Art

How Bodies in Peril Might Help Us See Our Humanity

Perilous Bodies, an exhibition at the Ford Foundation’s newly opened gallery, suggests the inescapable vulnerability of embodiment.

Installation view of Perilous Bodies with (below) Tiffany Chung’s “finding one’s shadow in ruins and rubble” (2014); and (above) Sara Rahbar’s “America, Flag #54” (2017) and (right) “Land of the Free, Flag 55” (2017) (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

As I enter the gallery, I find myself under a curving torrent of bombs that lunge from the back wall into a graceful arc toward me. Mahwish Chisty’s “Hellfire II” (2017–18) consists of cast foam replicas of the eponymous missiles in a show of militarized strength, which hold their fire in a languid cascade of weaponry that for now feels harmless caught in its frozen dive. But this ordinance does eventually come down. I can imagine its effects, but then get to see them backlit in Tiffany Chung’s “finding one’s shadow in the rubble” (2014), a series of light boxes displaying the shelled-out buildings of cities in Syria. Several buildings are still upright, but they are gray, broken warrens, like broken corpses with cratered teeth and no soul alive to be found in their cavities. Right above Chung’s work are two versions of the United States flag, each festooned with the paraphernalia of military personnel — the clips, pouches, insignia, and ammunition belts that regularly stand in for this nation’s might and status in the world. And growing up in this country, the accouterments that signify a kind of florid, overly enthusiastic preparedness for war frequently gets mistaken for actual strength. It isn’t. It’s merely misguided priorities and a show of force that anxiously declares this nation cannot ever die (though, like everything else, it can). While Chung’s work displays the aftermath of this kind of organized violence that aims to control bodies, the next door installation by Mohamed Hafez (a Syrian artist) of miniature dioramas that are magpie concoctions of keepsakes arranged against a large ornate mirror frame contain jewelry, toy cars, dried flowers, tiny window shutters, and satellite dish antennas. They evoke the imagined, mishmash places we construct in our imaginations when we are in exile. Altogether, the work in this front room speaks to the interrelation between the hazards of war and its attraction.

Installation view of Perilous Bodies with (below) Mohamad Hafez’s “Damascene Athan Series” (2017); and (above) Mahwish Chisty “Hellfire II” (2017–2018)

And thus the Perilous Bodies exhibition — the Ford Foundation’s inaugural show at its newly opened gallery under the director Lisa Kim — feels like it is misnamed. These signified bodies are not perilous as in dangerous or hazardous or treacherous. But then, perhaps I’m wrong: They are exposed, in danger, in jeopardy, which is also part of the meaning of the term. But the deeper meaning comes to the surface here: To have a body is in some way always to be vulnerable. Much of historical human development is rooted in this general truth: we can be hurt, degraded, manipulated, and torn apart, but across cultures and times our values have tended to skew in the direction of denying this. Our police forces, our war engines, our beliefs in our gods, even our politics can be understood as a kind of anxious shoring up of the floodgates of the fear at our helplessness, a check on the dread that we can die anytime for any host of reasons. We can. And we do.

Mohamed Hafez, “Damascene Athan Series” (2017) (image courtesy of Ford Foundation Gallery, photo by Sebastian Bach)

This is to say that to be embodied is to be imperiled, and perhaps to recognize this basic principle is to come closer to being fully human. So this exhibition means to find that string in me, pull it taught and strum it until my whole body vibrates with this held note. I feel all of this as I walk. I consider how this first show in a series of three organized around the theme of utopian imagination expresses our susceptibility in its very forms of denial, transference, and fetishization. If we had any doubt about the fact that we are soft, fleshy creatures with a limited time span, the ways and means we are subject to violence meted out by other human beings should wash it away.

Dread Scott, “The Blue Wall of Violence” (1999)

Still, the second part of the gallery lacks the cogency and power of the other room. It feels more makeshift, as if the curators wanted to alert us to other kinds of peril that we are subject to — sexual violence, the vulnerability of crossing borders, homelessness, being subject to the barbarity of police — but were ticking boxes.

Jasmeen Patheja uses a display of partial personal testimonies generated by a participatory project that has yielded an archive of sexual assault survivors speaking to the particular vulnerability of women’s bodies. The title of her piece, “Meet to Sleep / I Never ‘Ask For It'” (2016-2018), alludes to how blaming the victim for her own violation is another form of denying our own vulnerability. David Antonio Cruz depicts trans women who have been murdered in his “inmysleeplesssolitudetonight, portrait of the florida girls” (2019) in slightly hazy, but brightly colored paintings of his subjects — as if to memorialize the varied chromatic palette of their lives that Cruz will not allow to be dimmed in death. Dread Scott’s “The Blue Wall of Violence” (1999) is a similar kind of elegy to Black men murdered by police, though here the bodies are reduced to gun range targets holding various items in their attached cast arms. The piece recognizes that it doesn’t matter what they hold in their hands: keys, a wallet, a candy bar, a phone, or nothing at all. They are subject to violence because of who they are (much like the trans women), not because of anything they have done or could do. Nona Faustine’s “Demeter’s Morning” (2019) shows that we are vulnerable not merely to bodily injury and death, but also to the circumstances of being persistently precarious by living without a stable shelter. These are all very moving and insightful works, but the other pieces in the room make the exhibition feel diffuse, almost rambling.

Nona Faustine, “Demeter’s Morning” (2019)

In all, the exhibition begins with boldness and then more tentative steps, as if the curators leaped into the space, and then finding themselves with a surfeit of ways that the body can be threatened and pulled apart, opted for one of each. But the utopian imagination (which will be elaborated in the subsequent shows mounted later this year), if it is to have any purchase with us at all, will have to figure out what to do with all our bodies, with their susceptibility to harm, with our contradictions, and the defenses that spring up unconsciously to guard them from being taken away from us.

Perilous Bodies, the first exhibition in the series created on the theme of Utopian Imagination, continues at the Ford Foundation Center for Social Justice (320 E 43rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan) through May 11. It was curated by Jaishri Abichandani and Natasha Becker.

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