Human Rights Make a Wrong

Silenced Voices stands tall against tyranny, but lacks artistic legs.

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As an exhibit dedicated to righting wrongs in the world, SPACES' new show Silenced Voices: An Affirmation of Human Rights has everything going for it. It offers the work of fourteen artists who deal with social and political injustices in their work. Furthermore, it commemorates the fiftieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and it coincides with the tenth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. However, despite the exhibit's serious moral tone and its implied support of political activism as an instrument for affecting social change, Silenced Voices often fails to convince as art, which is an altogether different issue.

Take, for instance, the work of St. Paul, Minnesota artist Howard Oransky. In order to evoke "voices which have been silenced forever" (the victims of the Holocaust), the artist combines silk-screened images of concentration camp buildings with images of camp inmates. Beneath the funereal white veil that bears the images, there is another layer of white cloth on which short evocative phrases are printed in bold letters. The idea seems to be to create a new synthesis from the collision of visual image and verbal statement. The statements themselves, however, are not resonant, and the way they are combined with the images is crushingly literal. When a forehead is mentioned in the text, it is seconded by the forehead of a victim.

In addition, Oransky sets up sequences that are hardly original, corresponding roughly to a film director's use of an establishing shot, followed by a medium shot, and then ending with a close-up. To wit, a concentration camp building is accompanied by the phrase "It was as though we had penetrated at last"; an image of a victim corresponds with the phrase "to the very center," and, finally — with the image of what appears to be a crematorium — there is the phrase "of the vicious heart." The artist, by forging a connection between the piece's optical center — the silk-screened image of the victim — and its conceptual center, the horror of the ovens, is restating a commonly made point in Holocaust discourse: The victims stared at evil bare. The problem is not in the repetition of this theme — resourceful artists always have a way of adding telling wrinkles to oft-treated subject matter; it lies, instead, in the crude symbolic methodology employed here: Oven equals human potential for evil; victim equals witness to the oven.

Claude Lanzmann, the director of Shoah (the Holocaust documentary that Oransky cites as an influence for his work), refrained from registering horror and outright disgust during his interviews with former concentration camp officials. What good would that have done him? He would have been doing the audience's thinking, and he would have put unwanted pressure on the interviewee, who would likely have shut down and refused to disclose anything more. Instead, Lanzmann's point of view shone through in more subtle ways. It was there in the patiently accumulated detail, it was there in the officialese that some of these old men still relied on when asked a question they didn't want to answer, it was there in body language that didn't fit with verbal contrition. Lanzmann, in other words, created a work of art, not a piece of finger-pointing propaganda: As he gave the viewer reams of detail about the how, the why was exposed as unnervingly complex. Oransky skips over such difficulties. In these works, the how becomes the why: Ovens symbolize the "vicious heart," and the Holocaust happened because vicious-hearted people exist in the world.

Although such works treat a serious subject seriously, they are unsuccessful at channeling indignation into a convincing structural framework. One of the interesting things about works like Shoah is that they forgo conventional narrative strategies. The viewer has a sense of similar experiences being refracted through different lenses, with the resulting variations suggesting both that the Holocaust happened and that it happened differently for each person who experienced it. Oransky, in an effort to find the strands that unify an entire phenomenon, winds up, instead, being simplistic.

Apo Torosyan's "Bread" pieces misfire along similar lines. The artist mines his ethnic background for material (he's the son of an Armenian father and a Greek mother) and tells us in an artist's statement that, though bread is "the staff of life," it was taken away from one and a half million Armenians who were killed in what Torosyan calls "the first genocide of our century." It's not possible to bring back the dead, but making art out of burned bread is the artist's way of acknowledging his roots and immortalizing his family.

The problem is that these bread pieces are meaningful only when the viewer knows the personal story behind them. That's not a good sign for any work, unless one is comfortable with praising an artist for his intentions and not his actual accomplishment. Torosyan's results are negligible. Some bread is lightly singed, some is severely burned. The breads are combined with heavy impasto patches of acrylic, as well as sand, fabric, wire mesh, and photographs. There is white bread, dark bread. Circular loaves and rectangular loaves. But why these differences? Sometimes the bread is cut into little pieces, combined with the acrylic, and spread onto the canvas, where it takes on the appearance of vomit. For some viewers, the result could be off-putting.

