Those that sleep in the dust
Ethical issues surrounding the depiction of death in art, considering Stalker 3, the recent video installation by Sergei Bugaev, aka Afrika, at I-20 Gallery.
November 2 – December 14, 2002
“Stalker 3″ is a 53 minute video that documents the destruction of a Russian tank convoy by lightly armed Chechen partisans. Two photographs of an attractive Russian woman flank the projection on either side. The wall on which the images flicker is pierced by what could be taken as the barrel of a tank cannon. Elsewhere in the gallery, a few objects-rabbit skins and paper brushed with black oil-allude tenuously to a symbolic narrative the artist chose not to develop or identify further in visual terms (the installation does include a gallery statement criticizing multinational corporations). It is important to his project that what we are seeing is a military dispatch in video form (edited, with additional sound, by Bugaev and fellow artist Dimitry Gelfand) the Chechens intended to support their claim for an Al Qaeda bounty calculated on the basis of a body count.
This display of amateur war footage provoked an NPR reporter to ask, is it art? At first, my reaction to the report was one of annoyance. Why would one feel compelled to ask such a question, I thought, and, for that matter, why answer? After decades of avant garde (and avant avant garde) art practice, asking if this or that piece in a gallery is a work of art seems analogous to asking who is buried in Grant’s tomb. What is displayed in an art gallery? Art.
But what has been decided by such an answer? Imagine if “Stalker 3″ were shown inside a church, or if it were screened in a mosque in Grozny, if any mosques remain standing in Grozny (in either case, would the question be, is it spiritual?). Or imagine another scenario: amateur footage-taken from an Al Qaeda camp in Afganistan, perhaps– of the World Trade Center attack screened in a Chelsea gallery, with accompanying props (a shard from the towers piercing the video projection). Although such a scenario is conceivable it is probably not a coincidence that this has yet to be realized. Examples of photojournalism and amateur images of the 9/11 attack have been exhibited, but the kind of project “Stalker 3″ represents is something else entirely.
Here, the appropriation, rather than the making, is at issue. That is, the circumstances of the making of this video matter, within a broader cultural context (beyond the battlefield, beyond the purview of Russian and Chechen military forces) only in relation to the circumstances in which the video is shown. The video could be used, for example, in a documentary piece on the war; this would hardly be unusual. “Stalker 3″ presents itself as something other than that. By displaying the video in a gallery, as part of an installation, Bugaev raises the question whether the footage can, like any other found object, be transformed into an artifact by virtue of his appropriation of it. What he does not appear to have considered (or taken into account sufficiently) is how the larger social context can efface this question, absorb the footage into preoccupations external to the process of art making, and appropriate the project in turn.
While the Chechen fighters were firing over and over at I-20 Gallery, the relatives of those lost in the World Trade Towers were appealing for dignified treatment of the body fragments interred in the debris shipped to Fresh Kills. The public was reviewing architectural plans for new buildings at the World Trade Center site. There was talk of kissing towers and memorialized footprints of vanished buildings, of gardens set by the water, and of height in relation to terror. Listening to the radio, I could not get out of my mind the image-largely of my own imagining–of people sifting through the dust and scrap of a landfill for bits of bone, strands of hair, or scraps of clothing. It happens that some research I did not long ago involved reading passages on resurrection, particularly in the Old Testament (“Many of those that sleep in the dust of the earth will awake…” Daniel 12:1). The relatives of the World Trade Center dead were speaking from the same texts, though in the terms of forensic medicine.
Sergei Bugaev’s academic exercise in cynicism or faux cynicism stood in contrast to the spontaneous demand by the public and commercial interests (with, inevitably, some degree of calculation on their part) for a spiritual or mythic structure for the aftermath of 9/11. It would almost appear that there is an inverse relationship between the social distress associated with images (photographs, news footage, amateur video, and so forth) and the availability of those images to conceptual manipulation (the projects of a visual avant garde). Again, the appropriation of images (photojournalism, news footage, and the like) is at issue here, rather than the production of original instances of provocation or what is taken as provocation (images by Mapplethorpe or Offili that stirred attempts at censorship). The World Trade Center images have not yet been assimilated into an iconic repertoire (which would include images of Buddhist monks setting themselves on fire, of children mutilated in napalm bombings, or students crying out in dismay and horror at Kent State, all images quickly absorbed in cultural discourse) within art world, as opposed to journalistic or documentary, practice. Simply put, they hurt too much for us, or those of us not immersed in Russian issues, to process in anything like the way we process the images of Russian soldiers dying in distant Chechenya. The allusion in the title, “Stalker3,” to a science fiction movie set, to quote the gallery statement, in an “anomalous zone, a place where extraterrestrials visit the earth, and danger lies in wait” aptly describes the remove of the mythic material Bugaev employs.
This is not to say that”Stalker 3″ lacks spiritual pathos, but this pathos emerges in surprising ways. In the confines of a gallery, the vacuous immediacy of the film corresponds to the categorical emptiness of death, its refusal to hold meaning (the afterlife is something else) except in negative terms; death as such is not an experience, and the person who has died is not a person but a name or placeholder for that person, and so forth). The video displays the mechanics of death with the most minimal organizing narrative (the piece ends with a funeral and dirge), confronting us the translation of an experiential world, a life (or, lives), to inert matter. By lifting “Stalker 3″ out of the political and cultural circumstances of its production and placing it in a Chelsea gallery, Bugaev reduces content to an exacting and pertinent near-nothingness. The soldiers in his film, caught in the documentary tedium of their annihilation as it is played and replayed, signify loss-the loss of their lives, or to put it simply, their deaths–and little else. It is worth considering whether this confrontation with the starkness and simplicity of death is facilitated or distorted by the cognitive dissonance of the medium itself: the noise, the switch from black and white to color, the varying film quality. I suspect that the former is true. In any case, the experience is disturbing and worthwhile, whatever one feels about the art-related issues of the installation.