A study of interruptions
Natasha Marie Llorens
It may often feel as though the dominant narratives of cultural and political life are immutable, impervious to our intervention; as though individual or collective agency have been siphoned off of the public imaginary. “A study of interruptions” proposes, alternatively, that narrative profoundly shapes our experience of the world—that the image and the story represent what is, and further, that they are the only way what is comes to be visible to us.
An interruption is the moment when a story fails to create a coherent picture of what is and thus reveals its own vulnerability. The seven artists in “A study of interruptions” present stories that are riddled with such halting contradictions. They look into moments of incoherence and failure because these ruptures prove the existence of human agency disguised as accident or as schizophrenia.
This exhibition is also an attempt to draw an oblique political thread through recent artistic practices. Rosalyn Deutsche succinctly defined the term political in the introduction to one of her seminars as the negotiation that takes place between people about how to live together or about the refusal to live together. This micro-political and determinedly unheroic approach to politics remains, for me, the most hopeful, and also the least masculinist.
Hong-An Truong’s and Naeem Mohaiemen’s works lend themselves easily to a more generally accepted definition of the political in art, as their subject and the material they work with are explicitly about living and dying, about collective identities and the ways these are reinforced using violence. Chris Domenick and Mary Walling Blackburn’s works, on the other hand, resist such easy identification, because the subject is not obviously a social one. Both artists are absorbed in the way the structure of narrative produces meaning, rather than in trying to make pictures of events taking place in the world.
The reason to make a group show that includes both these approaches to the representation of the political is precisely to break down the interpretive boundary between Domenick’s re-articulation of a material’s narrative and Truong’s photographs of a historian’s archive documenting a mass murder. Their gestures toward the political are not identical, nor need they be. Rather, I suggest that if we recognize these works’ existence on a political spectrum, we take on the task of defining the political in terms less beholden to mastery, progress, and categorical division.
This group show is not simply a collection of artworks that I think are relevant and that loosely relate to each other because they engage the moment of incoherence and the failure of narrative. It is also a sketch in a much larger project toward a complex and pluralist reading of the political in aesthetics that I—alongside many artists, curators, and theorists with whom I am lucky enough to work—am always in search of.
Nicolas Bourriaud once said that when he had answers he wrote books and when he had questions he made exhibitions. With this injunction in mind, what I have written below does not attempt to prove the connections I map between the works included in this exhibition. If you are looking to the text to replace or explicate your experience of this show, you will look in vain. May it instead provoke you to look more closely, to reach for meaning I do not see, and to interrupt the authority of the curator’s narrative at every possible juncture.
Chris Domenick’s practice is about the dislocation of meaning inherent in any act of transcription. He treats the studio like a kaleidoscopic machine as he tries to make new forms without changing each material’s given identity. Stone, Styrofoam block, and diamond plate follow a logic, or some narrative of production and association. Granite was used to make gravestones on a given island. Domenick makes a rubbing of this stone and then layers that rubbing with iridescent spray paint and etchings. The result is a composite index to an impossible site, a new thing that never ceases to signify each of its individual parts. Each work is an arrangement of things out of context; each work is about the infinite possibility of material configurations.
Domenick’s work encapsulates in form the way history is written and how we experience places in time. His forms, inchoate and yet satisfyingly rigorous, are composed of stone, tarp, and sand made strange and unfamiliar through their encounter in the studio.
Hinchliffe Stadium was built at the dawn of the Great Depression in Paterson, New Jersey, a city that enjoyed the height of its prosperity as a manufacturing center for silk and silk cloth in the late 19th century. During the 1930s, the stadium hosted the New York Black Yankees and the New York Cubans of the Negro National League. It is one of only three Negro League stadiums left standing in the United States. In Kerry Downey’s video, shot in 2011, its grounds have become dilapidated, yet the stadium’s underlying structure is still a testament to the functionalist design of late 1920s public architecture in America. This simple, modernist building made with strong sightlines appears to refuse the possibility of erosion. At the same time, sheets of unmoored AstroTurf littering its field will neither die nor adequately cover over the stadium grounds’ deterioration. The architectonic narrative collides with the fact of its obsolescence.
Ashante Timoll, a New Jersey athlete and gym teacher, is wearing what appears to be a superhero costume. Accoutrements are strapped to her arms, legs, and head. As she rummages through the AstroTurf and arranges quixotic tasks for herself with orange cones, she is purposeful, cheerful, and unflappable. Timoll uses a ripped tennis ball to mouth the contours of a story made up of incoherent syllables. It doesn’t matter what the tennis ball is saying as it is just background noise to the real narrative: this athlete’s fierce determination to make something of the site’s ruined history and to interrupt its decay with the vitality of her imagination.
Leila Hekmat’s video assembles various testimonies to form a portrait. The experiences Hekmat asks her interviewees to relay on camera seem incurable because they fail to present an individual free of fragmentation and the contradictions of neurosis. Freud argued that no narrative encompasses the subject entirely and that every subject is in excess of his or her own history, or the narrative of his or her socialization. He called this excess the theory of the subconscious, a realm of desire which motivates us without our awareness. Hekmat’s portrait of a woman with irreconcilable internal contradictions is, by this logic, a universal portrait.
