by Nicole Miller
Knockdown Center | March 3 – April 15, 2018
“The historical power of the trauma is not just that the experience is repeated after its forgetting, but that it is only in and through its inherent forgetting that it is first experienced at all.
MATERIAL WITNESS WITNESS MATERIAL opened at the Knockdown Center on the twenty-seven-year anniversary of the beating of Rodney King. Captured with a camcorder by a neighborhood resident, King’s arrest and beating by members of the LAPD became a viral media event avant la lettre. The video footage shows four officers kicking, stomping, and striking King with clubs while a dozen others watch. During the officers’ trial, the defense presented the footage frame-by-frame—the sony Handycam serving as a material witness. But the images, pulled from their moving sequence, perhaps provided the shadow of doubt. Was King simply taking a step or was he, as the defense argued, charging at the cops? The officers’ acquittal made explicit and indelible the pathology of racism in America, sparking a wave of civil disturbance commonly known as the 1992 Los Angeles riots. The video of King’s beating launched a grenade into the discourse of mass media, where representations of black and brown bodies reveal or suppress potent cultural narratives.
Today, the prevalence of social media raises the stakes for these images. What sort of evidence or proof is sufficient to reveal our forms of injustice and reshape our perceptions and biases? Curated by Alessandra Gomez, MATERIAL WITNESS WITNESS MATERIAL presents the work of seven artists engaging with racial violence, trauma, and representation. Their work asks us to see sites of disturbance that are often erased in order to redistribute responsibility for racial violence in America.
In the exhibition’s first room hang two large-scale paintings by Chris Watts—The Messenger (Interlude) (2017) and The Great Escape (2017). Watts paints on silk stretched over wooden frames. Abstract washes of acrylic in the muddied hues of the body—blacks, grays, browns, reds—hover over the hard ribs of the frame, which are visible through the transparent canvas. Troubling the gaze of the camera, multidisciplinary artist SomBlackGuy manipulates photographic images in the series Putting Blue Faces Onto Us (2014). Three black-and-white images capture a black man on foot stopped by three members of the NYPD. Each image contains multiple exposures, so that the figures in the frame double and triple, destabilizing the scene and our own position as viewers. In his painting series Raymond Santana, December 22nd, 2002 (2018), Esteban Jefferson similarly reclaims his subject from media footage. Santana, one of the so-called Central Park Five arrested for the rape of a female jogger in Central Park, was exonerated by DNA evidence and released after five years in prison. Eight small-scale portraits depict Santana on the day of his release. His face, bleached by light from the television crews or cast in shadow, has a blank, haunted look.
As these artists challenge the authority of photographic and video evidence, others test the bureaucratic language that administers our lives and identities. Poet Amber Atiya’s visual poem, On Public Integrity (2017), uses the constraint of a complaint form available from the Public Integrity Bureau. (The PIB, part of the New York State Office of the Attorney General, “handles complex investigations into government corruption, fraud, and abuse of authority,” according to their website). The work registers the aggravations and assaults of urban life for those who are black and poor; it calls out the absurdities and redundancies of civic bureaucracy and intervenes in these structures with dark humor: “311 say call public advocate, public advocate say call local senator, Iocal senator say call the precinct, the precinct laugh and say call 311.” Installed in the dark second gallery and lit by a floodlight glare, Amy Khoshbin’s Not Just Words (2017) manipulates the printed text of Executive Order 13769—the so-called Muslim ban, restricting entry to the United States for immigrants and refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries. Khoshbin imbricates the official document with family photographs and handwritten captions: “Jam Khoshbin my father; His Iranian passport, Age 25.” Inserting family history into the text alongside words like “terrorist” and “malevolent,” Khoshbin’s work is a reminder of what should be all too obvious: immigrants are people too. They work for DuPont; they go swimming; they drive American cars.
I wonder if the artist is aware of a work by Huong Ngo and Hong-An Truong, The opposite of looking is not invisibility. The opposite of yellow is not gold (2016). These artists juxtapose family photographs of their mothers, who emigrated from Vietnam, with laser-etched excerpts from congressional hearings about Vietnamese refugees. The piece, now on view in MoMA’s exhibition Being: New Photography 2018, takes a more nuanced, delicate approach to examining the de-humanizing language of bureaucracy with the dignity and personhood of its subjects. The work scrutinizes the language of the pictures as well, revealing the way that the immigrant constructs her American identity through the vernacular performativity of the family photograph.
Two other works occupy the back gallery. A pair of short videos by hip hop artist Don Christian Jones, Soak (2018) and Save (2018), present languorous dreamscapes that are seductive, though elusive. The work, which references the sea, a drought, and the myth of Achilles, accompanied by birdsong and a dialogue about space, time, and energy, left me somewhat mystified. On the opposite wall is a promising work by Lachell Workman, who uses cotton t-shirts to explore narratives of mourning and memorialization. In Rupture (2016), installed in the front room, the t-shirt drowns in a pool of cracked black asphalt. In The Scraps Are What We Have (2018), Workman projects found imagery against three white t-shirts that hang on the wall. The t-shirt suggests a shroud—the dim shape of the absent body. The images, drawn in light rather than paint or ink, layer absence on absence and render the black body as phantasm or specter, separated from its humanity, parting trauma from the testimonial power of site, wound, and memory.
NICOLE MILLER is a Brooklyn-based writer and coeditor of the digital arts journal Underwater New York.