Violence, Voyeurism, and the Place of Art

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Violence, Voyeurism, and the Place of Art

By Brian Karl February 20, 2019

In-depth, critical perspectives exploring art and visual culture on the West Coast.


The art installation Pyre (2016) takes forensic reports as a recipe to stage the amount of matériel purportedly necessary to incinerate a human body: 71 liters of gasoline, 23 used car tires, and 760 kilograms of wood. The precision of Pyre’s source quantities conjures the calculations made by brutally arbitrary yet efficient narco-traffickers. Professional criminals, as we know from television, are nothing if not technocratic.

An instruction piece by the Mexico City–based artist Joaquín Segura, Pyre takes on new meanings in different settings, reminding us that it’s not just the physical work that makes for site-specificity in art exhibitions but also the location of an installation. Within Pyre, sedimented into geo-specific layers of meaning, are questions about how we respond to the failure of government and often-hidden, interwoven politics. The work also asks: what are the geneses and consequences of violence, vigilantism, and voyeurism? 

Pyre was installed in the fall of 2018 at Galeria Hilario Galguera, a former manor house in the Colonia San Rafael, a neighborhood the gallery calls “one of the oldest in Mexico City … from the era of Porfirio Díaz.” Referencing this military general and long-time Mexican president invokes the ambiguity of the country’s decolonization from the French and Spain and the launch of the modernization that continues to overwhelm Indigenous life. The colonia serves now as a locale for theaters and galleries, as well as for artists’ studios, following common urban gentrification patterns. The clean, tree-lined streets outside and white-washed walls inside the gallery make a curiously rarefied setting for Pyre’s imagined prelude to forced immolation. As one contrasting cultural setting, recall Vietnamese Buddhist Thích Quảng Đức’s 1963 self-immolation in a highly public Saigon intersection, ensuring worldwide circulation of his final moments to protest the corrupt US-backed Diem regime.

More than a monument for any single absent body, the assemblage of Pyre is meant as evidence of the unlikelihood that so many bodies could have disappeared during the Mexican war on drugs without authorities’ awareness and possible collusion. One prominent moment in the history of citizens-as-collateral-damage was the 2014 disappearance of forty-three students in Iguala, in the state of Guerrero. Though not convicted, local governmental officials were suspected in the apparently fatal disappearance of the students, whose bodies were never recovered.

Pyre’s wood, rubber, and gas also evoke colonialism’s continuing destruction through the practice of mono-cropping and a dominating industrial-commercial focus. These products compose some of the worst of resource extraction’s cruel exploitation of this planet, and, in Pyre, they distill physically nauseating conditions into the art piece by connotation, augmented by the unnaturally bright lights and white walls of the gallery space. The faint whiffs of worn rubber and rough-cut wood slabs are overwhelmed by the imagined odor of gasoline in its sealed metal jerricans along with the specter of the horrific effects if these materials were to be ignited to unleash fire as a hyper-efficient instrument of destruction. The elements conspicuously lacking in the piece are human bodies – both victims and perpetrators. If viewers are the only human bodies present, then do they become stand-ins for either, or both?

Later in 2018 and into the first weeks of 2019, Pyre was on display at 3320 18th Street, organized by Jordan Stein with Ivan Muñiz Reed. This single-room gallery is a rather provisional space on a second floor, above a cushion manufacturer and distributor, nestled amid several individual artists’ workspaces in San Francisco’s Mission District, itself a Spanish colony before the United States’ military conquest. The Mission is now home to generations of immigrants from Central America, though intensive recent gentrification has impelled demographic shifts. Prior to its Mexico City and Mission installations, Pyre was exhibited in Australia and Argentina at nonprofit galleries in groupings of politically minded work.

If Pyre is about re-witnessing a pre-crime, what crimes resonate in its various exhibition localities? In Australia, the settler-colonialism that destroyed Indigenous populations and culture overlaps with the geopolitical concerns that maintained domination of underclasses across the globe, through a neo-liberalist status quo of valuing capital over life. Argentina, congruently, had its Dirty War, prosecuted by the government against its own citizens, in the 1980s.

