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What is the scale of war? What can we know of it? Seeking revelation in the ways that war is curtailed, hidden, biased, and unfinished, Frames of War, a rigorous group show at the small but dauntlessly ambitious Bushwick nonprofit Momenta Art, approaches state violence through the edges of recognition.
Drawing its title from Judith Butler’s 2009 collection of essays, Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable?, the exhibition makes a challenging, inescapably dense argument — like Butler before it — for an expanded vision of war, vulnerability, violence, and grief. It calls for knowing and seeing further, noting that there is much that we overlook, neglect, or prejudice. What images and people move us to tears? And what dries them up? Where does violence hide? And where has it been hidden? War becomes opaque and falsely truncated because it is difficult to fathom its enormous breadth; and because we so often don’t.
A spare one-room, five-artist show, Frames of War nevertheless feels thick. A grave atmosphere waits on your attention, a sense of deep time. Of the six pieces on view, four are video works. You need to watch, look, and listen, or move on. Aesthetic comforts would be problematic. (Curated by Natasha Marie Llorens, the exhibition has also included screenings of Ala Eddine Slim, ismaël, and Youssef Chebbi’s film Babylon, Chelsea Knight’s The End of All Resistance, and a presentation by Brad Samuels of SITU Research on the “Left to Die Report.”)
Consequently, Jeewi Lee’s “Geist,” two photographs of a work the artist installed in an abandoned building in Berlin’s Auguststrasse neighborhood — now an arts destination but formerly a Jewish neighborhood — might appear immediately engaging. Because, by comparison, is it ostensibly the least demanding: just two pictures. But even that initial lightness becomes laden after looking.
As its title suggests, “Geist” is haunted by something, the specter of two figures — either soldiers or guards. Insinuated within the lovely surface of old, striped wallpaper, its red pattern overlapping with vertical white bars, the two figures flit across its face, sort of the way history folds imperceptibly into and out of an old cityscape — felt but not seen, seen but not heard. For Lee, they recall the memorial stones or stolperstein that commemorate the names of Jewish and other victims of the Holocaust in towns across Germany. But unlike those plaques, “Geist” is buried in the wallpaper of a ruin; it seems to be far away, excluded from the everyday. But installed in Momenta’s gallery — in the form of two simple, unframed photographs — this estrangement and distance seem a success, an example of photography’s ability to convey but also conceal, bringing you closer to something that remains out of reach.
Nearby is Chitra Ganesh and Mariam Ghani’s “Index of the Disappeared,” the show’s other non-video work. A collaborative project the two artists have carried on since 2004, their archive catalogues the redacted, black-streaked records of post-9/11 disappearances. Here they have selected two documents, installed in light-boxes. Intervening against the censors and the documents’ deletions are their handwritten insertions, excerpts from the US Constitution and texts by the Founding Fathers, a trace of black humor, or at least irony, within their vehement record-keeping. Ghani’s solo video, “Universal Games,” is likewise wry. Freezing, zooming in — confusing — footage of the Second Intifada and the 2000 World Series taken from the same week in October of that year, Ghani finds uncanny, curious overlap in the way mass media looks and speaks. For example, in the throwing motion of a pitcher and that of a protester throwing stones, or in the uniform tone and appearance of network talking heads. Ghani roots out how much can be absurdly similar in our world if you look closely enough while, at the same time, not being the same at all.
Focusing primarily on risk, real estate, and domesticity, Helene Kazan’s contributions — “Masking Tape Intervention: Lebanon 1989” and “(De)constructing Risk: a Domestic Image of the Future” — scrutinize the home as an embattled space. For its residents, the home is protection in times of war. At the same time it is a place of precariousness, the target of missile and artillery strikes. Between tomb and bunker, “Masking Tape Intervention: Lebanon 1989” also seems to record a third state: that of a prison. A taped window — to mitigate the danger of shattered glass from nearby explosions — casts bars across an empty kitchen in a time lapse video, the plant outside shaking anxiously as the gate-like shade stretches across the room, personal protection and war making a jail of one’s own home.
Playing on the gallery’s largest television, in front of a black couch, Lina Selander’s “Around the Cave of the Double Tombs” holds a sort of pride of place. But that might be a creature comfort for whomever views Frames of War’s hardest work.
Silent, black-and-white, and mundane, Selander’s 16-minute video crystallizes apprehension about representation. Accompanying wall text describes a concern with being seen and said; unseen and unsaid; spoken for and misheard — “the sadness in saying and showing.” Filmed mostly in the West Bank city of Hebron, Selander’s film distances us from the familiar imagery of destruction and damage, instead documenting the debris caught in a chain-link fence erected to shield Palestinians from settlers’ stones. What emerges is a strenuous, elliptical study of the corona of war. Selander seems to be searching for an engaged but unburdened way of looking at the damages and echoes of conflict and media. Her video hovers between averting its eyes and rendering the aversion.
“Around the Cave of the Double Tombs” will test your focus, as will much of Frames of War. Selander’s video and Kazan’s contributions can feel and reward like academic texts: suffused with aphorisms, lectern-style speaking, and slow pacing. Like a semester’s towering reading list, there can be an unevenness between these pieces, which do not quite speak to one another, their gravity pushing rather than pulling each together. Their rewards can feel small and hard-won.
Maybe there is a way to be grave, deconstructive, and accessible when addressing war, but this is not it. Frames of War is perhaps what we deserve, but not what we want. For that, Llorens might have heeded the influence of Slavoj Žižek or Clint Eastwood, but to do so carries it own set of problems.