still accountable for my decision to engage it from a distance in the manner that I have.

Here’s a last, chilling postscript. Eva Rhodes (nee Eva Majlata), the unnamed woman who was the subject of Ono’s aforementioned film Rape, was bludgeoned to death in 2007 by one of her employees, set on fire,  and buried not far from an animal sanctuary she had established in Hungary. Sukhdev Sandhu writes movingly about Rhodes’ death, and Ono’s film, here.