Gao Yuan, Say Sorry, I’ll Forgive You, 2015, dimensions variable, detail from mixed media installation. Photo courtesy of the artist.
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. Below, in Part 1 of the interview, Russell talks 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 talks with Gail Ritchie, who is from Northern Ireland and is one of the twenty-two artists with work in the show.
WhiteBox, 328 Broome Street, New York, NY 10002
On view September 3rd through October 4th, 2015
Suzanne Russell: What is Intimate Transgressions about and how did you get to be the guest artist-curator?
Fion Gunn: For the past many years, I have been researching what happens to women during military conflicts, what the historical roles of women were in conflict, and how these roles have changed in the last century. It’s been a very disturbing exercise. Looking at global developments over the past years, the horrible ways in which women are mistreated during periods of military conflict have become key issues in how conflicts are carried out. In the 21st century, women have become targets of war; rape and other forms of violence directed at women have become an effective tactic in demoralizing and defeating the enemy.
Memorializing 70 years since the end of World War II, the starting point for this show is the treatment of the so-called “Comfort Women” during and after the war. Women in Korea, China, Taiwan, the Philippines and other occupied countries were systematically abducted and forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military. Most of these women were so brutally treated that they did not survive. The story of the women was excluded from Japanese history for many years, and continues to be disputed by Japan.
But the show is really about highlighting the fact that organized war, rape and genocide are still standard practices in military conflicts all over the world. We hope that our project will contribute to a better awareness and understanding of the violence to women that occurs during conflicts today. Many of the artists in the show have made works that refer to conflicts that are now part of history. But our goal is to make the public aware of the fact that women are still being brutally violated and denied their most basic human rights, especially in times of war. An important part of the Intimate Transgressions project is public workshops, guided tours, performances, and panel discussions.
I got involved in the Intimate Transgressions project through Gao Yuan (her work is pictured above), an artist who I had worked with in a previous show. In 2012 in Beijing, I curated a show called Intimate Revolution: Discourse on Disappointment. The show was about the situation of women in times of revolution. Several years later, when Gao Yuan was asked by the Center for Asia Pacific Affairs (CAPA) to suggest a curator, she immediately got in touch with me. Gao was working with the subject of the “Comfort Women” at that time and I was still working with the subject of sexual violence in armed conflicts. So I wrote the proposal for Intimate Transgressions that included both areas of investigation and CAPA agreed to have me as the curator of the show
The first artist I invited to be in the show was Gail. Gail and I have worked together before on a show in China, and Gail is also interested in what happens to people during times of conflict. Gail comes from Protestant Northern Ireland and I’m from the predominantly Roman Catholic Republic of Ireland. So our families are on opposite sides, politically, and I like that about our relationship.
Gail Ritchie, detail of installation Little Acts of Cruelty, 2015, variable dimensions, detail of mixed media with photographic prints, plum pits and gouache. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Suzanne Russell: Gail, could you tell us about your artwork in the show? You have made photographic prints that are quite violent. At the same time, they are poetic because the images are small and somewhat abstract, and the surface of each print is painted over with gouache. I think that you did a brilliant job of depicting the bodily violence of conflict.
Gail Ritchie: I’m glad you liked them. The photographs are of plums that I have cut away at. They are very juicy, fleshy, even pulpy. The photographs are based on poems by Wing Tek Lum about the Nanking Massacre. He writes the poems from all perspectives – Chinese, Japanese, men, and women – so it’s like a 360 degree view of an incredibly violent series of events. I wanted to respond visually to those poems, but I didn’t want to illustrate them. Susan Sontag has written about what she calls “regarding the pain of others.” There is a sort of pornography of violence in the tensions that exist between looking at something and being repelled and fascinated at the same time.
I knew that the plum is a symbol of strength for the Chinese, and some of Wing Tek Lum’s poems mention plum blossoms or a plum. So I started exploring what I could do with plums to re-enact some of the violations that had been visited upon the bodies of the women and men in Nanking. It started as a performative piece. Each time I did an action with a plum, I documented it until I had a whole series of photographs. I edited the many images down to fiftenn images, and then I worked details into them with paint and, for example, brought out more facial expression.
I felt I didn’t need to show drawings of women being raped. Who wants to see that? You have to be ethically aware. What if a woman looking at the show has been raped herself? By using the plums, I think I create a space for people to bring their own associations and memories, and the experience of looking at my artwork becomes more universal. The work is not necessarily about the Nanking Massacre; it’s about any group’s acts of violence.
Suzanne Russell: Does this work also refer to the situation in Ireland?
Gail Ritchie: You could relate my plum prints to the situation in Belfast, the “Troubles.” A friend of mine witnessed an event in Belfast where body parts were lying around on the ground and hanging from trees. I think the prints will resonate in any country. And that was part of the intention, as it is with all of my work: I am looking at specific conflicts, but trying to make the work universal
Elahe Massumi, Patriarchal, 2015, variable dimensions, mixed media. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Suzanne Russell: Fion, you’ve included artists from many different countries in the show. Was it a requirement that each artist came from a background of conflict? And how did you define a country in conflict?
Fion Gunn: The twenty-two artists in the show come from Israel, Taiwan/France, Ireland/China, Taiwan, Ireland/UK, Bosnia and Herzegovina, UK, Mexico, Cuba, Northern Ireland, Japan, USA, China, Guatemala, Australia/USA, Iran/USA and Montenegro. All of these countries have histories of military conflict. I don’t think there are any countries on the map that don’t.
But I think gender violence is something that crosses boundaries and exists outside of armed conflict situations, as well. This is something we forget. There will be many people who will come to see our exhibition who will themselves have been victims of sexual violence, and it may not have been in the middle of an armed conflict, but it will still have been incredibly destructive. I have been a victim of sexual violence and, as an artist, I share with Gail this desire to avoid indulging in the pornography of violence. So you do not see gratuitously violent or potentially shaming images in the exhibition. It has been thought out on an emotional and artistic level.
Suzanne Russell: I think it will be really interesting to see how the show develops and changes according to where it is being exhibited. What is your next stop?
Fion Gunn: Our next show is in Beijing; we open at Inter Art Gallery in Beijing on the October 25th. Many of the artists who will be involved in the show in China have been working with the theme of women in situations of military conflict for many years, often in very subtle ways. Much of their work is perfectly suited to the aims of this project. We plan to have other shows around the world, but I don’t have all the details in place, yet. New York is our first stop.