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To See With One's Own Eyes

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June 30, 2009

In May 2006 at the Cheim & Read Gallery in New York, Jenny Holzer first exhibited her Redaction Paintings. The paintings feature formerly classified and sensitive government documents concerning American engagement in the Middle East, particularly after the attacks on the World Trade Center in September of 2001. The documents, culled from various government agencies and departments, such as the CIA, FBI, and the Department of Defense, were released through the landmark 1966 Freedom of Information Act. With the torture scandal in its insurgency and another Republican administration firmly in place, Holzer set about, with some urgency, to collect a representative series and sequence of documents to explore the discourse concerning the war on terrorism and torture through the language of its shapers, practitioners, and wagers.

Instead of attempting to deduce the truth claims in journalistic reportage (whether textual or visual), Holzer pared story or scoop down to the basics of communication—the directives, emails, memos, letters, and autopsies that are the linguistic bones (and individual voices) of a potentially instrumentalized and motivated rhetorical body. Her urgency was partially goaded by what has characterized as the Bush administration’s “secrecy obsession.” From secret military tribunals to continual reclassification of documents to ordering agencies to use the most restrictive and legalistic response possible for FOIA requests, the Bush administration’s withdrawal and obfuscation of information made it imperative to assemble and classify materials from a slippery archive that furtively slides in and out of exposure.

Translated into photographic positives that are then made into screens, the documents the artist appropriates are transferred, unaltered, onto linens that have been painted with oils. The scale of the works is some ratio of the original 8.5-by 11-inch page, keeping manipulation minimal, merely enlarging for presentation. In the catalogue produced in conjunction with the exhibition, the paintings are distributed and classified under three headings: Archive, Guantanamo, and Iraq. Archive largely includes works that trace the history of the U.S.’s presence in the Middle East since the 1991 Gulf War. President George H. W. Bush’s January 15, 1991, security directive establishing the parameters of war and authorizing military action in Iraq and President George W. Bush’s February 7, 2002, memo suspending the Geneva Conventions for suspected al Qaeda detainees sandwich documents like the infamous July 10, 2001, Phoenix memo that presaged the 9/11 attacks and Richard Clarke’s January 25, 2001, memo to Condoleezza Rice urging a review of the Presidential policy towards al Qaeda. Guantanamoand Iraq, unlike the Archive documents, do not represent the now canonical governmental communiqués of bold-faced historical names. Rather, the emails, interrogation technique documents, sworn statements, letters, and autopsies that provide the surround sound of voices implementing and impacted by a policy and culture of torture are authored by the unnamed or unknown—these pieces are the day-to-day filler predestined for a policy crust shipped from Washington to be baked in the heat of an Iraqi, Afghani, and Cuban sun.

The photographs from Abu Ghraib, like any representation, provide an ideologically malleable surface. As Mark Danner wrote in October of 2004:

As I write, four months have passed since a series of bizarre photographs were broadcast on American television and entered the consciousness of the world. Seven military police, those ‘few bad apples,’ have been indicted and two have pled guilty…What has been on trial thus far, however, is the acts depicted in the photographs and these acts, while no doubt constituting abuse, have been carefully insulated from any charge that they represent, or derived from, US policy—a policy that permits torture. Thus far, in the United States at least, there has been relatively little discussion about torture and whether the agents of the US government should be practicing it.

(Click to enlarge in new window.)
Fig. 1
Wish List pewter, 2007
oil on linen
102.25 x 79 in.
Text: U.S. government document
© 2009 Jenny Holzer, member Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

Moving outside of the confining frames of the Abu Ghraib photographs to reconstruct context, sequence, and a narrative shell, Holzer’s use of the documents also assertively places both feet within the frame to demolish a limited purview that sees the abuse as exceptional. The operation of constructing a framework to house a painting such as Wish List (fig. 1) that details alternative interrogation techniques that are categorically contrary to the Geneva Conventions (stimulus and sleep deprivation, white noise exposure, close quarter confinement, and open hand strikes, among others) along with one like Jaw Broken (fig. 2) where a detainee in Iraq testifies to abuse he suffered consistent with the techniques listed in Wish List works to link concept with event, hypothetical with enacted. And instead of rhetorically making the link, dogmatically crafting an argument that interweaves policy and torture, Holzer’s suspension of the two documents as paintings lying in proximity creates that spatial and conceptual gap for undetermined reception. Instead of pointing at the enmeshment of policy and torture, she allows one to see with one’s own eyes.

