Arts & Culture · Fine Art

Art and Awareness: the Making of ‘Intimate Transgressions’ — Part 3

PHOTO 11Nermine Hammam, Escalate: Unfolding Series no. 8, 2015, 56 x 38 cm, print. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Intimate Transgressions is on view September 3rd through October 4th, 2015  at WhiteBox, 328 Broome Street, New York, NY 10002.

Suzanne Russell, who writes about art and groundbreaking artists for Women’s Voices for Change, recently sat down with the curator and one of the artists from the new exhibition Intimate Transgressions. Currently on view at WhiteBox in New York City, a non-profit art space in the Lower East Side, Intimate Transgressions is a multimedia exhibition of twenty-two artists from around the world responding to the challenging theme of sexual violence as a tactic of terror.

In Part 1 of the interview featured last week, Russell talked about the transformative power of art with the London-based Fion Gunn, the guest artist-curator of the show who has curated the project with WhiteBox’s founder and artistic director, Juan Puntes. She also talked with Gail Ritchie, who is from Northern Ireland and is one of the twenty-two artists with work in the show. In Part 2 of the interview, she talked with Gunn and Ritchie about materials, process, and inspiration. Here, in Part 3, they discuss the memory of trauma and the role of art in giving testimony.


Gail Ritchie: I have lived in Germany and I am familiar with Germany history. The violence against women did not stop when WWII ended, not at all. When the Russians established their military occupation zone, they systematically raped German women of all ages. But it wasn’t just the Russians, the Americans, French, and British also raped German women. You can see these women in old film footage and you can see that they are like shell-shocked victims, completely traumatized zombies.

So there are also issues around memory and selective memory: what’s spoken about and what’s not spoken about. And for every woman who might be in a television documentary giving her testimony, there are a lot of other women whose families won’t know what violence their grandmother went through. One violent act was not really more horrific than another violent act. It all has to be taken in to account and addressed.

From a Northern Ireland perspective, there are emotional debates around how you define victimhood. It’s taken a long time to get to any sort of point where we can define who a victim is. Are you a victim if your restaurant was bombed and you lost your leg? Are you a victim because you lost a loved one? Are you a victim if you daughter was raped? What if you are the bomber and you loose a leg while you are trying to hurt other people? There’s a school of thought that says that even the perpetrators of violence are victims and should get compensation when injured. And there’s a school of thought that says perpetrators are not victims as long as their intention was to harm other people, and that they shouldn’t get any sort of compensation.

Fion Gunn: This is an important issue: where do we draw the line with respect to who is a victim and who is not. You could take the position that the young Japanese soldiers were victims themselves. Most of the men who committed terrible atrocities were young men who had been indoctrinated into a system that completely brutalized them and stripped their humanity. They were encouraged to gang rape and kill women in order to be accepted as part of the group. Many of them committed these atrocities because they were afraid, themselves.

This brings me to another important point, if we don’t address the circumstances that create perpetrators then there will always be victims. In many situations involving sexual abuse, perpetrators are often victims of sexual abuse. We need to discuss what kind of strategies we want our military organizations to utilize as they train our soldiers. For those of us who have the luxury of living in democracies, we should have a say in how our military behaves.

PHOTO 12A.N.V.I.L. Art Collective, installation view of Glass Patterns, 2015. Photo courtesy of the artists.

Suzanne Russell: I would like to bring our discussion back to the artwork in the show. One of the projects being shown in Intimate Transgressions is called Glass Patterns, an installation and performance by A.N.V.I.L. Art Collective. It is an examination of military ethics in the US military with focus on gender issues, specifically organized military rape. There is also an educational outreach component to the project and a performance in two parts, primarily for veterans. We have been talking about these situations globally where soldiers in war situations commit atrocities because of indoctrination and victimization. But military rapes and other abuses of women are also occurring in the American military, in situations where there are, assummingly, somewhat normal American, I want to say, kids.

Fion Gunn: Look at what the American soldiers did in Vietnam. Some were heroes. But what about the My Lai Massacre where Lieutenant William Calley and his troops raped people and then blew their heads off: five hundred innocent villagers, men women and children were raped and killed. Later, when the military court was trying the case against the soldiers, 83% of the Americans polled did not want those men to be prosecuted. If I’d been the mother of one of those men, I would have wanted him prosecuted. The American public made excuses for the men because they were in the military, as if the Vietnamese people didn’t count.

Suzanne Russell: But I want to know what is happening in the American military today that causes this environment?

Fion Gunn: It’s the hyper masculinity of the military environment and training. Action Man testosterone-fueled mindless drills. One of the artists in the show, Michael Lisle-Taylor worked as a marine for thirteen years. I read his thesis, The Aesthetic of the Drill. According to Michael’s research, military drills are designed to stop people from thinking and to make them act in automatic ways. Through drills, soldiers can be programmed to react with extreme violence. Another issue is how do you integrate soldiers back into a civilian society once they leave the military. Our military system has a responsibility to ensure that the soldiers don’t lose their humanity. That’s a difficult one, but it’s very important.

PHOTO 13 Michael Lisle-Taylor, Bedlam. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Suzanne Russell: Let’s take a minute to describe and discuss Michael Lisle-Taylor’s artwork. He works primarily with uniforms?

Fion Gunn:  Yes and he takes apart and modifies very decorative uniforms and transforms them into sculptures. He’s examining the emotional aspects of what happens to people when they are in the military. In one of his works called Bedlam, Michael has turned a uniform into a straight jacket (pictured above). He’s very clearly drawing an emotional parallel that what happens to people in the military can be similar to what happens to people who suffer from extreme mental illness and need to be restrained. Michael’s uniform sculptures are powerful because you understand immediately the subtle underlying feeling. They are also very attractive.

Gail Ritchie: There we have that tension, again. On the one hand you are an artist making something visual that you want people to like, or to engage with, or have some kind of emotional response to. On the other hand, how far do you go with your subject matter and your materials? I saw an excellent exhibition on war in Berlin recently. It was a big show. There was a helicopter made out of peacock feathers that was beautifully made and pleasing to look at. There was a life size tank made out of thick leather, and guns made from driftwood. There was a machine that made an automated drawing of the city skyline of the West Bank in a sandpit and then swept the drawing away. All of the work was visually interesting, very distilled, very strong, but it also fetishized the aesthetics.

Suzanne Russell: I think this is a tricky space for art. Artwork can’t be too disgusting or too scary, unless the point is to repulse the viewer. Artwork has to be visually enticing in order to make the viewer curious to know more about the situation it’s referring to. You use the word fetish. I think that’s a good word, but I also think that it means different things to different people, even when talking about art. How aesthetic can the work be before it becomes fetishized, meaning diminishing or playing down the problem that the artist is trying to show? I think this is something for artists and curators to be aware of when they are putting together shows about sensitive subjects or where they are trying to convey a message. I often wonder why a particular artist has chosen to make a work of visual art, instead of researching and writing a book.

Fion Gunn: I think there is an educative aspect to Intimate Transgressions. I’m not so concerned about what the role is for art with these kinds of issues, because I think often writing and research can enter the realms of the polemic. I think visual art can take you back to humanity, to address what has been lost, to remember beauty that has been destroyed. And I think visual art is able to do that on a more meaningful emotional level than doing research and writing can. I think the danger with research and writing is that you can become numbed as you read the figures and all the terrible stories. At some point, you either close the book and stop reading, or you have to get used to whatever atrocities you are reading about. I think the wonderful thing about art is that it can instantly change how you are feeling, in a way that reading facts and data can’t.

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