Interviews

Making Art from the War on Terror’s Deadly Paper Trail

Rajkamal Kahlon, from 'Did You Kiss the Dead Body?' series (2012)
Rajkamal Kahlon, from ‘Did You Kiss the Dead Body?’ series (2012) (all images courtesy the artist)

The response from the art world to the partial release on December 9, 2014 of the Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture has so far been scant. Washington Post art and architecture critic Philip Kennicott’s provocative editorial is a rare exception: “Our belief in the national image is astonishingly resilient…” he writes, but “we must learn that the national image is a hollow conceit. What we desperately need is a national conscience.”

For the past several years, artists including Rajkamal Kahlon, Jenny Holzer, and Fernando Botero have created major projects centered on US torture, detention, and violence related to the War on Terror. Kahlon’s ongoing project Did You Kiss the Dead Body? — whose title comes from the last lines of the Harold Pinter poem, “Death” (1997) — incorporates the military autopsy reports and death certificates of detainees killed while in American custody in Iraq and Afghanistan that were first made public by the ACLU in 2004. Her 2013 project Blowback uses early European anthropological and scientific portraits of native bodies to re-contextualize and question the signification of the modern terrorist.

Kahlon, who is based in Germany and the US, recently spoke with Hyperallergic about her work and the role of artists, writers, and scholars in responding to the Report on Torture.

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Rajkamal Kahlon, from 'Did You Kiss the Dead Body?' series (2009)
Rajkamal Kahlon, from ‘Did You Kiss the Dead Body?’ series (2009)

Joscelyn Jurich: Your 2012 project Did You Kiss the Dead Body? used the records of US military death certificates and autopsy reports for Iraqi and Afghan men who died in American detention centers. Can you describe your reaction to the December 9, 2014 release of the very abbreviated form of The Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture?

Rajkamal Kahlon: I guess it’s been very mixed. I’ve been reading different news and one of the first things I got was an email from Steven Watt, a human rights lawyer at the ACLU. He wrote a piece for Slate where he explains that there are hundreds, perhaps thousands tortured secretly, rendered to foreign prisons to be held and tortured who are not accounted for in this report. On the one hand I feel the report is very little, very late. But on the other hand, it brings this topic back into the forefront of public debate. You would think that this topic would have exploded when the Abu Ghraib images came out, but it kind of hit the surface and then went away very quickly in the news outlets. What I think is good about this report is that torture is being talked about again. But it’s also 500 pages out of more than 5,000 and a lot of people haven’t been asking the right questions. For instance, very few have questioned the stated rationale of the torture program which was to keep America safe. And free from attack. Yet according to senior aides within the White House during the Bush administration, much of the call to torture came from the desire to produce links between 9/11 and Iraq. People were being tortured in order to find a justification to start a war. This is important.

I don’t subscribe to Senator Dianne Feinstein’s statement that torture is a stain on our history as Americans. A history of aggression is built into the foundation of America. We are constantly fed a patriotic mythos that we are the good guys. Even on the left, there is the idea that what we really stand for is truth, justice, and democracy. This is really, really false. It doesn’t account for the truth of America’s past. America is founded on genocide and slavery. There is a deep violence in American society: nationally through the killings of its minority citizens by heavily weaponized police forces and internationally through imperial aggression abroad. Until one can have an honest accounting of one’s history, of one’s past, a country can’t change. It can’t evolve into a more humane society, a more equitable country. This conversation just doesn’t really happen in the mainstream media.

Rajkamal Kahlon, from 'Did You Kiss the Dead Body?' series (2012)
Rajkamal Kahlon, from ‘Did You Kiss the Dead Body?’ series (2012)

JJ: Much of your work is based on the re-contextualization and re-interpretation of archival and documentary materials. Do you conceptualize the Report on Torture similarly to the way in which you discussed the documents you worked with for the ACLU project? At that time, you made the statement, “We are all in those reports,” referring to the autopsy reports and death certificates.

RK: I made that statement “We are all in those reports” as part of a performative lecture I gave during a one-day conference, “Aesthetic Justice,” where I talked about my work with Did You Kiss the Dead Body? and US Military autopsy reports of Iraqi and Afghan prisoners killed in US custody. What I meant by the statement is that we as Americans are linked to those deaths and to those individuals who were killed. By not understanding the ways they are us and we are them, a far too convenient barrier goes up between us, and their deaths start to not matter as much as our own. I went on to say that this is a logic that is part of the violence that caused their deaths and it is a logic that will progressively cripple us until we ourselves face death.

