If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.
Poet and essayist Kristin Prevallet talks to artists caraballo-farman about their series The Heirloom Plates, part of the exhibition Iran Inside Out at the Chelsea Art Museum through September 4th.
I first saw images from the series Regarding the Horror by caraballo-farman a year ago and was immediately intrigued by the dilemmas they were raising for me as a writer and performer interested in cultural reactions to rituals of public mourning. Regarding the Horror is an ongoing art project based on a series of photographs in which horror-stricken faces taken from war footage and news reports of disasters are isolated against sheer black backgrounds. Aside from prints, caraballo-farman have reprinted this series on numerous forms, including a billboard and heirloom plates.
Like Carolee Schneemann’s controversial rendering of the news-wire photographs of bodies falling from the Twin Towers, the images appropriated by caraballo-farman have entered public consciousness. But who owns an image once it crosses the wire? Or even before? Are images from disaster sights, spread by news wires, fair material for artists to aestheticize and recontextualize? What happens to the meaning of a local struggle (or a multi-national struggle) once the image that defines it changes its rhetorical focus? What is being gained or lost in this sort of art?
Given the nine-year collaboration of the artist duo, it makes sense that one will not speak without the other. In their photography and video installations, they document social rituals and public gatherings which reveal the effects of mass psychology and moments when an individual’s behavior becomes transformed by the power of the multitude. In collaborating, their individual identities seem likewise subsumed.
The inclusion of photographs from The Heirloom Plates series in the Iran Inside Out exhibit on display through September 5th at the Chelsea Art Museum (and opening again September 24-November 22 at the DePaul University Museum in Chicago) seemed like a good occasion to finally sit down and talk about these questions.
Kristin Prevallet Heirloom plates. On road trips, I used to marvel over them at truck stops. They are often inscribed with state flowers, or images from regional history. They are meant to be propped up on special shelves in the kitchen or china cabinet. Every now and then, they are meant to be dusted. It’s challenging to figure out what you have done to them. Heirloom plates commemorate and celebrate beautiful or patriotic scenes; they’re certainly never political. You’ve rebelliously subverted the aesthetic of the heirloom plate by transposing images of horror-stricken faces and gestures—the characteristic open mouth, hands covering the face, etc. You’ve taken these faces in their moment of witnessing something horrifying—an act of war, terrorism, violence—and you’ve aestheticized them into a keepsake. Aren’t you treading a delicate line where context is obliterated for the sake of aesthetics?
caraballo-farman Obviously we talked about and played with the inclusion or removal of the context a lot. The images in the horror series were taken from press photos on the net showing the chaos of an explosion, a shooting, a mine collapsing, etc. We removed everything and, in doing that, we emphasized the hands and faces, the open mouth. Renato Rita, an Argentine writer who wrote about these images, calls it the primordial cry…
KP Yes—such a vulnerable moment! What have you done to them?
C-F We sent the images back out through the Internet to websites that personalize or customize items and got back a set of heirloom plates, on which people usually print happy pictures of their families or pets or corporate logos. Instead of commemorating a happy milestone, we are commemorating what’s underneath. It’s an old equation: if we scratch our happy family from the image on the plate, we see we’re eating off of other people’s misery.
KP Except that no one actually eats off of heirloom plates, they just prop them up for decoration! These people are reacting to different events and political struggles around the world; yet, all possess the same characteristics and facial expressions—as if mourning were universal, as if suffering leveled us. In this series, tragedy becomes singular. War is war, terror is terror—the specifics of the event don’t matter. Doesn’t this project erase the urgency of the local struggle and appropriate images of people in a moment of intense vulnerability? People who probably didn’t even know that their picture was being taken?
C-F Each person’s suffering in those images has a particular history. The strategy of erasing such particular histories has been linked to dehumanization, colonialism… all the bad things. But we actually thought the opposite could be true. First of all, the individual history in its fullness is not capturable, especially not in a photograph; it’s only captured under various abstract concepts, socio-political interests, or narrative structures that play into other objectives. Secondly, context, rather than humanizing and particularizing, can actually parochialize and otherize. In other words, it is easy to dismiss something by saying oh, “It’s over there in Uganda,” or “They’re Palestinian, they’re not us.”
KP I am haunted by Judith Butler’s proclamation that not everyone is grievable. The only people who are grievable are the ones who are dying the moment the news cameras are on them…
C-F And with the inundation of media and news reports, the particular events only become part of a string of events, surpassed by the next newsworthy disaster—at least for those who are not directly affected.
KP In Regarding the Horror, there are many layers of reaction. There is the reaction of the people to the horror they are witnessing; and there is the reaction of the viewer, seeing the souvenir plates, and associating them with mourning. Do you expect the viewer to empathize with these people and experience their horror? Or do you expect the viewer to connect with his/her own associations with mourning or grief?
C-F We can’t pretend to induce horror or grief in viewers. In fact, one thing that comes out in the various presentations of this work is the distance between the occasion of art and the occasion of horror. These aren’t meant to be iconic images or shocking images or images of war, the kinds of images that kept Susan Sontag writing. Our strategy has been not just to make an image, but also to deliver it through different platforms. For example, instead of advertising, we put two of the faces on a gigantic billboard in LA (in collaboration with LAXART). Or, we should say in addition to advertising because it was surrounded by ads for Burger King and the movie The Hangover.
