Collecting Atrocities

octoberOver at Modern Art Notes Tyler Green has an interesting discussion with MoMA Chief Curator of Photography Peter Galassi regarding how the Abu Ghraib photographs might fit into MoMA’s collection. Galassi and Green each raise interesting points about what physical representation such a thing might occupy (magazine? JPEG?). Green asks if the hypothetical MoMA acquisition might function as part of a “specific national process.” Galassi doesn’t think so:

But what I think is interesting about it is that it represents a new stage of vernacular photography because it was both the ease of making these digital pictures and then especially the ease of sending them around is what made Abu Ghraib blow up. And so in that sense, if Lynndie England had just had that picture in her locker, no one would have ever seen it.

While MoMA has significant holdings of vernacular photography and works that primarily function as documents (the Eddie Adams photograph), it is interesting to consider the criteria for works that enter their collection in contrast to other institutions. In a recent interview at PhotoWing, Malcolm Daniel explains the Met’s perspective:

Other curators have a different perspective than we have here. Our mission is here on the bulletin board: To collect, preserve, study, exhibit, and stimulate appreciation for and advance knowledge of works of art that collectively represent the broadest spectrum of human achievement at the highest level of quality, all at the service of the public and in accordance with the highest professional standards. There it is. That’s our perspective…

In New York, for instance, there are a number of institutions actively collecting and exhibiting photographs. But I think when you go to The Met, the Modern, the Whitney, the Guggenheim, ICP, for each of us, there’s a kind of institutional personality and there’s a perspective of individual curators. It’s a different experience at these different places.

Given Daniel’s comments, it’s hard to imagine the Abu Ghraib photos ever ending up at the Met. MAN’s discussion of Abu Ghraib is worth noting in relation to a controversial acquisition that did take place: the archive of photographs S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine joining MoMA. The photographer, Nhem Ein, was hired by Pol Pot’s regime to document every person admitted to an extermination camp as part of the Cambodian genocide. The photographs subsequently came to the attention of the art world when they were exhibited at the 1997 Recontres de la photographiques d’Arles. Eventually a set of the photographs were acquired by the Museum of Modern Art. In his essay “Art in the Face of Radical Evil,” available for free on October’s website, Thierry de Duve grapples with what it means for art theory when artifacts such as the S21 images enter the aesthetic space of the museum and acquire the label “art.” He rightly brings Avedon’s formally similar portraits into the discussion, and finally concludes,

Calling the photos by the name of art, baptizing them, in the second person—“You are art”—is just one way, the clumsiest, certainly, of making sure that the people in the photos are restored to their humanity; and this, not their so-called art status, is of course what matters. To speak of shouldering the role of the artist that Nhem Ein could not assume is another way of saying the same. There is nothing honorific to the name artist in this sense. If anything, it testifies to the impossibility of claiming to speak on behalf of all of us without speaking for the evil part of humankind as well as for the peaceful and civilized.

Josh Azzarella: Untitled #24 (Green gloves)

Josh Azzarella: Untitled #24 (Green gloves)

This comes back to the question of the archive and it’s role in the aesthetic sphere. Galassi makes it clear that MoMA is not an archive in the historical, rather than aesthetic, sense. But artists certainly make use of such archives as sources for their works. Josh Azzarella’s work is worthy of consideration in this regard, particularly addressing Green’s interest in a national processing of the legacy of the images. Azzarella’s intervention involves the erasure of the prisoners from the photographs. Their tortured, shamed bodies become conspicuous by their absence; the work functions in a strange way between formal analysis (seemingly inappropriate negative space) and mass media familiarity (our recognition and subsequent differentiation of the images). Azzarella’s Brechtian estrangement of the image allows us to see their horror once again.

Further reading:

William Vollman: Seeing Eye to Eye (Bookforum)

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5 Responses to “Collecting Atrocities”

  1. Jim VanKirk Says:

    An excellent piece. I’m so much the better for having read it.
    JVK

  2. pete Says:

    a great article. and, i have a few thoughts.

    firstly, i wasn’t aware the S-21 photos had been acquired by the MoMA. however, this doesn’t cause concern for me. given the moving and morphing definitions of art/non-art today, we shouldn’t hold every object in a given collection up to a single purpose or institutional identity.

    the khmer rouge images are critical documents of a politically brutal era. as long as the museum doesn’t leave that unsaid (and the audience insists the original circumstances of production are presented) we should be okay.

    the MoMa is as well positioned as any collecting institution to care for and manage these documents of social history.

    secondly, we would be in denial if we said humans weren’t drawn to the macabre in art and culture. the S-21 photographs may seem so close to tragedy that we stall … and yet warhol’s car crashes, clinton fein’s painted mock-ups of abu ghraib, gothic and fantasy art, even the vacuity of contemporary photography – they all play toward a nihilist relativism, bemoaning life that makes little sense.

    our worry shouldn’t be that atrocity is attractive, our worry should be that atrocity is glossed over too quickly. i think accession into major collections at least guarantee the physical preservation of material, and hopefully the cultural preservation too?

    gilles peress now talks of himself as a forensic recorder rather than a photographer. and yet, the art world continues to incorporate him. thousands of other photographers and artists tread these lines between definitions. it almost seems inevitable.

    for an older but insightful group of presentations on photography and atrocity, visit:

    http://www.photographyandatrocity.leeds.ac.uk/

  3. Historical Erasure at the Pictures Generation « Carefully Aimed Darts Says:

    [...] that chief photography curator Malcolm Daniel explained the Met curator’s mission as “To collect, preserve, study, exhibit, and stimulate appreciation for and advance knowledge of [...]

  4. Flavorwire » What’s on at Flavorpill: Links that made the rounds in our office. Says:

    [...] you’ll never see. We gazed longingly at these faux film-based book covers. We questioned the criteria for the works that enter museums’ collections. We thought about starting a glossy magazine. We discovered a new word: “indietecture”. [...]

  5. Flavorwire » What’s on at Flavorpill: Links that made the rounds in our office. Says:

    [...] you’ll never see. We gazed longingly at these faux film-based book covers. We questioned the criteria for the works that enter museums’ collections. We thought about starting a glossy magazine. We discovered a new word: “indietecture”. [...]

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