The Senate report just came out. A very true, in-depth, and thoughtful response would take me some time. In general, my process is long and slow. I first became aware of the autopsy reports in 2004 and it was not until 2009 that I began to work on them as part of the project Did You Kiss the Dead Body?. I can’t work on the reports for a long time because it’s very difficult material.

Scientific, bureaucratic, and full of mundane horror, spending prolonged sessions reading and drawing on them exacts a big psychic and physical toll. The Senate Intelligence Committee Report is fundamentally different from the autopsy reports the ACLU and others sued to have released. The autopsy reports are really contradictory types of documents because they represent a type of violence that occurred before and after death. They tried to record a type of violence that happened — somebody died. Then a body was put under further scrutiny, examined, cut apart, and put back together again. Then a report was made. Accounts settled. The Report on Torture is part of a system of violence that it attempts to account for, yet without the report we wouldn’t know about that death and there would be no legal instrument to prosecute.

JJ: The Senate Intelligence Committee Report opens with a forward from Dianne Feinstein. She writes that the report was undertaken against the backdrop of 9/11 and describes the bodies of the men and women who died that day. The “Findings and Recommendations” section then begins by describing what happened to the tortured individuals and what happened to their bodies. Does the report make you think about Did You Kiss the Dead Body? or any of your other work in new ways?

RK: This is where there is crossover between my work with the autopsy reports and what is getting talked about in the Report on Torture. There is this linkage of the body. My emphasis on the body as the carrier of violence, is an attempt to humanize the autopsy report and the body is what potentially humanizes the Report on Torture. It’s that element. The body is the vehicle for violence. It is the stage on which violence takes place. The body becomes preeminent. In any state violence or imperial aggression, what it comes down to is that threshold that is the bodily threshold. It’s why I work with it. It’s universally understood and known — even though different cultures conceptualize it differently. Every person has a body. I’m trying to connect in very visceral ways with the violated body in the autopsy. It has to be talked about in a very concrete way. These are the ways that the bodies were violated. These were the ways that the bodies were tortured. The body is really important in allowing us to connect to what happened in those reports, including something like the Report on Torture.

Rajkamal Kahlon, from 'Cassell's Illustrated History of India' series (2003–05)
Rajkamal Kahlon, from ‘Cassell’s Illustrated History of India’ series (2003–05)

JJ: Along with your own work, other artists, perhaps most recently Jenny Holzer, have worked with redacted documents related to the War on Terror to create art. In interviews you have said that you are working with political subjects but that you do not use the conventional methodologies of political art. Can you explain this in more detail, perhaps using an example from Did You Kiss the Dead Body? or one of your other projects?

RK: What is disappointing about work typically understood as political is that it’s a one-way message and that the question is already answered. And too often I find artists working with archival materials have a tendency to just re -present the information found in the archive without taking it upon themselves to act as an agent of transformation and change, offering the possibility of something new. When people think of political art, it’s often art that doesn’t ask any questions and is telling you what to think. This is not what I’m interested in. I don’t begin from a political position, though I have one. I’m beginning from a visceral response, from an emotional response. I’m entering from a space of empathy. The reason Did You Kiss The Dead Body? took five years is that when I looked at the autopsy reports, I felt both rage and nausea each time I read the reports. The best I could do was to show images of the reports when I gave lectures about my other projects. The start of Cassell’s Illustrated History of India (2003–05), coincided with the invasion of Iraq. And I was very much thinking of Abu Ghraib and the Iraq War as I was taking apart this 19th-century British text on South Asia. So taking apart the book was a way to comment on torture, while literally cutting apart the form of the original book. I was using the image of the body as a carrier of violence with that work as I did with Did You Kiss The Dead Body? and with other projects. What I really would like to have happen in my work is that if you’re forced to react with an emotional and visceral response, that then perhaps makes you rethink what you think you know. It begins in your own experience in your own body.

I want to complicate aesthetic pleasure and the act of easy consumptive viewing that is typically associated with art. For me the marbling of the autopsy reports work stands in for the internal body. Its biomorphic shapes recall cellular landscapes and this isn’t something that is spelled out or told to you — it’s just something that enters into you, into your viewing, unconsciously. At the same time it’s making an ink drawing on a report that was originally made of ink and paper. It’s going from a digital file and then printing it out onto paper as the original report was filed — that’s important. And then putting it out for the viewer to see — often what people see with these reports is beauty, seductive coloration that pulls them in, and the text beneath shocks them. As they get closer, usually the text that they see revealed is very graphic and very gruesome in nature. But they’re already pulled in, wanting to look and not wanting to read, to see. I’m trying to complicate this moment of wanting to look and look away at the same time. It’s this contradictory impulse framed in a moment of empathic exchange that makes my work not classifiable as either political, decorative, or commercial.

