I’ve had a hard time finding a good starting point to talk about Ryan Woodring’s show, Decimate Mesh at Duplex in Portland. Do I first explain the title of the exhibit so that readers will understand the special-effects software that allowed him to create the videos in the exhibition? If I chose that direction, it would seem to me that I’d be burying the lead, so to speak, because all of the art—the videos, the sculptures and the print on the wall—has been made in response to the destruction of artifacts by the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) in the Syria and Iraq.
The Middle East is a quagmire of domestic and foreign politics and policy; thick and deep with responsible parties. Regardless of efforts to find solutions, there seems to be little chance of change that suits international agendas, largely because each strategy dismisses or fails to comprehend a history of any length more than 100 years prior, let alone a millennium.
Even a timeline of the last 25 years seems to be forgotten. For instance, when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, an impressive number of Kuwait’s ancient treasures found their way into the antiquities market via the Iraqi government. After Desert Storm, no-fly zones imposed on Iraq left archeological sites largely unmonitored in the north and south of the country. This not only made those sites vulnerable to looting, but since additional sanctions relegated a great number of Iraqis to abject poverty, it made these sites ripe for the picking. And remember the looting of the Iraqi museums just days after the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom? (We had been warned ahead of time that this would likely happen.) How about the aerial bombing of mosques by U.S. jets? These things should still be fresh in our collective memory.
Not to mention bloodshed. It, too, seems to be part and parcel to this ongoing, spreading conflict. Even if ISIL insists there is no financial gain in raiding sites holding antiquities, and the destruction they wage is solely on religious grounds, this past week ISIS murdered the Syrian antiquities scholar Khaled al-Asaad because he refused to tell them where more artifacts were hidden for safekeeping. Yes, despite statements made to the contrary, it may be safe to assume they are financing their campaign with more readily transportable relics; and, just to keep the international aspects of this conflicted region intact, there are similar doubts about the Iraq war not being about money or that a half million Iraqis did not die.
All forms of fundamentalism, religious or otherwise, confuse unidimensional thinking with universal truth, and with this comes convenient justifications for most any atrocity.
While I may be doing the reader, the artist and myself a disservice by writing five paragraphs into a review with hardly a reference to the art contained within the exhibit, I did forewarn. Woodring’s exhibit contains three videos, as well as three sculptures (referred to as 3D composite prints) and one digital print on silk. The videos are striking, at least for those who immediately recognize the source. They are of the destruction of sculptures that ISIL committed either in Syria or Iraq. The recontextualization from “news item” or propaganda into an aesthetic gesture creates a disharmony within the viewer. (Even, I suppose, if one did not have an original context to bring to the viewing, the eeriness of these reconstructed videos could motivate one to learn more about the events that inspired Woodring’s pieces.)
Although set in a continuous loop, each video is short in duration, two at 7 seconds and another, 5 seconds. The resolution is pretty rough but clear enough to recognize sculptural objects mounted on a wall or wrapped in plastic sitting on the floor. There is movement: In the video titled “2000 year old sculpture alerts world to its demise,” we see a shroud of plastic pulling away from a figure that, judging from its headpiece, might represent a person of royalty or prominence. As it moves, the plastic releases a puff of dust that floats away like an apparition. Another video, “2000 year old sculpture makes violent introduction” shows a flashlight-illuminated, wall-mounted piece erupting here and there with little explosions. Suddenly, most of the sculpture crashes to the floor. The camera follows the fall while the lights remain fixed to the wall. In the video “statue of Venus begins its disrobe,” we are presented with another shroud of plastic. There is a visible rustling of the cover, then a piece of duct tape flies away from the base and floats in the air for a second before falling to the floor. The plastic begins to peel away but, in almost an act of modesty, the camera angle is completely wrong to allow us to see what is exposed.
Missing from these pieces, thanks to software and a keyboard command called “decimate mesh,” are the ISIS members who dealt out this destruction. Woodring has made the sculptures appear as if they are perhaps haunted. In fact, the given titles for each piece suggest these objects are capable of their own agency, as if they are animate and sentient. In either case, the underlying socio-political elements are sublimated. And it is here we may find a critique of the attitudes and perspectives of observers thousands of miles removed from these events who will resort to a familiar refrain: “These people did this to themselves.”
Lay this attitude on its side and we come close to the ambivalence I feel about the situation. Granted, I am outraged and saddened by the destruction of these (and any) cultural artifacts (even if some are clearly plaster replicas), yet because I am also displaced from the actual events, I feel helpless to prevent further pillaging. I content myself by raising a tiny voice of protest on this page.
If the erasure of cultural heritage hit closer to home and closer to my heart, I might do more. Still, whether it be to convince school boards that schools need art and music classes, communities to leave library shelves intact, white supremacist groups to repent, disband and never burn down an African-American church again, or law enforcement to refrain from aggravated battery and lethal force, active protests seem to have minimal, at best incremental, effect toward social change.
Can art have a greater impact than taking to the streets? When art has a strong political agenda, is it art, or is it, as the artist Luc Tuymans suggests, merely propaganda, and therefore not much different than the original ISIS videos? Conversely, is art for art’s sake then of less consequence? Fortunate for Woodring, he avoids these epithets. In his videos, the bad guys are disappeared, if only by slight of keystroke, yet through his aesthetic choices his videos manage to offer a critique that is double-edged, blending the culpability of both perpetrator and observer. And perhaps the art appreciator as well.