New York

Krzysztof Wodiczko

Memorial art is inherently site-specific, as contingent on place as it is on the events that occasion its production. Its evocative power is predicated not only on the acknowledgment of loss but also on the idea of resistance: We will not forget the victims; we will not forget the violence; we will not be silent; we will not go gently into the night. This fusion of politics and passion also appears in the art of Krzysztof Wodiczko, which eulogizes the living, particularly those who are disadvantaged or who suffer at the hands of authority.

Wodiczko is perhaps best known for works designed for public spaces that address the plight of the homeless. In the 1980s, he projected images of dirty, disheveled, and disoriented-looking people onto outdoor sculptures at night. The contrast between the disenfranchised nomads and the statues of robust, well-dressed civic leaders (some of which are located in the very parks where the homeless congregated) was an effective homage to a segment of the population previously relegated to virtual invisibility—at least in the eyes of government. IF YOU SEE SOMETHING . . . , 2005, Wodiczko’s first large-scale indoor digital projection and sound installation, addresses the anxious mood in New York as proclaimed by a current government ad campaign that encourages constant vigilance with the slogan “If You See Something, Say Something”—which prompts the question: Who is the enemy?

Projected in the darkened space of the main gallery were images of banks of tall frosted windows, fitted seamlessly within the interior architecture and framed images of people who took turns relating their stories as witnesses to or victims of governmental abuse. In the smaller front gallery was Speaking Flame, 2005, a companion piece addressing the situation of the soldiers—living and dead—who served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Three candles flickered in an otherwise unlit room and a former soldier was heard discussing the emotional consequences of ordering his troops to open fire on a group of men identified as the enemy.

A quality of “old-time religion” pervaded Wodiczko’s elegiac installations, in part because they contrasted so starkly with the surrounding circus of Chelsea during the opening month of the art season. In addition, Wodiczko’s dedication to working with “real people,” not actors, with serious stories to tell lent the work a further gravitas (the artist contacted his subjects through the auspices of over a dozen organizations, such as the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, Families for Freedom, and Physicians for Human Rights, demonstrating an interest in working with extra-artistic systems that also aligns him with conceptually minded artists of the ’60s).

But ultimately the show encouraged us to reconsider our definition of political art and the terms by which we judge it to be effective. While IF YOU SEE SOMETHING . . . suffered from poor sound quality (a problem that was perhaps anticipated, since transcripts of the text were available), Wodiczko’s clear intention—a commitment to resistance and truth-telling that, while often derided as outmoded or impossible, remains a basic human impulse—survived and flourished.

Jan Avgikos