BY Pádraig Timoney in Reviews | 05 MAY 99
Featured in
Issue 46

Simon Norfollk

BY Pádraig Timoney in Reviews | 05 MAY 99

Simon Norfolk's 'For Most Of It I Have No Words' is a series of black and white photographs taken at the sites of six 20th-century genocides (Rwanda, Cambodia, Auschwitz, Ukraine, Armenia and Namibia), and two devastations (Dresden, and Vietnam, blanket-bombed and defoliated by Britain and America). In his catalogue essay, Michael Ignatieff asks the reader to imagine what would happen if the show were mounted in the foyer of the United Nations headquarters. Except for Germany, every government whose country is represented would protest their inclusion by quibbling over the definition of the crime. My first question is why isn't the exhibition held in the UN? The seductive, fine prints, accompanied by a ponderous, coffee-table book seems too prepared to receive the attention of a liberal, already-converted, gallery-going public.

Photographs taken in Rwanda show the skeletons of Tutsis massacred in Nyarubuye church, covered in fly-blown, leathery flesh. Teeth are visible in the soil of Cambodia. Beautifully toned, gradually darkening sand dunes are like academic studies in light and shade - until the supplied information tells you that the dunes hide the traces of the Herero, a nomadic tribe driven into the Namibian desert and left to die of thirst by German colonialists. Scorched statues in Dresden, and Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange beg the question of whether the death of thousands of civilians during a war is any different from genocide.

The recent de-camping of the jury in a British war crimes trial to Belarusse to witness a site of mass murder of Jews indicates that a connection between place and history, even at the remove of almost 60 years, is seen as fundamental to resolving conflict. Such places are haunted, and perhaps it's the haunting that might offer a way into the truth - a psychic bend around accusation and denial. The sites will always exist. That they are cursed means that their images bear the weight of our psychic relationship to what we know happened there.

Do we expect light itself not to escape from Auschwitz onto a lens and latent photographic emulsion, as if slaughter never happened on a sunny evening? A black ash pond, a sludge of carbon and bone fragments, shines dully. Raindrops puncture its surface, resembling falling ash, echoing the countless lives dissolving onto an indifferent surface. But it is precisely the exhibition's representation of Auschwitz as a place redolent with poetry and symbols, that causes extreme discomfort.

The beauty of the prints push me to understand the images as dignified memorials. But I don't feel right being pushed like that. Maybe I share a desire (repeatedly voiced at a discussion of the exhibition) for the images to be less seductive. Square in format and voluptuous in tonality, they turn their subject matter into something else, something sophisticated and sober. But technical and aesthetic mastery sit like uneasy impostors beside genocide. Condensation into symbol is a difficult trick to perform successfully on the Death Factory - any summary is contingent upon a flawed hope of closure.

Massacre (1998) from Rwanda, shows a grid of skulls, positioned on their sides to display machete cuts and rifle-butt punctures. Norfolk's photo tries to show death-as-industry within a single beautiful frame, but the more disturbing effect is the way the peripheral skulls, cut across and cut out by the frame, seem to suffer further indignity and insult. If the dead have a voice, it is prompted by the treatment of their remains, even as they are used for commemoration. As the events recede in time and the landscape's constant shifting removes the physical evidence of genocide, Norfolk employs an almost cack-handed narrative focus to make a symbolic reading unavoidable - for example the painful references to Christian iconography in the series of photographs from Armenia. The disingenuity of these inventions troubles the images' crafted sophistication; to see the depopulated landscape as reified and sublime is to see the rhetoric that supports 'ethnic cleansing'.

Peppering the exhibition with clichés about belief and ideology, Norfolk shows that attempts to summarise are insufficient, but to memorise is necessary. The resultant nausea is neither solely sourced in aesthetics, horror, nor the photographer's misjudgement, but in the poisonous proximity to evidence of genocide explaining nothing and stopping nothing. The general difficulty with the show's beauty stems from its voyeuristic position, confused by the relationship between a sensual input and a conscience rebelling at what the sensuality provokes. Yet genocidal murder and destruction, and vast human undertakings based on disproportionate power and capacity, can be seductive: witness RAF bomber crews returning from Dresden, describing the view of the burning city in terms of the sublime and the awesome.

Pádraig Timoney is an artist and writer who lives in Naples, Italy.