BY James D. Campbell in Reviews | 01 NOV 12
Featured in
Issue 151

Chronicles of a Disappearance

BY James D. Campbell in Reviews | 01 NOV 12

Philippe Parreno, June 8, 1968, 2009

In one of its strongest exhibitions to date, DHC/ART Foundation presented a thematic group show titled ‘Chronicles of a Disappearance’, including major works by five highly respected international artists: Philippe Parreno, Taryn Simon, Teresa Margolles, Omer Fast and José Toirac. The show seized upon various ideas of ‘disappearance’ in suggestively rich and provocative ways. In stealth mode, the artists uncovered secret histories and dark revelations of the social and political worlds, with the disappearance of humanity itself a hot point. The result was an exhibition that more frequently than not raised one’s hackles and induced a lingering, cold chill.

Indeed, the hallucinatory clarity of Simon’s photographic taxonomy on two floors of the DHC building swept us into a surpassingly strange space. An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar (2007) gives a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘documentary photography’, allowing viewers rare access to the night-side of the American mythology and a host of unwelcome revelations. Indeed, the inordinately crisp images and their accompanying texts transported us there with fluid immediacy. Photographs of glowing nuclear waste capsules segue wildly with those of death row inmates. There is a sense of exploring the forbidden, as was the case with the early editions of the Arabian Nights, but here it is the dark and prismatic underbelly of America itself that is emphasized.

Projected on a massive screen, and poised tremulously between fiction and nonfiction, Parreno’s seven-minute film June 8, 1968 (2009) imaginatively re-enacted the train journey from New York to Washington carrying the body of assassinated Senator Robert Kennedy’s coffin, bringing back with visceral immediacy the profound horror and anomie brought on by his assassination, only five years after that of his brother. The mourners are mute witnesses and surrogates for the viewer, who stands in empathy alongside them, within a shared horizon of felt remembrance and lost innocence.

Fast’s 5000 Feet is the Best (2011) catches us in its narrative with all the adroitness of a Hollywood thriller. Based on compelling interviews with an American Predator drone aerial vehicle operator, who describes incidents where militants and civilians are fired at in Pakistan and Afghanistan, it has great emotional impact. So close to today’s headlines, Fast’s narrative unfolds like a high-class thriller, mixing and matching video-game addiction and the post-traumatic stress disorder so common among drone aerial vehicle operators. The topicality of the film is radiant as US police, firefighters and other civilian first-response agencies can start flying drones in the very near future over American soil. (Congress recently passed legislation authorizing the Federal Aviation administration to open the nation’s skies to drones.)

Toirac’s single-screen work Opus (2005) is built around an audio track of an edited speech by Fidel Castro. Everything but numbers were cut from the audio track. Castro’s protreptic – so maddening in its rhetorical intensity – effectively mirrors corresponding white digits appearing on a black screen. The numerical statements – a sort of pontifical white noise gobbledygook – reduce politics to farmyard manure with rare efficacy, and seem intended to prophesize the dictator’s own eventual disappearance from the arena.

In Margolles’s subversive Plancha (2010), water drips from above, like a leaky roof, but here it strikes heated metal surfaces and evaporates on contact. When we learn that the water in question was sourced from a morgue in Mexico City (where the artist has worked), where it was used to cleanse corpses after autopsy – deaths by unnatural causes and even murder victims – our gorge rises and we feel an unavoidable frisson. The steel plates remind us of an operating table on which serial amputations or trepanning ops are about to take place. There is a wayward alchemy at work here, and the mist in the room promises nothing less than wholesale contagion. Like all the works in this show, it palpably stopped us in our tracks.

The dovetailing between the works in the exhibition was dialogical at all levels, demonstrating considerable thematic cohesiveness. All the artists took us on an unsettling walk on the wild side, igniting an almost primal unconscious fear and frisson as they interrogated phenomena seen and unseen. And yet, while ostensibly chronicling the ‘disappearance’ here of any semblance of humanity, they awakened our own.