Images of atrocity in a digital age

NEW YORK: Now well into its third year of increasingly incoherent violence, the civil war in Syria has heaved a terrible inheritance onto the world. The legacy of the conflict is coming together as a mangled mix of stories and statistics, all glommed onto a rapidly expanding body of toxic images.The death toll has rushed past the 100,000 mark, making the war in Syria at least as lethal as the conflicts that tore through the Balkans 20 years ago. Millions have been displaced. The accounts of rape and torture are gruesome, as are those of urban destruction and unconscionable, disturbingly theatrical cruelty.

The images going viral online are perhaps the most grisly of all.

Recently a gutsy, widely circulated video shot by the U.K.’s Channel 4 introduced viewers to an angelic child working in an Aleppo hospital. Then it showed them his horrid death, his small body bent beyond comprehension.

Writing in the Columbia Journalism Review, Italian journalist Francesca Borri has painted a searing picture of the madhouse Syria has become – populated by European converts to Al-Qaeda, thrill-seeking Japanese tourists, clueless Swedes and bearded American boys intent on distributing unneeded drugs while playing musical instruments.

In this context, one of the first and most daring works of contemporary art to grapple with the crisis in Syria, a performance and video piece titled “The Pixelated Revolution,” by the Lebanese artist, actor and playwright Rabih Mroué, already appears almost quaint, a historical document of an earlier, less malevolent age.

Perhaps for that reason Mroué’s piece works very well as one of two main points holding down “A Different Kind of Order,” the elliptical exhibition comprising the fourth ICP Triennial at the International Center of Photography in New York.

Originally a scripted lecture that moves through footage of snipers and subjects the videos of Syrian protesters to the rules of the Danish filmmakers’ collective Dogme 95, the piece is shown here as a video installation with seven large, blurry prints clipped to the wall.

In style, strategy and substance, “The Pixelated Revolution” couldn’t be more different from the trio of pictures by Walid Raad. These smooth, cool images depict objects from the newly established Department of Islamic Art at the Louvre in Paris, soon to be loaned to the august French museum’s splashy but still unbuilt Abu Dhabi outpost.

It may be only incidental that both works are effectively Beirut-based. Yet, together, the two pieces outline the full range of the exhibition’s ambitions. Furthermore, they illustrate the strengths of what might be called the Beirut school – the generation of contemporary artists to which Raad and Mroué belong – when it comes to questioning and challenging the bounds of what photography, and the making of images generally, is and could be in a digital age marked as much by technological progress as by urban violence, economic desperation and political collapse.

Founded by Cornell Capa to honor the memory of his brother, the renowned war photographer Robert Capa, the International Center of Photography opened nearly 40 years ago as an educational, exhibition-making institution dedicated to the study and practice of photography. Since then it has always kept a reflective eye on the meaning and impact of reproducible images on culture and society.

Alongside New York’s Aperture Foundation, which was founded in the 1950s, ICP is both responsible for and burdened by the imperative to define and shape the discourse of photography in the United States.

As institutions, they are comparable, if vastly more established and considerably better funded, to the Arab Image Foundation in Beirut and the Contemporary Image Collective in Cairo. (They are also rife with some of the same agonizing divisions and tortured disputes between photography as a truth-telling, newsgathering pursuit, and photography as a tool and material of conceptually minded contemporary art.)

The ICP Triennial exhibition is scheduled every three years for the purpose of taking photography’s international, artistic, political, social, historical and technological pulse. The center introduced the first edition 10 years ago, though the exhibition itself, titled “Strangers,” was conceived in the summer of 2001. As such, it became a barometer for the dramatic changes wrought by the events that followed in September, which, among other things, unleashed a flood of unwanted images on the world.

The current edition, organized with considerable sensitivity by a group of four curators – Joanna Lehan, Kristen Lubben, Christopher Phillips and Carol Squiers – first came together in similarly difficult circumstances. In the summer of 2011, against the backdrop of Occupy Wall Street and protests erupting all over the Arab world, the curators initially wanted to called their exhibition “Chaos.”

The sense of urgency implied by that working title certainly remains, but it is to both the curators’ and the contributing artists’ credit that “A Different Kind of Order” comes across as a thoughtful, sorrowful and sophisticated meditation on what image-makers can do and say with their work in the face of upheaval on a relentlessly global scale.

The most provocative work in the exhibition is Thomas Hirschhorn’s “Touching Reality,” a five-minute video showing a delicate female hand sliding her fingers across a touch-screen tablet, scrolling through and occasionally zooming in on images of burned, bloodied, flayed and disfigured bodies in dismally familiar theaters of war (Iraq appears to have provided the bulk of the image bank here).

Among the 28 artists included in the show, several test the limits of what constitutes photography, playing with the methods and ideas of abstraction, pattern and decoration, landscape painting and the sublime. Yet even the prettiest pictures, videos, collages, textiles and densely textured wall works purposefully undermine their own beauty with strains of the sinister.

Louis Molina-Pantin’s photographs of so-called narco-architecture in Colombia and Lucas Foglia’s series about off-the-grid communities in the American South uphold documentary photography’s ability to slip into the unseen corners of the world. Nir Evron’s four-minute film “A Free Moment” lends hard-won visibility to the strange concrete carcass of a summer palace, situated of a hill above Jerusalem, which was erected for King Hussein of Jordan in the 1960s but never finished.

“A Different Kind of Order” rumbles through the usual questions about memories and archives that seem attendant to any atrocity-laden exhibition dealing with art engaged to politics. It does so unflinchingly. It takes the dearth of satisfying answers seriously and the solace of art with humility.

There are no utopias here, only the schizophrenic disjuncture of a region spanning the ruined cities of Damascus and Aleppo on one end, a facsimile of the Louvre on the other.

“A Different Kind of Order: The ICP Triennial” is on view at the International Center of Photography through Sept. 22. For more information, please call 1-212-857-0000 or visit

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 20, 2013, on page 16.




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