New York

Gerda Meyer Bernstein

A.I.R. Gallery

Gerda Meyer Bernstein’s installation, Army of the Disappeared, 1989, made the reports of a ceaseless tragedy tangible for those far away from the site of devastation. It was excruciating in its directness and unrelenting in its poetic power. The project included 90 black and white photographs of men, women, and children—civilians from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua—who have been listed as missing. The images varied in dimension, format, quality, and clarity, but all were set in frames painted flat black. Scrawled in white on the back of each frame was the date when the pictured individual was reported missing. Each photograph was supported on a slender metal post; these varied in height from below waist-level to above eye-level. The entire assembly of images was set in a 40-by-20-foot rectangle of black slag. Situated in a corner of the gallery were stones with no inscriptions, which looked like grave sites.

A great dilemma of contemporary life is the quantity and velocity of news we receive, most of which we can absorb only superficially. Meaning can only come through when the assault of information is transcended, so that the tragic effects of natural and political catastrophes on human beings can be fully felt. Pain can be a triumph when the devastations of another place can be concretely, passionately, and fiercely experienced. Bernstein’s installation showed a vigorous tactility that transformed data into compassion. Some images were vivid and richly articulated in a way that illuminated character; others seemed soft and suggestive, as if the camera had been jostled or an aperture opening missed before the shot was taken. But all of these faces helped the viewer see past the numbing statistics that often describe tragedies.

Bernstein engaged in no simple sensationalism; the installation asserted the psychological dynamics of the abstract and the concrete, of guarded intellectualization and sheer pain. Viewed from the front, the piece became a flat surface—a dense collage of images knit together by the pattern of the black frames. But the installation became more visceral as one moved through the narrow, irregular passages formed by the maze of photographs. Here were the physicality of terror, of claustrophobia, of the ghastly human consequences of political agents and agendas. The installation’s configuration suggested the dialogue that occurs in each mind between data received and effects apprehended. It was about the thick armor and the thin skin that enable all human beings to endure and accept, to grieve and rage.

Patricia C. Phillips