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Issue 119

After and Before

Political engagement in art from the USA and Silvia Kolbowski’s ambitious new work

BY Christopher Bedford in Features | 01 NOV 08

Silvia Kolbowski, After Hiroshima Mon Amour, DVD still, 2008

With a mounting sense of exigency as the American presidential election draws near, critics writing for American art journals and magazines have begun to analyse and codify the extent of political engagement evident in contemporary art practice. One of the more explicit and persuasive of these arguments was an extended review written by Hal Foster for Artforum of an exhibition called ‘Forms of Resistance: Artists and the Desire for Social Change from 1871 to the Present’ at the Van Abbemuseum in the Netherlands. Foster begins with the unqualified claim that one is unlikely to see an exhibition such as this at a major museum in the USA owing to the ‘politically restrained and financially driven’ character of these institutions.1 The same could be said of the fiscally driven gallery circuit, so it should come as no surprise that uncompromising, politically oppositional art practices with no discernible stake, interest or place in the commercial circus rarely command prime real estate in commercial publications. In this discouraging context Silvia Kolbowski’s ambitious video and 16 mm production After Hiroshima Mon Amour (2008), developed over the course of three years, represents a welcome departure from the norm, existing in a realm parallel to the art market.

The video opens with a series of violently choreographed sequences that refuse simple analysis. Following the production credits, we are shown a landscape of twitching, interpenetrating limbs, covered in what looks like glittering ash, vibrating erratically and colliding in dead, uninterrupted silence. It could be a frenzied erotic encounter or the uncontrolled spasms of a body – or bodies – in the grip of death; but the action is close up, disembodied, with insufficient context. The silence is broken abruptly by a night vision scene of American military personnel yelling unintelligibly as they enter a private residence, wielding automatic weapons and ordering a cowering, naked man to the ground. A woman screams. A subtitle appears on the screen in an unremarkable white font: ‘I saw every-thing. Everything.’ Although this footage was harvested from an Internet site and represents an authentic account of military action in Iraq, the erratic camera movements and heavy pixilation align rather unnervingly with contemporary cinematographic techniques employed by filmmakers such as Brian de Palma (Redacted, 2007) to achieve the look of embedded verisimilitude.

The video then cuts back and forth between details of shimmering, agitated flesh and the repetition of the green night vision scene with the subtitle response: ‘You saw nothing. Nothing.’ Eventually it shifts to Arabic news footage of a narrow street, strewn with unidentified detritus, the implication of bodily violence registered by the saturated red monochrome of the grainy imagery. Again the passage is accompanied by a subtitle announcing the strategies of displacement and asymmetry that play throughout Kolbowski’s video: ‘I’ve always wept over the fate of Hiroshima. Always.’ Although the shifts from one scene to the next are jarring, even brutal in this opening sequence, and the paratextual contradictions she introduces surreal, Kolbowski maintains the thematic continuity of the video through subtle use of rhyming syntax, the structure of the aforementioned subtitle (‘I’ve always wept over the fate of Hiroshima. Always.’) echoing that of the previous scene (‘I saw everything. Everything.’). Inscribed in this initial, roughly five-minute passage is the primal, image-based logic that subtends Kolbowski’s video from beginning to end: a visceral, almost pre-cognitive quality that obviates the need for didactic narration. Instead she establishes relations between images, histories and subjectivities that operate on a far more basic and persuasive level.

After Hiroshima Mon Amour is a 22-minute contraction of the French director Alain Resnais’ classic account of postwar Hiroshima, Hiroshima mon amour (1959), which tells the story of a fleeting and consuming love affair between a French woman and a Japanese man. Although faithful to its source on the levels of mise-en-scène, acting and dialogue, Kolbowski’s video departs from Resnais’ film at the level of ‘remake’ with found footage that directly engages the aftermath of 9/11, the ideology of American militarism abroad and governmental neglect at home. Yet, like Resnais’ original, Kolbowski’s video is ‘set’ in Japan, adding levels of narrative disjunction to this time-based montage. The video incorporates dramatic passages rendered to replicate certain sequences from Resnais’ film, as well as a remix of the original score, text from Marguerite Duras’ original screenplay and synopsis, and found footage of American military intervention in Iraq and governmental inaction in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The consistent asymmetry of text and image, of narration and action, and of character and actor allows the viewer to inhabit a variety of subjectivities consecutively or even simultaneously.

The most obvious result of this structure is a video that feeds on its own indeterminacy to produce meaning by prompting close, analytical thought, demanding – with each sucessive cut – revisions to tentative conclusions that seemed adequate for the previous scene. Within this shifting structure the related impulses towards violence and erotic love are paired and played against each other consistently, with both urges presented as fundamental and impervious to rational analysis. Despite this theme of fundamentality, however, the video resists a purely trans-historical stance by remaining anchored in the specificity of character, time, place and race, all of which are emphasized throughout rather than being buried or glossed over. As the unnamed bodies quiver in unison, oblivious to all else, so the subjectivity of the soldier is concentrated into a historically specific expression of aggressive self-preservation. Feral love and violence are therefore proposed as unknowable equivalents.