More contemporaneously, the San Francisco setting invokes the mass displacement of lower-income residents, many with Central American roots, through morally questionable economic determinism, techno-elitism, and physical eviction. It also carries resonances of the US-backed war on drugs that prompted the global rise of drug cartels, the intertwining of the drug trade with geo-political organizations both anti- and purportedly governmental, and the ultra-violent actions of both. And in an unexpected alignment of artwork and location, the San Francisco exhibition of Pyre coincided with the highly lethal Northern California Camp Fire (which some blamed on poor governmental policies related to climate change and industrial regulation). This prompted the organizers to issue a written “trigger warning” of possible distress or reactivated trauma for viewers who had experienced deadly associations with fire.

Segura’s piece also evokes public vigilantism elsewhere, such as the burning-tire “necklaces” that adorned those branded as colluding with South Africa’s apartheid regime in the 1990s, as the means for extra-judicial executions. In South Africa, spontaneous street gangs implemented what they felt was necessary social justice, using a violent vernacular culture of punishment to target highly visible figures. Pyre instead points to violence enacted by governing authorities, whether through deliberate collusion or incompetence and incapacity. The absence of human figures in Pyre conjures images of both known unknowns (the casualties of the drug trade) and unknown unknowns (who might be responsible; where actual bodies are “buried”). (Something similar occurs in the photographer Ken Gonzalez Day’s reenactments and scrubbings of images of people lynched in the United States, removing crucial actors from view while retaining a sense of ominousness and tension in those horrific scenes.)

Such projects provoke the question: when do witnessing and empathy turn into banal, lurid voyeurism? In performing “the gaze,” viewers may experience abstractions of actual events, potentially keeping their emotional responses corralled. Voyeurism maintains the safe distance of non-involvement. Others’ perpetration and victimhood smear into a sort of pornography, a fascination with others’ damaged and disappeared bodies, what Freud called “a burning and tormenting curiosity to see,” however much motivated by supposedly right reasons.

Think of the layered gallows of Sam Durant’s Scaffold, which referred to seven different lethal moments in US history, including the 1862 hanging of thirty-eight Indigenous Dakota men in Mankato, Minnesota. The artwork’s reception varied radically based on location. Exhibited in Europe without controversy, Scaffold was part of a planned 2017 reopening of the Sculpture Garden at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, eighty miles from Mankato. The piece provoked protests from regional Native American communities at the disregard that both Durant and the Walker demonstrated in reopening old, but still painful, psychic wounds among those very communities the piece attempted to represent.

With Pyre, are viewers put in positions of greater complicity as witnesses, as bystanders to a violence that has both already taken place and yet threatens still to happen? Whether Pyre’s contexts as well as its materiality contribute to the apprehension of something latent (just out of sight) or to outright dread depends, of course, on individual sensibilities. The degrees of remove from sites of traumatic crimes symbolized by sculptural forms can also generate different qualities of impotence, numbness, or outrage among viewers. This is another sense in which place can be said to matter.

Responding to Indigenous objections to the Walker version of Scaffold, Durant ceded both the physical sculpture (which was disassembled and removed from public space) and the conceptual rights to the artwork to the native community in and around Mankato. The sculpture’s wooden physical elements were ultimately buried in a ceremony rather than burned, since Dakota consider fire to be sacred and not simply some tool to be used for destruction.

Pyre’s conflagrations, on the other hand, are more willfully transgressive, however much they remain mere intimations. Something smoldering in the background catalyzes complicated thoughts, or at least feelings, but leaves us wondering: where is the action?

Joaquín Segura: Pyre was on view at 3320 18th Street in San Francisco through January 20, 2019.

Enrique Ježik and Joaquín Segura: Theatre of Operations was on view at Hilario Galguera Gallery in Mexico City through November 2, 2018. 

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