When Words Fail: Coping with Violence Through Art

July 21, 2020
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It can not only be difficult but intensely painful to talk about violence - especially if it comes from personal experience.
That’s where art comes in - because it can be much more than just describing or forming opinions on past violences. Art exists in a real time and space, often in the company of other people. It therefore offers a much more communication-based model for difficult conversations. It allows us to not summarize or conclude violence but to work through it together.

I remember this one day at a DUMBO gallery where they had an exhibition about the Hiroshima bombing. It was some kind of federal holiday, so many families with young children came in. Children were particularly excited because unlike the tragic subject matter, the art took the form of a castle made of colorful paper cranes. The disjunction between children's unbridled joy and the clear discomfort on the adults' faces when asked "so mom, what is this art about?" was truly powerful.
Inspired by that memory, here are some unexpected ways art can approach violence.

One, Make people uncomfortable 

Many people have a vague idea that art should represent politically correct opinions. But it also matters how that’s done. When it comes to violence, we tend to try to look the other way and sugarcoat it as much as possible - an understandable impulse, but comes as a second blow to surviving victims or their families. “Coping” shouldn’t be a message that “everything is fine” but first and foremost the audacity to face the reality of blood shed and bodies buried. 

Doreen Garner

In White Men on a Pedestal at Brooklyn’s Pioneer Works, Doreen Garner educated us about the horrendous origins of gynecology - Dr J. Marion Sims, considered the father of modern gynecology, performed dozens of surgeries on enslaved women without anesthesia. 

The lumpy growths and mutilated limbs on Doreen’s sculptures echo the condition Dr. Sims was trying to cure, called vesicovaginal fistula, which is as painful as it sounds. The slave-owners had a huge incentive to invest in a cure, though, because slave women were prized for their reproductive capacity and this condition made them unable to give birth. 


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Teresa Margolles

Mexican artist Teresa Margolles brings actual physical traces of violence into the gallery: blood-soaked flags, room filled with vaporized water used to wash corpses, 

She in fact worked as a mortician in the 90’s, which is how she became interested in largely undocumented victims of drug-related violence at the Northern Mexican border

Although drug-related violences in Latin America is closely related to the American economy - so common that it forms a part of life in certain cities, and is even geographically just across the border - we only hear about it in abstract numbers. The immersive nature of Teresa Margolles’ works are a reminder that the kind of shock visitors face when they realize the vapor they’re breathing is water from corpses is all-encompassing like the air that surrounds us. 


Two, Public art projects acknowledge injustice


Art displayed in public spaces like squares, parks, large buildings, and train stations carry a seal of approval. They receive so much exposure and often become an iconic scenery that they quickly become the new standard of normal, defining the way people think they should perceive certain topics.

Comfort Women Statues

In the 1930’s, more than 200,000 women from Korea, China, and Taiwan were taken to serve as “comfort women”, or sex slaves, at Japanese military camps. Kept at small wooden shacks, they were often forced to have sex with 70 soldiers in one day. 

Today, only a few of these comfort women survive. Yet many Koreans feel that still no apology or recuperation has been made for the cruelty. So statues of small women meant to represent all comfort women, installed in 50-or-so major parks and squares in Korea, often become the center of protest. 

They have also sparked major diplomatic conflicts - with Japan demanding the removal of these statues, deals being made then broken about removing them conditionally if public apologies are made, and an exhibition in Aichi Triennale that included this statue closing down early. This only proves that public art is always deeply entwined with the official position of institutions they are placed in. 

Three, Art can be a form of research 

The worst violence you can commit is completely erasing somebody’s presence.

Unfortunately, many minorities have been excluded from the kind of official, sanitized history we learn in textbooks (which is, of course, how they become "minorities"). It can take the form of literally burning down libraries and archaeological sites, or denying people representation in politics and media. 

Artists can take on the role of researcher and bring these marginalized groups back to the surface. Like how a photograph of your family (and your dog perhaps?) gives you a sense of reassurance that they exist somewhere and just not right next to you, visualizing experiences is a powerful way of validating their existence. 

The Potosí Principle

Curators of this exhibition made a research trip to Potosí in Bolivia where indigenous people were enslaved and exploited in the 17th century to mine huge amounts of silver that would be sent to Europe. It was so (in)famous that the phrase “'vale un Potosí” is still used to mean “worth a fortune”. So the “Potosí Principle” refers to the fact that today's Capitalist wealth originated in colonial violence. 

Needless to say, this was a pretty intense and complicated topic to explore - that is why the exhibition was accompanied by dozens of diagrams linking texts to the work presented, as well as a “guidebook” for visitors. Moreover, the exhibition travelled to Madrid, Berlin, and La Paz in Bolivia, educating both people who identify as past colonizers and colonized. In this way, The Potosí Principle was a lesson not just about what happened in the past but how deeply relevant it is to the distribution of power in today’s world.  


One Archives

is one of the biggest collections of LGBTQ+ documents, recordings, and art (browse here https://one.usc.edu/collections). In addition to well-known events like the Stonewall Riots, One Archives brings to attention lesser known moments important to queer history - for exmaple, the arrest of Punjabi laborer Baba Singh for “infamous crimes against culture” (1914’s for homosexuality). 

In the exhibition about Baba Singh, courtroom documents were shown next to a sound composition of Punjabi folk songs by a contemporary artist, emphasizing the alienation felt by a queer person is inseparable from that felt by a person of color. Their other exhibitions on queer Chicano history brings to life hard-to-document media like performance art and zines that were not included in mainstream art of publications at the time. 


Four, Open up a space for discussion 

As important as the art exhibition itself is the programming around it: wall texts, catalogues, tours, public lectures, and events that brings art to the community and in turn let it inspire political action.


Smack Mellon, RESPOND (2015)

During 2015's Black Lives Matter, DUMBO gallery Smack Mellon opened a group exhibition in  protest of the jury’s decision not to indict Daniel Pantaleo, the officer responsible for the death of Eric Garner. Over 200 artists participated - with their works strewn across and around the industrial gallery space, the scale in itself was testimony to how many people resonated with the anti-racist cause.

Related programs included a poetry reading; a panel on “non-violence” by SHIFTER, a series of public discussion where anyone can present and respond; and a workshop led by Shamirrah Hardin and other artists who had co-organized a flash mob at Grand Central Station. These artists had been making action on their own, but recognition also goes to Smack Mellon for organizing them in one thread so the audience could engage with artists directly and easily. 



Clubs, Parties, Music

Discussion is not always speech and writing, either. The club scene has functioned as a sanctuary for queer people since the 70’s. Through the non-judgmental fantasy space of nightlife, creatives from visual arts, music, fashion, and whatever else you can imagine can meet, form connections, and find potential for collaboration. 

And now it listens closely to the needs of BIPOC, in particular through POC-oriented venues and venues where people can go expecting a safe space. Bushwick mainstay House of Yes was established on the principle of consent; Papi Juice curates parties not only with QTPOC guests but with guidelines to ensure respectful culture among the audience; and collective Queer Trash explores forms of dissembling and reinterpreting traditional musical forms as much as gender categories.


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