KP The LA billboard is so different from the heirloom plates because the rhetoric of a billboard is not to preserve an idyllic moment, but to distract the mind of passersby with images of advertising. Putting the faces next to a Burger King billboard definitely subverts the banality of billboards.
C-F Yes. The billboard is a funny thing. Among the billboard-crazy, text-heavy messages of the LA highway you suddenly see the large negative black space around the faces. Some people thought those figures on the billboard were acting, which we thought was a very LA reaction. In Hollywood what other kind of emotion can exist but the acted? But then what is not acted? Overall, the spontaneous, uncontrollable reactions of viewers do seem formal and dramatic, maybe because the camera makes it so. Yet, the reaction itself is kind of anti-formalist.
KP Let’s talk about the difference between mourning and horror. If horror is the unspeakable and unrhetoricized reaction to death and violence that exceeds the capacity of language or culture to make sense of it, what is mourning?
C-F We do distinguish between mourning and horror. Mourning is the social ritualization, the structuring of our relationship to death—it is automatically rhetorical and discursive in its gestures, patterns, words. It is usually a process developed over time. Horror, however, is an immediate, possibly unstructured reaction to excessive destruction. The repercussions may last, but the reaction itself is short-lived.
Talal Asad’s book On Suicide Bombing has a good discussion of horror—as a reaction to formlessness in its most basic sense, it breaks down our sense of being altogether. That influenced our thinking a lot while we were working on the horror images, which seemed to us different from than images of mourning at a funeral, say…
KP The black clothes, the flowers, the presiding prayers over the dead, the lowering of the body into the ground…
C-F The contrast between horror and mourning becomes clear in an older project of ours, Visitations, shot in the largest public cemetery in South America: the Chacarita in Buenos Aires. We set up our camera and asked visitors to pose for portraits with their flowers as they were on their way to visit their dead. The poses are very formal, rhetorical. The flowers become prominent—there is a particular relationship to the flowers that the camera and the pose brought out more. The relationship is, in a sense, to an absence, to the formless, but it has been given form through the flowers, through the ritual of visiting the structured space of the cemetery. Some of the people in these pictures have been coming to the cemetery every week or month for five, ten, twenty years.
KP The flowers stand in to represent the dead, and the visitation rituals mark the refusal to let go. I am convinced that closure is a uniquely American idea—the idea that grief can be moved through in 12 stages. You’ve got to move through anguish, anger, denial, and despair. Then get over it and move on because mourning hinders productivity.
C-F In Chacarita there is no sense that there ought to be closure. In contrast with the US, commitment requires repetition or ongoing re-enactment of this grief. The point is not to get over it but to cultivate it, not to move on but to contemplate. And the cemetery becomes a space of contemplation and discussion. The conversation with the visitors would always go on to be about larger matters rather than simply their private grief, conversations one just could not imagine in a US cemetery.
KP Right, because experiencing grief allows us to empathize with other people who are struggling, hopefully, putting our own struggle in perspective. This is where mourning and political consciousness, perhaps, intersect…
C-F Grief was an occasion to channel thoughts and anxieties about politics, about the disappeared, about the Holocaust, about war, about religion and cures and illness and healthcare. In the US, grief is privatized. In Argentina, it’s a wider morality that is implicated in grief. Though we probably wouldn’t be taking flowers anywhere for 20 years, we identify with that general moral stance that implicates us beyond our narrow circles. You put it perfectly in your book about your father, I, Afterlife: Essay in Mourning Time: “There is no moving on in a world filled with wars.”
KP Yes—holding on to grief, refusing to treat it as a disease that you need to “get over”—is a political position. To allow private grief to move into a larger political consciousness, a larger awareness of suffering on a global scale, is not something that was reiterated in any of the churches I’ve attended. Speaking of politics, since one of you is Iranian, where are you now in relation to Regarding the Horror, given the uprising and subsequent violent crack down in Iran?
C-F Well, we both live in NY now, far from what we have been watching on blog feeds. We followed it intensely, and even called Iran on occasion, but what one gets worked up about itself represents a form of inequity. On any given day, there is massive brutality going on around the world. Pick your place. But we choose—or get sucked into choosing by sheer dint of media attention, or perhaps by parochial loyalties—those events we should get all worked up about.
The fact is that because of the situation in Iran, everyone—the media, friends, etc.—started paying more attention to the show at the Chelsea Art Museum. Everyone’s been calling the museum, wanting to write about it. In part, the art was getting noticed because of some pretty bloody politics, not vice versa. The repression and violence continue now, with a little less media attention on them. The show, too, continues and the art making continues and the question remains: how does one react to all of it?
Kristin Prevallet is the author of_ I, Afterlife: Essay in Mourning Time (Essay Press, 2007). _She received a 2007 New York Foundation for the Arts fellowship in poetry and she lives in Greenpoint, Brooklyn
If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.