Feb. 09--War, terrorism and revolution are staples of the 24-hour news cycle. Between commercials, it's possible to witness humanity in all its strife and despair, and to glimpse from a distance just how chaotic and arbitrary life can be. And if things get too disturbing -- or if it's just too much geopolitical information for one day -- all you have to do is switch to another channel.
The people in the crosshairs of guns and news cameras don't have that option. Their lives go on after their stories are no longer news. But that doesn't mean their stories are no longer told.
"In the Aftermath of Trauma: Contemporary Video Installations," an exhibition on view through April 20 at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, showcases the work of five artists who straddle fact and fiction in chronicling world turmoil. Their installations venture beyond the headlines to address the questions that arise when people are forced to deal with traumatic change.
"It's not about just telling a straightforward story," said Sabine Eckmann, curator of the exhibition and director and chief curator of the museum. Rather, the approach involves "working with a community to confront a repressed history."
The artists represented cover a wide geographic range: Yael Bartana is Israeli, Phil Collins (not the pop star) is British, Amar Kanwar is Indian, Vandy Rattana (who lists his surname first) is Cambodian. And Alfredo Jaar, now based in New York, was born in Chile.
"My goal was to bring together histories which represent a global world, and find representations of different national traumatic moments," said Eckmann. "But ultimately, it was about artistic quality."
In the film "Jarhead," the character played by Jake Gyllenhaal notes that every war is different, but every war is the same. Thematically, that's true of the installations in "In the Aftermath of Trauma."
Journalist-activist Slawomir Sierakowski is the star of Bartana's "Mary Koszmary (Nightmares)" (2007), in which a Polish intellectual holds forth in a Warsaw stadium. His message: that it's time for Jews to return to Poland and resume the status they held before the Holocaust. The documentary-style verisimilitude of the piece contributes to the impression that Sierakowski is an actual person, not a fictional character, while also ironically evoking the cinematic strategies of Nazi propaganda.
Collins' "marxism today (prologue)" (2010) features interviews with three women who taught Marxism-Leninism in East Germany before its reunification with West Germany, and have adjusted to that social and cultural realignment in illuminating ways. The piece also uses film clips and other archival materials to reflect on Germany's subsequent rise on the global scene as an enthusiastic proponent of capitalism.
"Most of my projects attempt, to some extent, to engage with forms of experience across the social spectrum," Collins said in an email interview. "What I'm mostly interested in is finding subjects who could, in different ways, be considered as having been disregarded or overlooked, and 'marxism today (prologue)' could be seen as just such an encounter."
Jaar's "May 1, 2011" (2011) incorporates an official White House photograph that depicts President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and members of Obama's national security team apparently staring intently at footage of the climactic U.S. raid on Osama bin Laden's compound. Next to the photograph: a blank video screen. Jaar seems to be implying that the photograph is, in the biblical phrase, the evidence of things not seen.
Arguably, the most impressive of the installations is "The Lightning Testimonies" (2007), in which Kanwar employs eight screens to explore the ramifications of more than six decades of sexual violence on the Indian subcontinent, beginning with the partition of India into India and Pakistan in 1947. With a visual poetry at once breathtaking and unsettling, Kanwar contrasts rural settings with fictional and factual narratives of rape as a weapon of war.
The bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam War is the true subject of Vandy's "Bomb Ponds" (2009), in which three villagers share memories of a painful time in their history. The countryside remains cratered with thousands of toxic "bomb ponds" -- reminders of attacks by American planes that dropped almost 2.8 million tons of bombs on the politically neutral country. Decades later, the disbelief on the faces of the survivors is palpable.
"In the Aftermath of Trauma" might make some viewers uncomfortable. But the mission of the Kemper is not limited to soothing aesthetics, Eckmann said.
"A museum is not a place of retreat only," she said, but also "a platform for democratic thought and the exchange of ideas."
'In the Aftermath of Trauma: Contemporary Video Installations'
When --Through April 20; 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesday-Monday and 11 a.m.-8 p.m. first Friday of the month
Where --Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, Washington University, One Brookings Drive
How much --Free
More info --314-935-4523 or kemperartmuseum.wustl.edu
Alfredo Jaar will give a free lecture about his work at 6:30 p.m. Monday in Washington University'sSteinberg Auditorium. The lecture will be preceded by a reception at 6 p.m. at Kemper Art Museum.
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