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LONDON — Outside The Mosaic Rooms, a small gallery and cultural center in Kensington, a red and white-striped air sock hangs improbably from the otherwise uniform stone façade. Further up, a 30-foot tall replica of a U.S. army surveillance blimp balefully nudges the building’s ramparts. Entitled “The Evidence of Absence,” after a classic quote from former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld regarding the search for WOMDs in Iraq (“the absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence”), the blimp forms part of Mouths At The Invisible Event, an unsettling mixed media exhibition of David Birkin’s recent work.
Over the past couple of years, British-born Birkin has been inspired by the United States’ ‘war on terror’: the shifting ground of surveillance and censorship; the slippages of the rhetoric of war. This fascination is the unlikely basis for a thought-provoking meditation on power and (dis)information, much of which was completed during stints in New York: at the Whitney’s Independent Study Program, Yaddo, and the Art & Law Residency Program. The exhibition’s title is, like its contents, open to interpretation — a fragmentary quotation from Hamlet, uttered by the eponymous protagonist as he speaks in awe of Fortinbras’ eagerness to go to battle:
Witness this army of such mass and charge
Led by a delicate and tender prince,
Whose spirit with divine ambition puffed
Makes mouths at the invisible event,
Exposing what is mortal and unsure
To all that fortune, death, and danger dare,
Even for an eggshell.
In the contemporary global context, is Obama a modern Fortinbras, vaingloriously ignoring the consequences of his bellicose actions? Or is the phrase a reference to Birkin’s project: drawing attention to events that some would prefer remain invisible? Or both? Or neither?
The centerpiece of the artist’s first solo exhibition is the documentation of two en plein air performances he staged in New York City last year: skywriting “Existence or Nonexistence” across the city’s blue vault on Memorial Day, and dragging the black phrase “Shadow of a Doubt” behind a plane on Veteran’s Day. The first phrase echoes the Hamlet reference in the exhibition’s title, gesturing obliquely to the prince’s famous existential question “To be or not to be?” But it is also drawn verbatim from the CIA’s predictably obfuscatory response to a Freedom of Information request regarding the administration’s use of drones: “[we] can neither confirm nor deny the existence or nonexistence of records responsive to your request.”
The grainy digital images of both performances are collectively titled “Severe Clear” — military parlance for ideal bombing and reconnaissance conditions. Seen in this light, New Yorkers’ excited reactions to the words in the sky — exhibited here on an iPad and a kaleidoscope of social media ephemera, including photographs and hashtags archived on Birkin’s Tumblr — seem absurdly naïve, deliberately disconnected. The spectators’ confusion is palpable: what are we being sold? Who is doing the selling? Nonplussed, they manufacture their own divergent narratives.
Indeed, one of Mouths’ great merits is Birkin’s ability to drag faraway topics into the average viewer’s context, creating tenuous but undeniable and disconcerting connections between worlds we might prefer to keep separate, images we’d rather not conflate. In one corner, two video screens play different reels simultaneously: one shows ABC news coverage of the Obamas dancing at the 2008 Inaugural Ball to Beyonce’s rendition of “At Last,” while the other displays infrared drone footage of an unnamed couple embracing on a rooftop. The juxtaposition interrogates these different ways of ‘watching,’ lending creepy, conspiratorial overtones to the lyrics (“the skies above are blue”…) and to the triumphant serenity of the Presidential waltz.
This may sound heavy-handed, but the effect is anything but dogmatic; Birkin is excellent at the opaque gesture, tangentially hitting his target every time. Sketches of a skittish Cuban iguana colonize one wall. The scaly beast seems out of place, until one reads that the drawings were commissioned from Janet Hamlin, official courtroom sketch artist of the Guantanamo Tribunal. It turns out the iguanas played an essential part in ensuring that the case of several Kuwaiti detainees was heard — their lawyer argued that if these endangered animals were within the court’s jurisdiction but the refugees were not, lizards were effectively being afforded more rights than people. The piece is a sly, sardonic suggestion of jurisprudential and bureaucratic absurdity. In one image, an iguana scurries sheepishly into a drainpipe, only his tail visible.
The devastating series “Profiles” (2011) is incarcerated in the crypt-like downstairs: blank colorful x-rays strung up like exotic butterflies. The visitor has to walk closer and tilt her head to read the miniature print along the x-ray edges that reveals devastating details drawn from the records of Iraq Body Count, gathered by an NGO dedicated to collecting data on civilian casualties resulting from the U.S. invasion. “alaa_afar_ahmed,” one caption reads, “daughter_of_afar_ahmed_zeidan __age_6__killed_by_us_airstrike.” To come up with a unique jewel-tone for each x-ray, Birkin transformed the victims’ identification numbers into digital color values and exposed these shades onto photographic transparencies. Alaa’s is a deep crimson. Even without knowing the artistic process, the piece is chilling: a chromatic catalogue of the all-but-forgotten dead.
Mouths is — remarkably, considering its subject matter — analytical rather than histrionic: a methodical examination of the language, aesthetics, and ethos of modern warfare and the mechanisms of justice. Transmuting otherwise meaningless numbers and rhetoric into engrossing but opaque images, Birkin’s work veers away from didacticism, instead repositioning the facts in such a way as to render them newly disquieting.
These pieces, to a certain extent, are redaction as art: cutting and splicing multiple texts in order to reveal their willful obscurity, their witting collusion; a manipulation of information that perversely brings us closer to the truth. This dispassionate treatment chillingly communicates the detachment of modern violence — the distance between operator and airstrike, observer and observed — and ultimately makes the emotional reality and Kafkaesque lunacy of such a system hit home.
Mouths At The Invisible Event continues at The Mosaic Rooms (Tower House, 226 Cromwell Road, London SW5 0SW) through February 28.