That’s the question artist and State University at Buffalo professor Millie Chen poses in the text accompanying her two installations now on display at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. We know aesthetics can, in the right hands, do a bang up job of conveying human atrocity. German filmmaker Serge Eisenstein’s aesthetically triumphant filmBattleship Potemkin, with its jarringly brutal Odessa steps sequence, springs to mind. Pablo Picasso’s Guernica evocatively conveys tragedy and suffering, as does fellow Spaniard Francisco Goya’s The Third of May 1808. Contemporary Taiwanese artist Chen Chieh-Jen produces highly disturbing digital imagery reflecting gross inhumanity. American Naomi Natale filled the National Mall in Washington, D.C. with One Million Bones as a graphic reminder of global genocide. These works prompt a visceral response, ample evidence of the expressive power of aesthetics.
In Chen’s art, on the other hand, ideas generally take precedence over conventional aesthetic concerns; her work is less likely to deliver a belt to the gut than a circuitous poke to the intellect. When Chen refers to aesthetics here, she seems to mean decorative arts. Her Miseries & Vengeance Wallpapers are essentially two cryptic sets of wall coverings papering the museum’s Clifton Hall Link. Both contain “decorative” imagery derived from the small antiwar etchings of the French artist Jacques Callot, collectively titled The Miseries and Misfortunes of War (1633). Callot’s linear originals—which Chen accessed through the museum’s collection and which hang throughout—depict destruction and human degradation imposed on civilians and soldiers during the Thirty Years’ War. The somewhat mannered battle scenes and portrayals of torture are set within pastoral landscapes and villages.
Chen separates these settings from the human conflict in order to prompt fresh readings. One of her wall coverings comprises Callot’s countryside scenes and villages eerily devoid of human figures. They’re presented as a running mural against white walls that turn light gray below a figurative horizon line. Viewed out of context, Callot’s torture devices are faintly sinister but indecipherable. Chen’s other design mimics traditional toile wallpaper with repeated images of Callot’s tormented or battling human figures recontextualized against a deep red patterned background. By placing historical acts of violence in the context of domestic decorative arts, Chen intends to disrupt reflexive viewing habits to nudge viewers out of complacency. This might be more disturbing—and effective—if people like Robert Rodriguez, Quentin Tarantino, Frank Miller, and Brian De Palma hadn’t gotten there first.
The specific question Chen seems to be raising is what is the capacity of decorative wall covering to convey atrocity? If I have this question right, the answer is little, at least on its own. Nothing about this work is readily apparent. Without the accompanying didactic wall text, viewers would be left largely bewildered. Whether you feel the work benefits or suffers from its esoteric nature depends on your attitudes toward art that requires considerable explaining to comprehend. Chen’s overarching interest is the challenge of sustaining humankind’s collective memory even as time marches on and memory dims. It’s questionable whetherMiseries & Vengeance Wallpapers contributes to that, but it represents an intriguing retelling of events.
Chen addresses the theme of collective memory again with Tour, her second work currently on display. Touris located in the museum’s Gallery for New Media, a dark room where visitors can watch and listen to the artist’s lyrically unfolding audio/video presentation. The video component involves extended hand-held meandering shots of uncultivated terrain with the camera tilted toward the ground. There is almost nothing to establish context. Chen subverts conventions of traditional landscape art by only allowing us to see the soil and its natural growth, though occasionally the camera pushes through tall foliage and catches a glimpse of the horizon. It’s not unpleasant, but it is a bit disorienting. There are four such segments, and at some point during each, subtitles appear telling us where we are: Murambi, Rwanda; Cheoung Ek, Cambodia; Treblinka, Poland; Wounded Knee, United States. Knowledgeable visitors will no doubt recognize one or more of these as places where some form of genocidal act occurred. The audio comprises four linked melodies composed by Juliet Palmer and winsomely performed by four humming and chanting female vocalists.
There is often a gap—especially with contemporary art—between artistic intent and audience perception. This isn’t a bad thing; it might even be inevitable with conceptual work. Here again, to bridge that gap you have to turn to the wall text. There, we learn that the artist’s concern that human atrocities are too often forgotten is metaphorically represented by the decidedly unscorched earth. In each instance, the once embattled land has “healed,” absorbing and eliminating any trace of the horrific acts perpetrated there. We discover that the musical accompaniment is based on four lullabies associated with the victimized cultures of each location.
Chen intends for her close-up land images, coupled with the tenor of the music, to assume a “haunting and menacing presence.” She states that the audience “cannot escape the scathing truth nor the urgent intimacy contained in the human voice.” My experience was different. To my ears, the music was soothing, the key word being lullaby. As for the land itself, I was struck by how utterly ordinary—and familiar—each location felt. Wild vegetation in Africa looked like the wild vegetation of the fields I played in as a boy. Rather than being unsettling, recognizing the names of the locations was paradoxically reassuring. These now peaceful landscapes reveal no signs of human presence much less genocidal conflict. Humans have only existed on this planet for a tiny blip in time, and these unblemished terrains make the atrocities we perpetrate upon them seem comparatively inconsequential in the larger scheme of things. That’s not Chen’s intent, but art’s meaning is often determined by what viewers bring to it.
Achieving distance from horrific events and the memory fade that accompanies that distance is a function of human survival. Though as Chen points out, the consequence is that “never again” becomes “again and again.” But never forgetting is tantamount to never healing. Today we have historically unprecedented media documentation of human atrocities in excruciating detail available at our fingertips. Completely forgetting is not an option. When the world allowed the mass slaughter of Rwandan Tutsi and Hutu, it wasn’t because we forgot our post-Holocaust conviction to never tolerate genocidal acts again; it was because political realities caused us to look away. Art doesn’t change human nature; it only reflects it. Whether you perceive overgrown flora on historical sites as comforting or disquieting, or violent acts displayed on wallpaper as perception-altering, is probably a matter of individual perspective. Either way, Chen’s interpretations of these issues prompt reflection.
Bruce Adams is an artist, educator, arts activist, and Spree’s art critic.