New York

Ronald Jones

Sonnabend Gallery

Her voice restrained, even detached, despite the terror of her tale, she expresses no interest in reliving the incident, in imparting the drama of final moments, but, rather, gives a measured and factual account to guide the viewer from one site to the next. The planters, the ornamental bushes, the bronze busts, the bones, the black and white “snow” patterns synonymous with interrupted electronic transmission are all memorials to those who have not survived. Having met a catastrophic end, she is included among them. Her authority is secure in that she has known what each of us has yet to confront: the horrific white panic of living one’s own death. She is the voice of the Cyclops, the satellite whose mission was abruptly terminated in disastrous collision with the lunar surface; whose first and final transmission was but a few seconds of grainy static and noise.

The subterfuge of Ronald Jones’ installation, with its acousta-guide component and an accompanying text entitled Monster, 1993, is one in which Fiction and fact, art and life merge to the detriment of the normative boundaries that regulate such distinctions. The disembodied female voice that, along with the text, supplies a meditation on Edmund Burke’s notion of the sublime, speaks for victims who can no longer speak for themselves; yet metaphor is sharply curtailed. The characters who make their appearance in Jones’ installation are very real, as real as the narratives concerning the circumstances of their deaths. Here we are introduced to Mala Zilberberg and Leo Levy, who perished at Auschwitz; to a young boy and girl, murdered by the Khmer Rouge at the “torture and execution center” known as Tuol Sleng; to Mark V. Dennis, MIA in Vietnam; to Eddie Di Franco, who was killed along with more than 200 others in the terrorist attack on the Marine barracks in Beirut; and to Addie Mae Collins and Denise McNair, killed in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Through the expertise of forensic and information specialists, they are brought to life in the present either as bronze busts that approximate what they would be like today had they survived, or through fragmentary evidence of their remains. Meanwhile, the decorative effects of lush castor plants and their attractive containers, among which bronze busts and human bones are arranged, disguise their sinister function: the plants contain a deadly toxin that could easily supply terrorists with the means to wage chemical warfare; the planters are designed as defensive barricades against terrorist attack. Both of these, the text documents, figure into U.S. intelligence contingency plans to respond to the ever-present threat of terrorist attack in this country.

The offense that some have registered in relation to the realism of Jones’ installation is that he not only profanes and exploits the victims and their families, whose stories he includes in Monster, but that he tampers with the “truth” of history in what amounts to an estheticized “docudrama” that toys, pointlessly, with real life. And, yet, that seems to be exactly Jones’ point. No redeeming message, no good cause, no altruistic intent can be used to measure the success of so-called political art, to create for late-20th-century art a function that is verifiable in relation to the moral values of “real life,” a function that at present it so desperately seeks while clinging to its own sublime precipice.

Jan Avgikos