New York

“Zones of Conflict”

Pratt Manhattan Gallery

Debates and discussions around the profoundly contradictory, and often uncomfortable, interrelationships of art, aesthetics, and politics have been in motion for decades. Numerous exhibitions, panel discussions, and other events have been organized to address these worthy issues, yet we remain, after two decades of increased networks of globalized artistic exchange, unable to effectively trace the social reverberations. Such uncertainty seemed to be the undercurrent of “Zones of Conflict,” a modest group exhibition intermixing documentary, postdocumentary, and hybrid docu-fictive photographic and video-based practices that confront, testify to, register, and de-realize actual territories of war.

In his absorbing, theoretically savvy, yet ultimately unsurprising essay accompanying the show, curator T. J. Demos, a contemporary art historian and critic, writes of the urgency to examine “recent artistic approaches to geopolitical conflict” within the context of the endless “war on terror.” Invoking Paul Virilio, Demos reminds us that this has been a war of images and representation; in other words, of propaganda. He contends that the artists gathered here resist the conventional language of mainstream media as they articulate notions of truth (vis-à-vis representation) and, further, that their practices generate a kind of fecund uncertainty about the relations among aesthetics, expression, and “the political” that contests typical notions of effectiveness. Deploying the ideas of Jacques Rancière, who argues that aesthetics, and by extension art, still has the potential to rearticulate the terms of political discourse to generate a condition of equality, as well as Michel Foucault’s deconstruction of notions of universal truth vis-à-vis those of subjectivity and power, Demos basically claims that the practices offered open up the potential for critical consciousness.

Among the evidence was the historically inscrutable quasi documentation of The Atlas Group in Collaboration with Walid Raad’s Let’s be honest, the weather helped (Saudi Arabia, China, US, Switzerland, NATO, UK, Israel), 1984–2007, a book of black-and-white images of what appear to be various urban sites, colored with Baldessari-like dots corresponding to the types of ammunition used in the Lebanese Civil War. This work links nicely to Sam Durant’s tragicomic montage Proposal for Iraq War Memorial, Symbolic transposition of effects of war in Iraq to the US and England: 10 Downing St., Parliament, US Capitol and the White House, 2007. Sean Snyder’s Untitled (Archive Iraq), 2003–2005, a grid of soldiers’ snapshots of the Iraq war, operates as a kind of mediator between such conceptually oriented aesthetic strategies of constructing meaning and those that appear to invest in varying degrees of veracity and testimony, as in Ahlam Shibli’s impossibly poetic photographs of refugee camps and other locations; Ghaith Abdul-Ahad’s dramatically straightforward (even “factographic”) image of a Shiite sniper firing on US troops, or his image of a bombed- out Hezbollah section of Beirut. Guy Tillim’s photographs of the tragedy in the Congo have a photojournalistic in-the-trenches feel, while An-My Lê’s black-and-white prints, from the series “29 Palms,” 2003–2004, which document actual training exercises for Iraq on the titular, Southern California military base, are more aestheticized.

Among the works offering first-person testimony, Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige’s documentary video Khiam, 2000–2007, provides a platform for former prisoners of Israel’s notorious Khiam jail in Southern Lebanon to voice their unfortunate experiences, while Lamia Joreige’s more poetically subjectivist videos Nights and Days and Full Moon (both 2007) appear to tell the artist’s own narratives as she transits through war-scarred Beirut landscapes.

Although Demos assembled a counterhegemonic force field of practices that may provoke us to rethink the certainties of documentary modes of representation, ironically his curatorial approach did not generate a conflictual or ambiguous experience for the viewer—there were few, if any, ideological tensions. Ultimately, what did resonate here were the unmistakable signs (visual, narratological, or other) of territories, people, identities, subjectivities, and cultures broken by conflict.

Joshua Decter