New York

Gilles Peress

P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center

Farewell to Bosnia is an installation of over 80 images made last year in Bosnia and Croatia that documents the lives of Bosnian refugees in flight and under siege. (First shown at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D. C., the show’s last venue will be the Southeast Museum of Photography in Daytona Beach early in 1995.)

Gilles Peress’ 30-by-40-inch black and white photographs were printed full frame, mounted on canvas with metal grommets in the corners, and screwed to the walls in broken rectangular grids. Arranged on facing walls set at an angle, the two largest grids form a funnel viewers can enter: Road (all works 1993) depicts refugees in flight in Central Bosnia, and Home, Sarajevo under siege. The funnel empties into a small room in the back where images from hospitals in Sarajevo and Mostar—the thousand-yard stare of a man with a head wound, a young boy’s severed hands, plastic prosthetic feet—are arranged to form a cross-shaped grid entitled Dismemberment that reconstructs as much as represents the wounded body.

Peress takes the fragmentary nature of photographs as his organizing principle, both in single images and in the installation as a whole (produced in collaboration with Corcoran Gallery curator Philip Brookman). Single images—a scarred back, the toady smile of a politician, body bags lined up like seed pods behind a flowering tree—operate like single frames in a film. Within single photographs, Peress is often looking through some broken or damaged barrier—bullet-riddled windows, bombed-out buildings, torn fences, shattered walls. People and objects are scattered around the frames like shards of a broken vessel.

There are almost no images of combat, or of what have become the everyday activities of murder, rape, and mutilation. Instead we see the effects of war—corpses, wounds, severed limbs, vacant faces, destruction and dislocation. There are lots of children. Peress photographs effects rather than causes, gestures rather than movements, because this is all that photographs can honestly do. Perhaps it is all that any form of representation can do. We get fragments of a picture because a complete picture, a “whole” picture, would be a lie.

There is a fine line between documentation and exploitation, and any documentation of value works this line. Peress’ images are always conscious of themselves, of their strange relation to the suffering they record, but at the same time they are remarkably fresh. There are a number of the kind of unself-conscious, unironic images that one seldom sees from a professional—sunlight streaming through a window, someone holding a scythe in a cemetery, children fitting their shadows into chalk outlines of bodies on the ground. We have seen these images many times before, and that seems to be the point. Everything about what is happening in Bosnia is so sickeningly familiar.

Farewell to Bosnia is part of Peress’ larger project called “Hate Thy Brother,” a series of documentary stories about ethnic violence, intolerance, and the reemergence of nationalism in postwar Europe. It is a picture of dismemberment and fragmentation—and the disintegration of the social. The fragmentary nature of photographs makes the medium particularly suited to the task.

David Levi Strauss