Public is a Canadian journal founded in 1988 that comes out twice yearly, a compendium of art, design and writing projects centered around a single theme for each issue. Public‘s latest issue, number 42, is called Traces, and centers around the physical traces history leaves us through art: commemorative works and remembrances that attempt to fix our definition of what our history actually entails. But, Public 42 asks, how can we create works that don’t attempt to fix history, that don’t preserve our problematic ideas? How do we create art that allows history to be dynamic?
With such a philosophical starting block, the journal’s editorial statement might prove a stumbling block for those without a critical background, or those unwilling to wade through three and a half pages of jargon. We are reading a journal though, right? So let’s forge on past the “alterity” and past the “associative potency” and cut straight to the point: Traces is about how memorial works of art influence our view of the past, particularly of past tragedies or wrongs, and how we might use them to present a less fixed or problematic view of that same history. Write issue editors Mario Di Paoloantonio and Chloe Brushwood Rose (sweet name), “This issue of Public grapples with how differing memorial displays, objects and practices are inevitably (re)invoked in a field of competing interpretations, incommensurable memories and representational strategies,” which is a fancy way of noting that a fixed historical monument can be targeted and spun by different groups to signify different things.
An essay by Vikki Bell on the photographs of Graciela Sacco use the artist’s photos of pedestrians’ feet shot through transparent surfaces (glass stairs, cast shadows) as political fodder, placing us as viewers underneath the walkers, ostracized from functioning society and left only to bear witness. The works are oppressive, and one of Sacco’s photo also makes for a powerful cover for Public 42. As the theme of the issue, Sacco’s work is about exposing the other perspective that has always existed underneath, or beyond, our own perspectives.
Francesc Torres writes a stirring article on excavating history, literally. He joins a team in uncovering group burial sites dug during the Spanish Civil War, photographing the remains and affects of Republican victims. The resulting photos are stirring, bones and bodies dug from roadbeds, left laying on the landscape. Torres writes, “I believe that it is important that these images that I and others create become part of the visual conscience of not just Spanish citizens, but all who have experienced or could experience circumstances similar to those that occurred in Spain.” Torres names the bodies he digs up and shoots harrowing stills of the skeletons splayed in the dust. This is the construction of history and the process of remembering as things that take time, that build up.
Anita Glesta’s contribution to Public 42 responds both to the artist’s personal experience in New York City during 9/11 and the harrowing experience of the survivors of the bombardment of Guernica, the Spanish town that was destroyed by German and Italian planes during World War II. The bombing that inspired Picasso’s “Guernica” canvas is quite different from a first person perspectice: Luis Iriondo Austelechea tells of being crammed into bomb shelters and waiting out the second three-hour long bombardment as a 14 year old. Glesta’s investigation of the Guernica bombing was provoked by her own witnessing of the 9/11 attacks and a desire to reconnect with her Spanish heritage.
Blake Fitzpatrick and Vid Ingelevics’s “Freedom Rocks” is about the building blocks of a historical narrative, almost literally. The pair seek out individuals that own fragments of the Berlin Wall, photograph the fragments against a black background, and video tape interviews with the rocks’ owners describing the process by which they came to own pieces of the Wall. The fragments become synecdochal of the greater history of the city and the German nation. By documenting individual stories, Fitzpatrick and Ingelevics write, they reveal “how “big” history is grafted onto everyday life and carried int he stories that are attached to material artifacts.” It’s an intensely poetic, heavy project that is heightened by the museum-style artifact photographs of the fragments themselves.
Public 42 is a hefty publication. It’s not tough to get through given an interest in art and an ability to deal with some critical-language embroidery now and again, but I don’t that I’d recommend it for amateurs. For those interested in the mechanics of history and humanity’s engagement with its own memory, though, there’s not much better than this compendium of articles, photographs and art projects. Just get an espresso to go with it.
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