Naeem Mohaiemen’s work is based on the hijacking of a Japanese plane by the United Red Army in the 1970s. The soundtrack to his film is taken directly from the taped negotiation between a Bangladeshi official and the lead terrorist, which took place over several days while the plane sat on the tarmac on in Dhaka. There is the obvious sense in which hijacking interrupts the airplane’s flight path, which is filed in advance at every airport along its way. To hijack a plane is to rupture the bureaucracy of movement. But this interruption yields another and then another in the fabric of every social system it comes into contact with. Terrorism was used to interrupt the Japanese government’s narrative of legitimacy as the usual scripts for negotiation between governed and governor were suspended. Television programming on Bangladesh’s state-run channel was consumed by the story. Time was jarred off course for six days, becoming thick and without contour, like Mohaiemen’s video. Interruptions are thus revealed to be sequential.
There is also the interruption concealed by the interruption: an attempted government takeover that runs beneath the media’s absorption in the United Red Army’s demands. The coup fails, but hundreds are killed in its aftermath as retribution, each death another layer of interruption, another instance of social incoherence.
The earth cannot support capitalism at its current rate of expansion. Something will have to change, or the seas will rise to engulf our global cities and we will drown in the earth’s revolt against our unwillingness to see this fact. Mary Walling Blackburn is fascinated by our collective denial that images of progress are often irrational, that they are founded on desire and projections of consumption rather than evidence, and she is interested in the social fissures that result from this denial. Denial, on whatever scale, produces the schizophrenic subject, or the subject unable to bridge the contradictions between divergent internal narratives.
Psychoanalysis reintegrates tolerance for narrative pluralism by revealing our failed socialization to our conscious minds. Analysis allows us to bear the sight of layered and irrational interruptions and to understand them as the basis for our most cherished truths. The patient in Walling Blackburn’s work is such a subject. She is not resigned to the irrational denial that progressive narratives demand and she is unable to gloss the fissure between evidence and these narratives. Walling Blackburn sets out to psychoanalyze this subject, to mend her by revealing the trauma of denial.
Katayoun Vaziri’s protest vignettes appear in a linear sequence, heroic and defiant. A woman vehemently smokes while another’s hands rise behind her, two fingers waving for victory, or peace, or both. Figures in plain clothes run through the streets while something burns in the foreground. Police in riot gear are scattered along the horizon of many images, impersonal in their armor, batons raised. Yet the images are incomplete, the viewer thwarted, and the hand-drawn narrative must fight to emerge from behind an aggressive rectangle of crisp purple bands that moves across each square like an animation.
The Iranian Green Movement formed in response to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s reelection for a second presidential term in 2009. Despite the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s decree that the election results were valid, they provoked widespread dissent among Iranians, spearheaded by former prime minister and presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi. Mousavi declared that the election was not conducted fairly and his vocal rejection of Ahmadinejad’s regime sparked huge, violent demonstrations during which protestors wore green, an emblem of Mousavi’s campaign. Varizi’s images express frustration against simply showing violence and injustice, images that produce predictable meanings ceaselessly. Varizi seeks to interrupt this glossy narrative, perhaps even to stop meaning altogether so that something more nuanced and transformative might be able to rise in its place.
For Iris Chang, history was too heavy and the stories were too thick with pain to maintain a boundary between her mind and the survivors’ stories she spent her career building history upon, unearthing. She put a revolver in her mouth in 2004 and became a historian who no longer believed in the future: “When you believe you have a future, you think in terms of generations and years. When you do not, you live not just by the day—but by the minute.”
The Rape of Nanking (also the title of Chang’s 1997 non-fiction account of it), was the execution and rape by the Japanese of Nanjing’s general population over a six-week period following their capture of the Republic of China’s former capital in 1937–38. It is estimated that between 200,000 and 300,000 people were killed, and that looting and rape went far beyond the bounds allowed for by the conventions of military action. Because the massacre is contested by Japanese nationalists and conservative historians, Chang’s work remains both controversial and groundbreaking in that it is based on eyewitness accounts: history by way of the subject.
Hong-An Truong has mined Chang’s research files, not in order to present the event, but to present the operation by which events fall from the surface of historical appearance only to resurface as authored narratives; narratives that drown those who tell them, yet persist to haunt us with echoes of their violence.
 Walling Blackburn writes to the author: "There is only one point of departure. No one is mended. It is a faulty event. This psychoanalytic event failed to suture. Another?". I agree, and I stand corrected.
Natasha Marie Llorens is an independent curator based in New York who focuses on practices that engage the political nature of representation. Recent projects include “In Defense” for Entrée, in Bergen, Norway, and “Troubling Space” at the Zabludowicz Collection, in London. She is a graduate of the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College and a Ph.D. candidate in art history at Columbia University, in New York.
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