On Tragedy

by by Natasha Pradhan

The emergence of an apocalyptic aesthetic is society coping—or rather, becoming one with—the horrifying nature of world affairs and its human remnants. The very landscape we inhabit is crowded with images of mass injustice, environmental collapse, and a blurring of the human face by technology. The context in which we live and consume makes us complicit in much of this violence. The societal self today is both criminal and victim from the moment in which one ceases to dream each morning. Desperate attempts to find ourselves within this destructive maze often become symptoms of an abhorrent consumerism that leaves us even more out of touch than we were at the outset (Eat, Pray, Love anyone?).
The radical form of art, in its aesthetic potency, reinvents the contemporary landscape and the way in which we inhale this toxic existence. Aesthetes, curators, designers, and the sentient global audience are embracing work that is documentary and exploratory of everyday catastrophe. Berlin’s Biennale, which closed last month, took that which is terrorizing in the everyday and forced it into the space of art. The aestheticization of contemporary tragedy is at once a form of rather unorthodox escapism and yet a realism that is all too real. The BP oil spill, class segregation, and state-inflicted terror are the subject matter for artists that work with our own physicality in fashion. Tragedy—an art form—is deeply integrated into the cultural tapestry of our time.

the all-too-real
I have more faith in conveying human experience in its raw immediacy rather than as a distanced factual phenomenon. Alternative channels and spaces that allow for a sharing of events less restricted to rational narratives or falsely “grounded” explanations, as in the mass news media, have potential for genuine opening. Yet, my appreciation for the delineated art space was jolted into question last month at the Berlin Biennale upon stumbling into fresh coats of white paint flooded with moving images of eerily contemporary—that is to say, ongoing—tragedy.
The sixth Berlin Biennale entitled what is waiting out there, asserts the power of art to pull viewers further into reality rather than providing any sense of detached pleasure. Employing grossly intrusive vantage points, the audience is unable to distance themselves from the real ongoing events that they are put in contact with. In its documentary nature, the Biennale was dominated by video works, many of which seemed dry at first glance. It was clear that there was little curatorial intention to shock, nor provide a source of lazy pleasure to the visitors. Curator Kathrin Rhomberg said at a press conference that the intention of much of the all-too-real imagery exhibited is partially to “disturb the pleasure-oriented Western gaze.”
Much of the non-fictional imagery demanded immediate action in light of the direness of the situation portrayed. Avi Mograbi, an Israeli artist, created Details 2 & 3, in which we experience a prolonged confrontational interaction between the artist and a group of Israeli soldiers controlling a checkpoint in the West Bank. Moments of the film are nauseating, particularly one instance when several small children traveling alone are prevented from crossing a path that is homeward bound. In the foreground, the soldiers react aggressively to the filmmaker’s agitations and, in staying true to their duty, are blinded from empathy, highlighting the hopeless nature of the situation.
I felt downtrodden by the idea that this institutional art setting is one of very few in which such sentiment can be shared with a wide audience. Yet, the more time I spent roaming within the works, the less I pegged preexisting associations and political fervor to the already rage-filled installations. I appreciated that this piece was being experienced in the context of the Biennale, a space that fosters openness of perception and a tone far more radical than genuinely possible within the realm of direct politics.
Among the other videos shown was Echo by Nir Evron, which breaks down the overwhelming visual sensations present in an environment of protest and social distress. Archival images become increasingly pixilated until we can identify only colors that still retain their association to a more complex image. Minerva Cuevas’ Dissidence invites us to be hyper-observant in an impassioned environment of individuals collectively asserting their humanity. Featuring protest footage shot in Mexico, Cuevas’ film is an opportunity to experience public artwork of dissident signs and messaging. All that is Solid Melts Into Air by Mark Boulous consists of two channels on opposite sides of the space in which two deeply implicated realities are confronted. The sounds and sights of the Niger Delta and at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange come together for the viewer making powerful unspoken connections. Petrit Halilaj employed a large defunct space to install rural structures with an eerie hollowness surrounded by live chickens. It was a desperate cry to revert to an aesthetic that we have long abandoned. The installation, The places I’m looking for, my dear, are utopian places, they are boring and I don’t know how to make them real sets a tone of humanity’s self-defeat that is further developed throughout the Biennale.
The Biennale had little to offer the purely pleasure-seeking, empathetically devoid audience; but part of its efficacy lay in the biennale’s prestige and ability to draw such an audience nonetheless. The artworks tended to unravel, on a primordial level, images that we have otherwise been numbed to. The artist does not manufacture beauty within contemporary tragedy. Rather, the tragic moment is, and the artist only makes it visible to us in its affective materiality. We are in a more open frame of mind, to say the least, while seated on the floor of a dilapidated department store before a looped film of IDF soldiers obstructing a band of schoolchildren than we are when tuned in to similar content during a news broadcast. Neither fact nor language is at stake in the space of art for art’s sake—or in the context of the Biennale, art for reality’s sake. Here we are not presented with anything that feigns to be all-encompassing or inclusive. We are invited to enter into another’s consciousness as an observant, feeling being. The emphasis in most of these works is not placed on creative vision, but on affective sight—when shared, a source of genuine empathy.

