What if we refuse to see? What would be the result if we refused images of devastation and destruction? Could we still bear witness to the excesses of war?
The result is more horrific than anything that can be captured in a single image. Vicky Moufawad-Paul, curator of A Space Gallery, presents us with “A Refusal of Images”. “Through abstracting and reconfiguring the notion of witnessing…[artists can] circumvent a system of images that are often trapped in meaning and over-determined by our viewing habits”.
With an ingenious use of space, and a knack for juxtaposition, Vicky brings together a multimedia project with photos and films from Toronto-based artist Rehab Nazzal and British artists Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin. Nazzal pushes us up against the Israeli wall where weekly demonstrations take place. In a world of “exhausted images of demonstrations”, Nazzal’s piece is mortifying precisely because there are no images; there is no focus. Submersed in tear gas, we are forced out of the realm of mere representation and into the realm of affect.
On the opposite wall is Broomberg and Chanarin’s video which features the journey that their camera makes between security barriers in Afghanistan. While the images we see on the screen are clear, there is an almost surreal feeling to the video. The hyper-reality of the video, and the calm and robotic movements of the soldiers create a drama that far out-performs representations of intensified conflict by showing us the logic of the military complex. In Vicky’s words, “The absurdity of the actions in the video rub up against the seriousness of the context of war and the beauty of the abstract photographic works”.
The photographs are set up in a similarly dramatic way: On one wall is Nazzal’s “Dead Sea Series” which depicts everything but the Dead Sea. As a Palestinian she is unable to get close enough to take photos of the sea, save for a few quick shots of the coast, which is “peppered with military paraphernalia”. On the opposite wall are Broomberg and Chanarin’s “The Day Nobody Died”, which is a series of overexposed film on days of heightened tensions in Afghanistan. The artists felt their images would be more effectively perceived by audiences as abstract images rather than literally displaying the events unfolding in front of them. The first image starts as an intense red and the last is white with small traces of orange. The result is a profound experience.
And finally, perhaps the most shocking and encompassing of the pieces is another of Nazzal’s films. Eerie because it is set up in a blackened room, all on its own. Petrifying because of the sounds we hear. Unbearable in its explanation. Unforgivable as it forces us to witness something we could never otherwise even imagine. The screen is totally black, with sparse flashes of white light. Nazzal, with her young children, was visiting her mother in Palestine when late one night her village was raided. Afraid to turn on the lights, Nazzal grabbed her camera and started filming from her window, though nothing could be seen through the thickness of night.
Images are always bound to the media in which they are depicted; they are doomed to always be mere representations of themselves. Sometimes it is more unbearable to witness the unseen, or to literally not see. When we stop obsessing over images, we can allow art to arrest us in other ways. With “A Refusal of Images” we are no longer being shown representations of war, we are forced to partake.