Artists often try to provoke shock from an audience by showing graphic sexual images, depictions of violence, or disturbing juxtapositions of images. However, most of the time the images cause little comment and no outrage. Daydream as one might about the scandal that accompanied Stravinsky's Le Sacre de Printemps and Nijinsky's dance to the piece, it is hard to imagine any aspect of artistic style causing violent reactions today. When outrage occurs, it most frequently comes from the treatment of a beloved figure, like the painting of Mayor Harold Washington of Chicago wearing lingerie or Jesus Christ submerged in urine.
If there is a quest for getting the reaction, and the media attention, that truly controversial art brings, Watkins students Elvan Penny and Scott Phelps appear to have found what Saddam Hussein might call the mother of all hot-button issues: their now-notorious video installation Fearful Symmetry, which uses footage taken from the Internet of American engineer Eugene Armstrong being beheaded by terrorists in Iraq. They submitted this work for the school's annual juried student show, where a group of Nashville's leading younger curators and artists gave it the first-place award.
This prompted newspaper articles, great soul-searching by Watkins and the artists, and angry responses from Armstrong's familyall leading to a decision by Watkins to not display the work. Understandably, since they went to the trouble to make the piece, Penny and Phelps wanted a chance to show it, and the work will now appear in the upcoming Untitled show this Friday night at the Plowhaus gallery in East Nashville. That announcement has prompted new newspaper articles, but it does show the Untitled group living up to their motto of "Uncensored art for unlimited audiences."
Leaving aside, temporarily, the noise surrounding this work, it does pose important aesthetic problems. It deserves to be addressed first as a work of art.
The piece, not surprisingly, is hard to watch. I saw it just once, where normally I would view a short video several times before attempting to comment. It starts with a black screen and bits of noise on the soundtrack from commercials. Briefly glimpsed images appear, mixing pictures of hostages hooded and surrounded by their captors with other shots from the conflict in Iraq. The blackouts decrease in frequency and length, and the video images begin to include longer sections of various Web-cast videos of kidnappers and their hostages, sometimes reading a statement or with Arabic script crossing the screen. The images are jumbled and in some cases out of focus, making it hard to be sure what you are seeing.
The soundtrack mixes ads and promotions from TV or radio with sound from the hostage videos. As it moves past the halfway point of its roughly four-minute length, the visuals settle in on the footage of Armstrong. The commercial audio fades away, leaving you with the soundtrack of the Armstrong video. The beheading occurs in real time, apparently unaltered, with the only audio being the sounds of the ghoulish act. I don't remember how the piece ends. It may cut to black. There might be something on the soundtrack. I couldn't tell you.
The video is effectively structured to walk you slowly up to something you might think you could never sit through, easing you towards greater clarity of perception. Still, the acclimation to violence that occurs in the first half did not prepare me for the impact of the video itself. I thought about the depravity of the act, and the extreme terror and pain of the victim, and the distance the killers had traveled from the qualities of humanity I cherish. Seeing this makes the world bleaker.
The original intention was to integrate this video into an installation format. (I don't know how much of this will be incorporated into the Untitled exhibit.) The video would be shown in a room closed off with black drapes. Viewers would enter the viewing area singly and read instructions telling them to sit in a chair set close to the monitor and start the tape on a remote control when ready. All the while, a camera inside the room would record the viewer's face lit by the video, and feed this image into a video monitor in the main room of the galleryso that patrons could watch the reactions of people as they watch the video, without knowing what they were watching. Again, I don't know if the Untitled installation will have this surveillance aspect.
The first question is: should the video be seen or suppressed? To some extent, that is a moot point, since the footage is readily available on the Net (one of the work's underlying points). But to suppress the videoeven if well intended, out of respect to the dead or to the familywould be wrong. By that logic, we should never show pictures of dead bodies. Access to pictures of genocide in Rwanda is important to our understanding of the gravity of the events there. My high-school class on the Holocaust included graphic photos of the victims, leaving a deep impression that has guided my understanding of history and ethics. How, then, are these decapitations different as terrible events that we must acknowledge and comprehend in all their horror?
