It has become a common refrain to say we’ve become desensitized to images of war, bloodshed, and poverty. BASTA!, an exhibition at the Anya and Andrew Shiva Gallery at John Jay College of Criminal Justice that reflects on violence in Latin America, begins with this assumption. Art historian Claudia Calirman, who organized the show together with independent curator Isabela Villanueva, claims that one of the exhibition’s goals is “to undo the sense of anesthesia created in us by the daily assault of violent images.” In the catalogue, Cecilia-Fajardo Hill writes: “The aesthetization [sic] of violence converts art into a form of spectacle, which both fuels fantasies around violence […] and also promotes a sense of detachment from the brutality of the world and its violence, making it seem unreal and fantastic.” As a result, the exhibition consciously avoids direct depictions of victims and suffering; instead, they are alluded to by their haunting absence.
This argument that we’re numb to brutal imagery surfaces most frequently in discussions of photography, put forth by the likes of Walter Benjamin and Susan Sontag (who’s quoted several times in the BASTA! catalogue). It’s one I’m skeptical of. Susie Linfield, who dedicates her book The Cruel Radiance to this topic, says photographs offer “a glimpse of what cruelty, or strangeness, or beauty, or depraved violence looks like […] There is no doubt that we approach photographs, first and foremost, through emotions.” I agree; when I look at photographs in the news, I am often shocked, filled with disgust and dismay. My reaction isn’t to become senseless or guiltless, as Estrellita B. Brodsky implies in the BASTA! catalogue. I do, however, have the impulse to reject such images, to shove them aside out of hopelessness. It is on this point that the imagery in the exhibition differs most notably.
The works, by contemporary artists from Guatemala, Colombia, Brazil, Peru, Venezuela, and Mexico, rarely cause knee-jerk reactions; many of them are at first glance innocuous. In the Argentine artist group Mondongo‘s “La Raza que aguanta” (The Enduring Race, 2011–12), what appears to be a placid, painted ocean is in fact the site where bodies were dropped during the Argentine dictatorship. A series of underwhelming photographs by Alice Miceli seems to capture forest landscapes but actually shows the locations of Colombian landmines. In a more engaging work by Yucef Merhi, the emails of former Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez have been photocopied and pasted at crooked angles, upside down, overlapping one another on a large wall. I catch a phrase here and there (“He wants to quit his cabinet life”; “Siempre as sus Ordenes”), but the emails are not really intended to be read — they are symbolic in their illustration of the disorderly and vulnerable state of Venezuela.
In BASTA!, the works often refer to something beyond the frame and more disturbing. I am puzzled, like I’ve been given clues to a story I don’t know. Armando Ruiz‘s “Los Silenciados” (The Silenced, 2016) is a book with pages of canvas, filled with the names of all the political prisoners under Chávez. The neat capital letters spelling “Henry,” “Gerardo,” and “Carlos” do not give away the medium in which they were written: human blood. Working through the exhibition there is this underlying sense that the whole truth does not lie in the image; you need to search elsewhere. In Ruiz’s video “No Matarás” (You Shall not Kill, 2013), he writes one of the Ten Commandments in frozen blood until the letters begin to merge and meld into a puddle. Words, like images, do not hold their meaning.
The stages of confusion and disjuncture in viewing these pieces kept me prodding further into their backstories, searching for wall labels. In a sense you could say this is a failure of the artworks to communicate their meanings, but in this instance that’s the point: no artwork, when it comes to complicated histories of violence, can. Photographs, on the other hand, in a news context especially, are often erroneously perceived with a greater level of objectivity and wholeness; we are more likely to accept the images than ask questions about them. Perhaps this is why the works chosen for BASTA! evade explicit depictions, making the distinction between “art” and “reality” clear. The artists here are evidently creating representations, interpretations, reactions.
In the catalogue, Fajardo-Hill argues that the documentation of violence in the media is predicated on how close to home something is: American media publishes gorier images of stories reported in developing countries than those in the US. She cites Sontag, who pointed out that articles about 9/11 were not accompanied by images of the dead. “When violence is remote — racially, culturally and geographically, ‘we’ have control — we are not affected personally, we can distance ourselves,” Fajardo-Hill writes. To a degree, this is true. It is significantly more uncomfortable to visually register the death of someone you know or the plight of a place you’re from. So it’s relevant to note that the perspectives in BASTA! are intimate ones: many of the artists are native to the countries they respond to.
The strongest works in the show are the videos, which reveal the processing of pain and make plain the physical and emotional toll of murder, abuse, tyranny, and other injustices. In one video, Regina José Galindo incises the word “perra” (bitch) into her leg with a knife — a word, among others, found carved into the bodies of women who’ve been tortured and raped in Guatemala. At first, watching the video, I’m almost annoyed, resisting the futile impulse to yell “stop!” But as her bare legs begin to slightly shake, and as the pauses between each of her marks grow longer, my thoughts are silenced. When she finishes spelling out the word, she quickly covers her legs with her dress, her face despondent as she rises from her seat, and walks offscreen. In another video, Galindo dips her bare feet into a basin filled with human blood and walks on the sidewalk that takes her to Guatemala’s Constitutional Court. The work was a protest against former dictator Efraín Rios Montt‘s running for president in 2003. Watching Galindo carry out these calculated, persistent acts — placing the basin down to wet her feet again and again — forges a kind of meeting place between the viewers, the artist, and the victims (including the 1,771 Mayan Indians Montt is accused of having killed) that prevents us from turning our gaze the other way or disentangling ourselves from a former dictator’s wrongdoings.
Something similar happens in Teresa Margolles‘s “Irrigación” (Irrigation, 2010), which shows a water truck dispelling its contents as it drives down a road. The truck, however, is not equipped with water; the spilling liquid was wrung from dampened clothes that absorbed blood and other bodily matter at crime scenes in Juárez, Mexico — where 500 people were murdered in the first three months of 2010. Margolles seriously distorts a sight that at first seems pedestrian, combining improbable imagery and realities as if to say that the division we make between our world and that of the victims is illusory.
Aníbal Lopez (also known as A-1 53167, the number of his Guatemalan identity card) similarly challenges this divide in “Testimonio” (Witness, 2012), for which he flew a sicario, or professional assassin, to Documenta 13 in Kassel to speak openly about his job and answer audience questions. Seated behind a curtain so that only his shadow is visible, the sicario is matter-of-fact about his occupation and self-aware. “I know I have to pay for this,” he says in response to a query about whether he’s afraid for the afterlife. “But I have to live like this.” For him, his job is not a choice but an inevitability. Meanwhile, the audience members’ expressions oscillate between concern, disbelief, and even amusement.
While BASTA! laments how images of violence have become customary, what’s memorable about this exhibition is the way in which violence is proved to be disturbingly commonplace — even if the experiences of it are far from being so. The “bigger picture” of violence in Latin America may be captured in the news, but the cumulative, day-to-day brutality can go largely unnoticed, both because of our own ignorance and because governments and other power structures have kept it that way. Here, the choice to not represent the victims directly feels apt: the goal is not to compel us to shield our eyes, but to get us to notice the absences and hear the overwhelming silence.
BASTA! continues at the Anya and Andrew Shiva Gallery at John Jay College of Criminal Justice (West 59th Street, Upper West Side, Manhattan) through July 15.