Wednesday, May 6, 2015

War Paintings by Jenny Holzer - 56th Venice Biennale Collateral Event

RIGHT HAND DOD-044403 by Jenny Holzer (2007)
(Venice, Italy) War Paintings by the renowned American artist Jenny Holzer at the Correr Museum packs a powerful emotional punch. Holzer has spent more than a decade researching the behavior of the United States government after 9/11, using declassified and other sensitive government documents written by U.S. politicians, CIA and FBI officials, members of the U.S. Department of Defense, detainees captured by the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan, and civilian victims of war. She then transformed what she learned from the heavily redacted documents about the War on Terror into haunting oil-on-linen paintings, writing with her own hands the words from the actual government documents she accessed. "I wanted the paintings to show time and care. I wanted the hand work to be an indicator of sincerity and attention. I wanted it to be human."

Gabriella Belli, Jenny Holzer, Walter Hartsarich
Thomas Kellein, the curator from The Written Art Foundation in Frankfurt, Germany, said it was fitting that the exhibition was in Room 32, the Sala delle Quattro Porte of the Correr Museum, because he always thought of it as "a secret city hall," and said how much he admired and respected Jenny Holzer's work.


But the words... the words... those heartbreaking words on linen... Because of the direct, personal experience I have had as an American writer living overseas targeted by our government, perhaps I know better than many civilians how horrific the behavior of the US government can be, and how extremely difficult it is to communicate such darkness to the people who live in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave. Jenny Holzer has done it. She feels: "the material speaks for itself; having torture seemingly normalized is not a positive development."

in (JIHAD) time by Jenny Holzer (2014)
The exhibition is accompanied by a weighty catalogue, also created by Jenny Holzer and published by Walther Konig in Cologne, Germany, which I strongly recommend. It includes some of the redacted documents, the material that, as Hozler says, "speaks for itself." For example, a document dated July 10, 2001 from the FBI in Phoenix to Counterterrorism illustrates that they were aware long before September 11th that radical Muslims were training as pilots...

Even more than the words of those who had been tortured, what struck me were the words of the Americans themselves. Many, many Americans who love their country, and everything it stands for, tried to stop what was going on. They bravely filed official sworn statements and other documents.

After members of the special forces terrified a redacted prisoner while an interrogator had stepped outside for a break, on February 13, 2002, the interrogator wrote a sworn statement by hand: "I was very upset that such a thing could happen. I take my job and responsibility as an interrogator & as a human being very seriously. I understand the importance of the Geneva Convention & what it represents. If I don't honor it, what right do I have to expect any other military to do so?"


Another redacted document that broke my heart was a letter dated September 26, 2003 from a father "To Whom it May Concern." It starts: "I am writing this letter for my wife and myself. The purpose of this letter is to appeal to you, as a parent, for relief for my son 1st. Lt. ______ in his current situation. I understand that the U.S. Army wants to court martial him and send him to prison."

The father goes to describe himself as a basic, upstanding US citizen, in education for 30 years, appointed by Jeb Bush (?!) to a post that was... redacted. He has friends who are Congressmen. He knows the former governor of Florida. His wife had just retired after spending 17 years as the business manager of their 1000 member church.

His son had led an exemplary life, and wanted to be a career officer. On July 12, 2003, the redacted son wrote to his parents: "Needless to say the Army has made a decision, or helped me make a decision, that I will only serve for 4 years. I still love my country and have faith in her virtues, though she has none in mine. If this goes to court martial it will be broadcast over the news and my name, and yours, will be tarnished forever. You didn't sign up for that, but I did. If this happens I apologize in advance. All I ever wanted to do was to serve and protect those who loved me, and spread freedom to others less fortunate... I have brought hundreds of criminals to prison, captured countless weapons, saved lives of coalition and civilian personnel, have my life threatened on a daily basis from insurgents and criminals alike. Yet all I ever wanted was to be left alone with my platoon so I could continue doing what I love the most..."

Those words struck a deep chord. If they could do that to a soldier who obviously loves his country....

Phase IV Operations pewter Text: U.S. government document © 2007 Jenny Holzer
Prisoners were starved, left shackled in a freezing room, left shackled in a sweltering room, sleep deprived, suffocated and beaten to death. Only the names have been redacted on several of the prisoners' autospy reports, so we can read in cold medical terminology over and over the cause of death: Homicide. After reading the actual descriptions of the harsh interrogation techniques condoned by Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney -- that Cheney publicly declared he would "do it again in a minute" -- I can assure you that policy cannot be classified as anything other than torture to any civilized human being.

War Paintings at the Correr Museum
War Paintings is a project between the Musei Civici and the Written Art Foundation, and a Collateral Event of the 56th Venice Biennale International Contemporary Art Festival, ALL THE WORLD'S FUTURES, which opens to the public on on May 9th and runs through November 22nd. President Paolo Baratta stated: "We know that evoking the dramatic facts and occurrences that characterise the present also means admitting history. The present, after all, demands to be understood through the signs, symbols, and recollections that history accords us and from which we draw a sense of desperation but also of illumination. It also means evoking fragments of our recent and remote past, which must not be forgotten."

Jenny Holzer is not the only artist at the international Biennale looking at the past behavior of her country in order to be present and move forward into the future, but because I am American and have personally experienced the shock of how frightening our government can be when it is out of control, it affected me profoundly.

The Dreamer by Heinrich Maria Davringhausen
To get to the Jenny Holzer exhibition at the Correr, you must pass through another incredible exhibition called NUOVA OGGETTIVITA brought here to Venice by the vibrant genius of Stephanie Barron, curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. NEW OBJECTIVITY addresses the Weimar Republic, the period in Germany after WWI and before WWII, which is eerily similar to our own times, and must have its own post.

Go to the Correr Museum

Ciao from Venezia,
Cat
Venetian Cat - The Venice Blog

1 comment:

  1. War Paintings by the renowned American artist Jenny Holzer at the Correr Museum packs a powerful emotional punch. Holzer has spent more than a decade researching the behavior of the United States government after 9/11, using declassified and other sensitive government documents written by U.S. politicians, CIA and FBI officials, members of the U.S. Department of Defense, detainees captured by the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan, and civilian victims of war.

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