A reason for the visceral reaction to and against this work may be that we are used to seeing still photos of death, going back at least to Civil War battlefield photographs, but video crosses a line of representation that takes away another level of protective distancing. However, I imagine the same shock occurred when photography was used to document horrific events in the 19th century.
Another ground for criticism might be that Penny and Phelps use this material in a sensational way that relieves them of having to do any work as artists. They download the video and have an instant art work. That does not reflect the actual content of Fearful Symmetry. The two artists skillfully assemble the material and create well controlled pacing that moves from obscurity to clarity, even if what you see at that point is terrible. You regret the passage into clarity, an unusual reaction to an artwork.
Penny and Phelps also do more than appropriate the images: they make an argument by combining the beheading with the audio traces of commercials. In fact, I think the work's most substantive weakness is a lack of clear-headedness in the connections it makes. The soundtrack tends to create an equivalence between consumer society and this savage act. I think the artists would disagree, but they also want to make the point that there is a sickness in our culture that encourages us to distract ourselves with trivial matters of consumption while remaining ignorant or unconcerned about the dire things happening around the world. However, the act of placing these ads on the soundtrack with the hostage messages and the beheading tends to put them on the same perceptual plane. Structurally, the work posits both components as damaged (clearly one interpretation of the symmetry in the title) and implies that our culture of consumption somehow breeds the evil of the beheadings. As much as I will decry the psychic and physical damage of consumer culture, I cannot attribute this sort of act to it. For one thing, that causal attribution involves a high degree of cultural narcissism; it does not account for whatever roots the murderers drew from.
Gruesome acts abound on screen, but seldom do they have this impact. That is due to the limits of suspension of disbelief. As much as we may surrender to a movie, we still know it is not real. This video involves no suspension of disbelief (discounting the inevitable conspiracy theories), so it hits us, direct and raw. However, just because what we see we understand to be real and not fabricated, we are left with the problem of interpretation. As Malcolm Gladwell pointed out in a recent New Yorker article, video and photographs provide an illusion of understanding, but very often we do not know what we are seeing. Certainly, the physical act involved here seems straightforward, but much else is unknown. Who are the killers? What is their motivation? The lack of cultural context leads to interpretations we may not even recognize we are making. Without saying so, do we see this video as evidence of sickness in another culture, symmetrical to our own? If so, what culture? Islam? Iraq? Particular elements within either? And if that's the case, how does my limited understanding of these elements permit me ethically to interpret this document as a reflection of some cultural origin?
Another question is whether the piece crosses an ethical line by getting us to look at something when we should turn our gaze. The piece certainly plays with that line. Phelps and Penny's compositional skill allows you to acclimate to the images before you have to sit through the unmistakable record of the beheading. They mean to ethically compromise the viewerand to suggest our hidden complicity in these acts by virtue of our nation's and culture's actions. It's hard to argue that the U.S. government and U.S. society have not had destructive effects around the world, but the connections made by this work come close to another problematic equivalency. Perhaps the artists feel this goes without saying, but: however lazy the viewer may be in his comfort, and in his apathy to the misery of people in other places, he still did not calculate and execute the murder of a human being. I reject any equivalency between even the most overprivileged viewer of this piece (or reader of this article) and those who behead hostages. The men who pull the knives out from their robes on camera bear specific responsibility: they are not animals responding instinctively to the forces of another culture. Penny and Phelps's work does nothing to clarify what distinguishes the outrage committed to Eugene Armstrong from the glib sins and errors of mass media.
In the end, the source material here is extremely powerful, almost beyond description. So powerful, in fact, that it overshadows the qualities Penny and Phelps bring as artistsand yet I think they do demonstrate skill in this work. I see them like Phaeton: talking his father, the Sun, Phoebus Apollo, into letting him take the chariot out for a ride, only to find that he cannot control the vehicle's horses. The chariot careens out of control across the sky, dragged wildly by the horses and destroying Phaeton. While I don't think that this work destroys Penny and Phelpsquite the oppositethere is a quality of the material taking its own lead and dragging them along behind it.
POSTSCRIPT: For any art work, at the end of the day the critic's voice remains one person's view and does not pre-empt the value of other views. That is never more true than with this sort of piece. The Scene invites readers to send us their reactions to the work by