If Kolbowski’s video has a central thematic concern, it is the primitive logic that governs the interrelated fields of violence, war, prejudice and eroticism. The literary theorist Jacqueline Rose has written about the mysterious psycho-politics of war, asserting that its persistence through time ‘signals the breakdown of the 19th-century faith in evolution, progress and science’.2 Quoting Gertrude Stein, Rose continues: ‘If everything was understood, so it was then believed, “there would be progress and if there was progress there would not be any wars, and if there were not any wars then everything could and would be understood”.’3 Our inability to understand and prevent war is, therefore, incontrovertible evidence of our fundamental lack of self-knowledge. Kolbowski does not presume to understand the origins or persistence of war – to answer the simple but elusive question Rose poses, ‘Why war?’ – but After Hiroshima Mon Amour goes beyond didactic or diagnostic strategies to give visual form to the unknowable, and in doing so draws a psychic thread through the interrelated subjects of love, violence, prejudice, war and militarism. This thread is not easily translated into language, but it is palpable and persuasive on the less bounded level of visual argumentation.

Although her video is essentially bifocal in its attention to the aftermath of the atomic attack on Hiroshima as seen through the lens of a love affair, and to the sinister character of American domestic and foreign policies in the wake of the World Trade Center attacks, Kolbowski uses a variety of strategies to expand the field of subjectivities included in her narrative. In effect, the video addresses not just two discrete wars but also war itself as a cipher. The unnamed French woman in Resnais’ film is introduced in Kolbowski’s remake not as a European woman with light brown hair, but rather as a black woman with close-cropped hair, an Asian woman with dark hair, a Caucasian woman with dark hair etc., and the man identified by a caption as a Japanese man who is ‘an engineer or an architect’ is represented in Kolbowski’s video by a man of indeterminate race with a block of text tattooed on his chest, and in another scene by a man who seems to be of Middle Eastern origin. The cognitive dissonance fostered by the asymmetry of actor and character here provokes a mode of viewing wherein no subjectivity is simply ‘given’ but must instead be understood, processed and conceptualized by the viewer. As we watch an intimate scene unfold, and a character’s lips move silently, a subtitle informs us that it is ‘impossible to talk about Hiroshima’, by which we also understand that war as a concept is beyond the bounds of conventional analysis.

Such bold claims are bolstered not by systematic argumentation but through demonstration. One particularly shocking sequence harvested from the Internet comprises video footage shot from a Humvee barrelling down a street in Baghdad, indiscriminately ramming civilian vehicles and forcing them out of its path. Here, as in other instances, Kolbowski uses colour – in this case, violet – to inflect the spectator’s engagement with the action. To suggest that the scene is formally beautiful is to flirt with obscenity since the subject matter represents such an unflinching indictment of the prejudice and entitlement that so often attend the theatre of war. Yet Kolbowski permits – even encourages – that possibility within this sequence, so that when the Humvee revs its engine and drives remorselessly on as a man runs out of the way, the beauty of the scene is rendered abject and the act of looking dirty and incriminating. Colour, then, becomes a character and a silent narrator; a mute call to our collective conscience.

Kolbowski subjects her narration of the affair between the French nurse and Japanese man to regular shifts in scene, language and actor, and to a variety of combative, elegantly rendered contemporary interpolations, each of which uproots the ostensibly historical narrative and forces those dramatic sequences to resonate in the present. But eventually we are returned to the primordial imagery that is the video’s nebulous undercurrent. This time the twitching masses of flesh are rendered in shades of red and black, grainy and indistinct like the surface of a silk-screen print made animate. Here these feverish movements are overlaid with captions such as ‘The food of an entire city is thrown away’ – quotes drawn from Duras’ screenplay that situate the imagery in the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust. As the scene evolves, passages of light, shadow and colour appear increasingly molecular in character, as though limbs have been reduced to essential structures, cells mutating, combining, dissociating and recombining into new forms. The more elemental the imagery, the more the possibility of comprehension recedes. What was a scene either of love or of agony is stripped of its index and reduced to abstraction. Simultaneously, the subtitles becomes more pointed and polemical, reversing the terms of the video’s structure and suggesting that, while we may be incapable of comprehending the fundamental impulse towards violence, we are, on an intellectual level, able to disavow the principles on which it rests: ‘The anger of entire cities, whether they like it or not, against the inequality set forth as a principle by certain people against other people.’

It is instructive, in closing, to return to an important concern raised by Foster in his observation that politically directed art, broadly conceived, ‘is often either too direct or too obscure in its articulations’.4 Mindful of this dilemma, After Hiroshima Mon Amour, like all of Kolbowski’s most successful projects, operates bilingually, speaking in urbane, nuanced language to the field of initiates while steering a broader audience through the radical ideas that structure her work, without shading into condescension or didacticism. Given its reference point, it is inevitable that After Hiroshima Mon Amour prompts the spectator to remember a specific moment at the end of World War II. But Kolbowski’s interpolations and displacements claim this war as both a specific instance of historical aggression and as a cipher for all wars. The impulse remains consistent, she argues, but the specific articulation varies. After Hiroshima Mon Amour, in its splintered, multifocal character, bears down on the transgressions of the present through the mournful lens of the past with one anxious eye trained on the future.

Hal Foster, ‘Forms of Resistance’, Artforum, January 2008, p. 272 
Jacqueline Rose, Why War? – Psychoanalysis, Politics, and the Return to Melanie Klein, Blackwell, Oxford, and Cambridge, Mass., 1993, p. 17 
Ibid., p. 17 
Foster, p. 273

Christopher Bedford is the Dorothy Wagner Wallis Director at The Baltimore Museum of Art.