Exploring the transition from passive representation to active self-portrayal, ‘Shooting Back’ brought together a remarkable number of artistic approaches, ranging from performance and activism to media analysis, archiving, ethnography and reconstruction. This diversity meant that the exhibition’s conceptual focus on critiques of representation remained far from sharp, and the featured approaches to ‘documentation’ varied so widely that some of the works on show implicitly criticized practices used in others.
At first glance Catherine Sullivan’s five-channel film installation Ice Floes of Franz Joseph Land (2003) seems to consist purely of the hysterical grimacing and facial tics of a theatre company, but this demanding black and white film is based on a hostage ordeal that took place in a Moscow theatre in 2002. Sullivan’s handling of the Chechen terrorists’ siege has little to do with what actually happened. As an artist dealing with theatre as a form of representation, she takes the nationalistic musical North-East, which was playing on stage at the time, and destroys its semantic gesture by reducing the play to pantomime codes. All that remains of the violence and attention-seeking logic of terrorism and its enemies is the ensemble’s mechanical and senseless twitching.
A similarly multi-layered practice is offered by Chen Chieh-Jen’s film Lingchi – Echoes of a Historical Photograph (2002), based on a photograph taken by a French soldier in 1904 of an execution by dismemberment in China. Colonial photographs of this kind were long used as proof of China’s barbarism. In 1961 the image entered circulation again via Georges Bataille’s book The Tears of Eros. At the start of Chen’s silent, pointedly slow-motion reconstruction, he shows a shot of the French photographer holding his camera. Later the lenses of the camera are echoed by two circular wounds on the chest of the slowly dying man. The camera is presented as a weapon forcing its way into the body, and viewers are left with the uncomfortable sensation of being part of the crowd of gaping onlookers.
Sean Snyder’s video Casio, Seiko, Sheraton, Toyota, Mars (2004–5) also engages in image analysis. The artist provides a voice-over to found photographic and filmic material shot by soldiers in the Middle East. His monologue addresses links between the media and the military-industrial complex, revealing the ideological dressing up and contextualization of documentary material.
And how do artists ‘shoot back’ when they are unhappy with the way they themselves are portrayed? In the video Turkish Delight (2006) Kutlug Ataman shakes his hips and wears a belly-dancing costume, mocking his exotic status as a ‘Turkish artist’. In her performance Triangle (1979) Sanja Ivekovic anticipates state censorship: the documentary photographs show the artist during Tito’s parade in Zagreb alone on her balcony, her hand between her legs. Her simulated private pleasure is quickly brought to a halt, however, by a policeman positioned on a roof with binoculars and a walkie-talkie to monitor public behaviour: a policeman she had known would see her. But this reversal of the hierarchy of gazes, a characteristic strategy of feminist art, did not supply the exhibition with much ammunition.
Particularly questionable in the context of this show were the works in which artists claimed to intervene on behalf of others, using the camera as a weapon: Kristina Leko filmed the fast-disappearing milkmaids of Zagreb (Zagreb Milkmaids at Your Right Hand Side, 2002–3), Želmir Žilnik the ballads of Hungarian farmers (Seven Hungarian Ballads, 1978); the Thyssen-Bornemisza-commissioned video work by Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam, entitled Some Questions on the Nature of Your Existence (2007), records lessons in philosophy at a Buddhist monastery; while in his video A Night of Prophecy (2002) Amar Kanwar documents the songs of untouchables and prostitutes. In all these works groups are portrayed as ‘different’, ‘authentic’ and ‘precious’ on account of their ‘genuineness’, with apparently little consideration given to the politics of representation that this kind of portrayal itself implies.