Carla Arocha

The threat of terrorism and the fear that follows a terrorist attack reduce “normalcy” to a veneer of routine that only imperfectly masks our vulnerabilities and anxieties. On March 20, 1995, several teams of Aum Shinrikyo sect members released aqueous solutions containing highly toxic sarin gas in five Tokyo subway lines during morning rush hour. Twelve commuters died, and more than five thousand were injured; among the effects of sarin is impaired vision, a literal abrading of the eye. The works in Carla Arocha’s exhibition “Underground”—which opened a few days before September 11—allude to the disorientation suffered by the victims of this assault as well as the fear that persists in its aftermath. (Haruki Murakami’s recent book Underground, comprising interviews with casualties of the Tokyo attack as well as interviews with Aum Shinrikyo members, provided the exhibition title.)

The centerpiece was Underground (all works 2001), a large platform constructed fifteen inches above the floor, with thirty-nine mirrors in various sizes arranged on top. On a wall next to the platform was stretched a large sheet of black velvet. Underground functioned as a disrupted reflecting pool, the immediacy and accuracy of the mirror image undercut by the cacophonous proliferation of piecemeal information these mirrors provided. Depending on where the viewer stood, disconnected shards of black velvet, timber ceiling, brickwork, pristine white wall, and bright light appeared simultaneously. Sight became fragmented, undependable, confusing, analogous to the hallucinatory experience described by many of the sarin victims, whose optical breakdown was paralleled by the similarly disjunctive experience of surviving a terrorist attack.

Across the gallery, two smallish black circles appeared at about eye level among the vertical light blue stripes of the painting In the Dark. Victim after victim in Murakami’s book describes pupil contraction, loss of visual focus, and double and impaired vision, in some cases followed by permanent blindness. Arocha’s painted black circles become projections of dysfunctional sight, holes metaphorically punched through the grid of modern abstract painting. Nearby, Umbrella, 2001, a pair of transparencies on mirrored glass, shows the inside of two open umbrellas, one light green, the other pink. The bright colors and the star pattern of the metal ribs, looking almost like the petals of a flower, are lively and upbeat. The pointed end of an umbrella, though, was what the Aum Shinrikyo terrorists used to pierce the sealed bags of water and sarin in the subway. That the trigger for this event was such a benign, generic object—now with permanently altered associations in Japan—is central to Arocha’s consideration of the flimsy and fickle nature of visual signs.

James Yood