It's true, as the artist says, that every piece of bread has a different texture. The artist, however, does not transform his materials. Instead of discovering form anew in each piece, he seems to operate on the assumption that everything he needs for an effective piece of art is in the bread. However, if Torosyan can't convince the viewer that the differences in texture at which he marvels are there for a reason, the work cannot have a compelling claim on the viewer's attention.

Some work in this exhibit is effective. Clevelander Piet Van Lier contributes a set of evocative photographs of a conflict-ridden Guatemala, where efforts at peace have been repeatedly subverted by paramilitary groups and death squads. Van Lier finds dignity in an image of an old man who clutches his chin in resignation as a mass grave is exhumed. In "Rebel Disarmament, Demobilization Camp," two rebel insurgents — a man and a woman — clutch assault rifles and stand in front of a desolate, scorched field. Their war-weary faces lead one to wonder how successfully they would handle the transition to peacetime. Oblivious to each other's presence and to the desolation behind them, they seem already scarred.

Keith Holmes of Alexandra, Minnesota, effectively chronicles the post-traumatic environment in Pakrac, Croatia, as that town tries to rebuild itself after the fighting between Croats and Serbs ended. In a photo called "All Souls Day #2 (Zagreb, Croatia)," a cadaverous old woman dressed all in black, with lips pursed and hands folded at her waist, bitterly takes note of those who have recently died. In "Marja and Irica (Pakrac, Croatia)," a paralyzed woman in a wheelchair stares directly at us and clutches a half-empty Coca-Cola bottle as her husband looks on. The Coke bottle is an incongruous touch, and it suggests that the accoutrements of daily living provide little solace for war-torn lives. Rich in well-observed detail though unremittingly gloomy, these photojournalistic essays by Holmes and Van Lier are some of the more effective things in the exhibit.

Most effective of all are some of the conceptual pieces by Pittsburgh artist Andrew Johnson. Unlike most of the artists here, he is concerned with the hypocrisy of those who claim to be interested in human rights but who fail to live up to their high rhetoric. The work that results from these concerns is disturbing and thought-provoking. For example, a piece called "Redefining Genocide" consists of a rectangular slab of marble and a triangular piece of felt placed at one corner on which the artist has placed a bugle. This is no ordinary bugle: The tubing has been altered and the mouthpiece is in the instrument's bell. This suggestion of clogged-up speech hints that high-minded advocates of human rights destroy their own integrity when they don't practice what they preach.

But the whole exhibit's strangest piece is Johnson's "Choke: Witness for Peace," in which he evokes some of the Belgian surrealist René Magritte's bitter high jinks.

Magritte painted wine bottles and gave them new labels and logos. For example, he painted a pig's face on one such bottle and added the words "Pork Beer." The contrast between everyday object and wacky title was designed to set the viewer's imagination spinning.

Johnson takes another ordinary object — a baseball bat. He paints it a flesh color and then attaches about fifty, apparently real animal eyes to it. The eyes are unsettling. The point seems to be that hypocritical human rights advocates can nevertheless pummel their colleagues into accepting questionable policies. That a bat can be a "witness for peace" is a bitter piece of poetic license: Striking one's adversaries ensures not that they agree, but that they will be too terrorized to disagree. Strangeness and conceptual focus are joined in works such as these. If nothing else, Johnson reminds the viewer that sometimes a studied disengagement and a bitter sense of humor are more effective than a series of chest-pounding gestures that are intent on making the Big Statement.

The temptation in art exhibits such as this one is simply to teach the viewer about the terrible things that happen in the world. To register horror at cruelty is to convey, in an unmistakable way, that we are concerned with issues of right and wrong. But artists in this exhibit such as Howard Oransky and Apo Torosyan, who stop at righteous indignation, do their audience a disservice. Effective "human rights art" channels feelings of horror and indignation at injustice into a structured framework that offers a nuanced, textured exploration of complex subjects.

The modern paradigm for such art is Picasso's "Guernica." The fascist terror bombing of the Spanish town of Guernica was the inspiration for a work that, by all rights, could have been a piece of propaganda, but which, instead, transcended the event on which it was based. As one writer ably put it, the figures in this modern masterwork "owe their terrifying eloquence to what they are, not what they mean." We don't need to know about the tragedy of Guernica to understand the universality of the themes explored in the piece. That is what human rights art can be. If exhibits like Silenced Voices show us how rare such success is, they do perform a public service by calling attention to human rights abuses all over the world.

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