Doreen Garner, Roughly Documented, Three Million Eight Hundred Ninety Four Thousand and Fifty Six, 2021, steel, silicone, glass beads, hair, staples, 36 × 50 1⁄4 × 10".

Doreen Garner, Roughly Documented, Three Million Eight Hundred Ninety Four Thousand and Fifty Six, 2021, steel, silicone, glass beads, hair, staples, 36 × 50 1⁄4 × 10".

Doreen Garner

For the past few years, Doreen Garner has used the violent medical history of slavery and colonialism as a starting point for mixed-media sculptures that frequently contain body parts cast in silicone and urethane plastics. Of the three wall-mounted sculptures that made up Garner’s exhibition “Steal, Kill and Destroy: A Thief Who Intended Them Maximum Harm,” one two-part work was exhibited here for the first time. For Roughly Documented, Three Million Eight Hundred Ninety Four Thousand and Fifty Six, 2021, Garner stapled together a Portuguese flag from pale, skin-like strips of silicone. Beside it appeared a Union Jack assembled via the same technique. In both cases, the white skin was speckled with the boils, blisters, and rashes that are typical symptoms of scarlet fever, smallpox, and syphilis. A mirror mounted on the massive steel frame revealed the verso: a gruesome patchwork of severed Black feet and other body parts, drawing attention to the way white colonizers weaponized disease to commit genocide against native populations.

However, to describe Garner’s work as mere illustrations of historical fact would be to ignore their confrontational edge. In a short video produced for the 2020 edition of Art Basel, the artist described her work as “directly referencing” the Covid-19 pandemic. The same reference was also palpable in Roughly Documented. The pandemic changed popular associations of travel with leisure and prosperity to those of viral infection while white right-wing politicians around the world exploited the moment by reactivating old tropes associating immigration with the spread of disease. Instead of refuting xenophobic narratives, Garner inverts their rhetoric and redirects it toward the one historical form of migration in which the association between travel and disease is historically substantiated fact: the conquest by white settler-colonialist nations. As Garner clarifies in the video, the pale pockmarked skin of the Portuguese and British flags drives home the fact that “white bodies and pale bodies have been sharers and distributors of disease and virus.” When the artist engages in symbolic violence against actual murderers, she raises crucial questions about the value of revenge, retribution, and political violence that polite liberal discourse is wont to sidestep.

Garner’s work is strongest when it is explicit, rather than open-ended and allegorical, and the presentation in Graz too often left such kinds of questions tacit. Whereas the ubiquity of pandemic discourse made recent pieces legible, the show’s only prepandemic work exemplified the types of challenges that attend the transplanting of antiracist discourse from the US to European countries that have yet to meaningfully address their own racist pasts and presents. Given pride of place in the show’s central gallery, Red Rack of those Ravaged and Unconsenting, 2018, featured eight pieces of silicone flesh decorated with pearls and suspended with meat hooks from an industrial steel frame. Garner made this work following extended research into the career of James Marion Sims (1813–1883), an American physician known as the “father of modern gynecology,” whose medical advances were almost exclusively based on ruthless experimentation on enslaved Black women, without anesthesia. The lumps of roughly pinned-together hands, bellies, fat cells, and muscle tissue seem to mirror Sims’s horrific practice of slicing open and stitching together the living bodies of Black women. Although the wall text in Graz dutifully explained this connection, it did not mention that this is just one of several works Garner created around Sims’s legacy. Crucially, when the artist first showed a similar group of silicone parts at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn, the sculpture was accompanied by a performance titled Purge, 2017, in which Garner and other Black women performers circled around a replica of a statue of Sims that then stood in Central Park (it was removed the following year). Together, the performers brutalized his silicone flesh by subjecting it to a version of vesicovaginal fistula repair, the same surgery that was Sims’s claim to medical fame. Without the retributive symbolic violence of the performance, an otherwise powerful sculpture appears merely descriptive. The presentation in Graz risked allowing a largely white Austrian art audience to behold tortured and murdered Black bodies as artifacts of a static distant history, not as the unhealed injuries and calls to action they are for Garner.