JJ: Are there specific works from Did You Kiss the Dead Body? that you’re thinking of here?

RK: There are two images from 2009. I marbled the autopsy reports and then had them digitally enlarged before I made ink drawings directly on top. They are the Renaissance image of a man holding his chest open and of a male body from behind holding his own skin that has been removed from his body. It’s mainly because of the scale of these works that the marbling is really exaggerated and beautiful. Because I had so much more space, the cross-hatching and the kind of drawing I was able to do at that scale was quite nuanced and beautiful. Both of them had the effect that you just couldn’t look away. They are really beautiful. You just wanted to keep looking. You would look for quite a while before you could leave. You were already invested. You’d stayed; you’ve looked for longer than you had planned. Then there’s this text that describes a dead body and you’re left with this kind of emotional reaction or response, when your guard is down. You have been seduced and then you have to deal with something that you don’t want to know. That’s what I want from political art: to challenge but not reaffirm what I think I already know.

Rajkamal Kahlon, from 'Blowback' series (2013)
Rajkamal Kahlon, from ‘Blowback’ series (2013)

JJ: Your 2013 series Blowback is also relevant to the Senate Intelligence Committee Report. Can you discuss your motivation for that project? More broadly, are there issues of causality and the categorization of what constitutes “terror” and who is a “terrorist” that you are trying to visualize?

RK: Blowback is a series of works that rethink early anthropological portraiture of the native body by European scientists and anthropologists against the contemporary signifiers of the modern terrorist. In re-imagining native bodies rendered mute and docile in early anthropological portraiture, by weaponizing and changing their dress and appearance to mimic insurgents and guerrilla fighters, they recoup a kind of agency. They transform from an object of study to an object of threat. The work grows out of my research into European colonial archives and from my experiences of living in Europe and Germany, where brown and black bodies are frequently met with suspicion and fear.

JJ: You describe the body as humanizing and universalizing. The bodies central to your work in Did You Kiss the Dead Body? and Blowback are ones that have been objectified in various ways and, for some, would not be valued as bodies worth making visible and or grieving over. Can you describe how your artistic process and practice interacts with this tension?

RK: My work relies on the body to talk about trauma — political, social, personal. There are histories, people, stories buried under a lot of aggression and lies that are necessary to maintain unjust power. The only way I know how to respond to such imbalances in power is to give my attention to those I’m asked every day to not consider. In this way I force my viewers into looking and remembering with me. It’s the underbelly, not the shining façade,­ I’m interested in.

JJ: Art critic Philip Kennicott recently wrote in the Washington Post: “We have come to a critical moment in the debate about torture. It’s no longer possible, as it was when the images of Abu Ghraib emerged in 2004, to pretend that these events were rare, exceptional or the work of a few rogue agents.” There are now increasing discussions about what accountability the CIA and the former members of the Bush administration should have. In 2011 you were part of a group exhibition titled Aesthetic Justice. Discuss Aesthetic Justice in the context of the Report on Torture. Do you see artists as having a role in responding to the issue of accountability for torture?

RK: I definitely think that artists have an important role. But in the US context they often don’t take up that role in terms of public debate and helping shape political response. I often think that’s lacking among my peers in the US — a sense of social responsibility and political integrity. Artists, writers, scholars, critics: this is part of what we’re supposed to do. I think the arts in the US are really depoliticized, which is a really long-standing narrative.

I see the artist’s role as being about storytelling and giving context to histories that would otherwise be submerged or not heard. I have been thinking a lot about this because of the autopsy reports, because of Wikileaks, because of this moment we’re living in where we are bombarded by huge amounts of information without any mechanisms in place to help us understand its significance. I don’t think the response would be so different to the Report on Torture if the full report was released. Among all of this data are clear records of war crimes, yet there has been very little reaction to what they disclose. The nature of medical personnel complicity in the formation and execution of the torture program is huge and there’s not enough discussion about it. This is where the artist comes in, the scholar, the writer. It’s a group effort. It’s part of our job to go through this material to give it context, to produce a story that makes it matter. We have a role of contextualization and assigning it significance, highlighting it, asking what is the moral toll? Asking the question why it matters is where artists can come in. It’s where we’re all supposed to work with this material, reflect on it. We’re supposed to care about this and I think not enough people are doing that — not just artists.

Rajkamal Kahlon, from 'Double Vision/Doppelbilder' series (2012)
Rajkamal Kahlon, from ‘Double Vision/Doppelbilder’ series (2012)

Rajkamal Kahlon’s work is currently on view in Teoría del Color (through February 7) at MUAC Museo Universitario de Arte Contemporáneo in Mexico City and will be featured in Lest The Two Seas Meet (opening February 12) at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, Poland.

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