The purposefully sterile fine art space fosters a heightened sense of perception and enables us to, at least temporarily, abandon much cultural residue from the exterior world. I do not by any means gesture that art is restricted to its own realm of galleries, openings, international biennials, or theoretically saturated catalogs. The white-walled art museum, however, reinforces the meditative, and alienating quality in absorbing aesthetic content. In an atmosphere of such radical openness, even conceptions of the self are dismembered. Strolling past colors in a museum, we fold away from ourselves to become silent onlookers. We are unraveled from the distractive compulsion to act that pressures everyday interaction and are free as human beings to observe.
Although the content before us in a gallery may certainly have relevance in other realms, the explicitly artistic setting inspires a hiatus from the saturated toxicity of everyday life and an opening to the raw experience of cringes, colors, waves, beats. Without the tension of an impending action that constrains us to a pre-existing, socially defined identity, we can genuinely reinvent ourselves in relation to what is being experienced in such a space. The revolutionary capacity of the artwork is here—in its potential to jolt somebody out of his past self in a way that is not contingent on a shared historical consciousness or language.
This sort of aesthetic revolution is tenuous when juxtaposed with a more linear conception of change. Brian O’Doherty, a prominent creator and thinker of the 1960s New York art scene wrote in his essay “Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space,” 1976: “Art exists in a kind of eternity of display. This eternity gives the gallery a limbolike status; one has to have died already to be there. Indeed the presence of that odd piece of furniture, your own body, seems superfluous, an intrusion.”
Is there an equilibrium between being so open to and lost in the artwork that one loses ties with rational continuity, and maintaining the contextual self possessive of time and action? The confrontational nature of many works in the Biennale does not allow the viewer to distance himself. Yet, O’Doherty highlights well the tension of art created with the intent of sparking direct political action, for the sonorous moment in which we experience an artwork is a timeless one.

The ongoing nature of tragedy prevents its presence in artistic spheres from being cathartic. It is a timeless visualization of terror that gains some semblance of continuity in how it impacts our ability to digest experience. Tragedy, as an envisioned and embraced aesthetic, seeps out of the fine art space to radically shift the contemporary landscape.
Steven Meisel’s most recent controversy appearing in Vogue Italia discovers beauty, or perhaps simply respite, in devastation. Meisel shot an editorial explicitly stated to confront the attempts to conceal imagery of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The initial explosion in April killed 11 workers and injured many more. At the outset, the editors of Vogue Italia share their intentions behind publishing this controversially received piece, “Gli scatti di Steven Meisel hanno la valenza del reportage e l’impatto dell’opera d’arte. Immagini forti, fatte per colpire, e che raccontano una realta.” Loosely translated: These shots by Steven Meisel have the value of reportage and the impact of the artwork. Powerful, striking images that tell a reality.
The images integrate inventive corporal designs by contemporary artists including Hussein Chalayan, Haider Ackermann, Ann Demeulemeester, and the late Alexander McQueen that are seamless against the backdrop of the tragedy. The artist captures the visceral terror of such an incident but showcases it alongside the human capacity to arrive at a sort of aesthetic harmony within an atmosphere of demise.
Much of the criticism of Meisel’s work points at the inflammatory juxtaposition of tragedy and high fashion, and ignores the content of the images all-together. Allowing these works to speak for themselves, we witness of reinvention of space, flesh, and corporeal forms.
Gareth Pugh, a young British designer who thrives on a dark sculptural aesthetic that discovers a fertile joy amidst the toxic ruins of the modern age. In an interview with Alex Fury of SHOWstudio in May of this year, Pugh acknowledged the transformation in his designs: “I don’t think I make things to compliment your lifestyle.” Rather, Pugh invents new forms of the human species based on shifting circumstances. He has abandoned the traditional catwalk show and encased his two latest collections in tragically alluring videos, the last of which is a dark treatise on pleasure entitled Joie de Vivre (by Ruth Hogben, Placing the unnervingly real in the context of art creates a necessary tension in how we experience our own physicality within this world.
Realism in contemporary art, more so than art which is explicitly escapist, is the target of social and humanitarian criticism and controversy. Yet, tragedy—a most real phenomenon—demands to be the subject matter of contemporary art and of our contemplation. It is the unbounded nature of art that lends form and human spirit to our age—instigating revolution from the primordial to the political.

Natasha Pradhan ’12 is in mourning.