(Click to enlarge in new window.)
Fig. 2
Jaw Broken, 2006
oil on linen, 3 elements
33 x 76.5 in.
Text: U.S. government document
© 2009 Jenny Holzer, member Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

In her study, Sites of Autopsy in Contemporary Culture, Elizabeth Klaver writes, “The Greek roots of the word ‘autopsy’ (auto+opsis) contain the dead metaphor of vision together with the empirical thrust of Western epistemology since the Renaissance—to see with one’s own eyes.” Holzer concludes her catalogue with four diptychs—final autopsy reports conducted by the Office of the Armed Forces Regional Medical Examiner in Landstuhl, Germany, of three Iraqi men and a Pashtun male murdered under circumstances consistent with torture while held in American detainment facilities in Iraq and Afghanistan (fig. 3).

(Click to enlarge in new window.)
Fig. 3
FINAL AUTOPSY REPORT DOD 003235-DOD 003241 Ochre, 2006
oil on linen
66 x 25.5 in.
Text: U.S. government document
© 2009 Jenny Holzer, member Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY

To make paintings of medicolegal documentation that details the surgical move within the body to ascertain cause of death is to reveal the shocking inadequacy of sensational representation—like the Abu Ghraib photographs. While avowing the specificity of a body and a subject identified by visual description, paperwork, fingerprints, and DNA sampling and the particular traumas that resulted in death by, respectively, a pulmonary embolism due to blunt force injuries, strangulation, blunt force injuries complicated by compromised respiration, and blunt force injuries and asphyxia, the paintings work to fix the mobility of signification by replicating the physical operation of autopsy as a uniquely visual one. The paintings provide an operation of vision that doesn’t rest on the surface of symptom but pierces the skin of the spectacle to reveal a consistency of violence evincing a system of torture. Holzer works to endow the still unnamed tortured with the coordinates of personal identity (date of birth, date of death, home, ethnicity, bodily markings, rank, gender) that provide a schema for subjectivity and personhood. That is, the display of the autopsy documents allows one to see with her own eyes, simultaneously, individual bodily fragility as well as the network of systematized and like abuse covered by the mask of symbol and spectacle.

Autopsy assumes that the body exists within a framework (in this case, social, medical, legal, and juridical) that is a pre-condition for, constitutes, and testifies to a subject. The autopsy also figures as a categorical end. Unlike the photograph that suspends the pictured figure at a particular moment of concomitant becoming and undoing, a superficial symptom that hides the origin and context of meaty, temporal life, the autopsy, in the words of Foucault, “plunges,” “penetrates,” “advances,” and “descends” into sequential, ordered, geographical, bodily space. The end of the autopsy is knowledge of the body itself and the deceased in particular, not the symptom in its exteriority and precarious associative valences. In his short essay “What Is a Camp,” Giorgio Agamben writes:

The correct question regarding the horrors committed in the camps, therefore, is not the question that asks hypocritically how it could have been possible to commit such atrocious horrors against other human beings; it would be more honest, and above all more useful, to investigate carefully how—that is, thanks to what juridical procedures and political devices—human beings could have been so completely deprived of their rights and prerogatives to the point that committing any act toward them would no longer appear as a crime.”

Working with the autopsy as a visual document, Holzer refutes the Abu Ghraib photographs as sufficient visual evidence. And this is primarily because the photographs of abused bodies solely signify exceptional horror without revealing the regularity of horror, the accounting of atrocity, which the torture autopsies—through their similarities and congruities with approved “alternative interrogation techniques”—disclose as system. As a medicolegal document, the autopsy and its discourse as report circulate among the directives, memos, and emails that established a policy of torture (and not its individual incarnations). Yet, the policy reaches its crisis when the body constructed as extralegal (outside of nation-state as figured in Bush’s notorious February 7, 2002 memo) is re-inscribed using the legal paraphernalia of the state itself. A body is not only represented in the autopsy, but physically reconstructed as a life functioning within a juridical system—that is, one that can end through the legally defined event homicide, the cause of death given in each autopsy painting.

As early as the fourteenth century, autopsies were being executed for medicolegal purposes. These early procedures were performed in order to determine for the courts whether the manner of death was homicide, abortion, poisoning, or infanticide. It was not until the eighteenth century that the autopsy became the institution that we know today—that is, a regulated confluence of subjects working within an ideologically governed space. As Elizabeth Klaver writes:

Since a vast network of subjects is involved, the practice of autopsy cannot be idiosyncratic—it must be governed by highly regulated procedures as to how the medical operation is performed on the corpse and how the discourse is used to record and report it, together with stringent privacy rules and obligations with respect to the deceased, the family, and the public.

Marie François Xavier Bichat, best known as the father of modern histology and pathology, established the lesion-based concept of disease through autopsy—a transformative epistemic break that looked to irregularities and mutation in tissue, and not the organs, for the origin and spread of disease. Michel Foucault, in The Birth of the Clinic, locates Bichat’s work as a radical rupture not only in the direction of medical practice, but the means through which illness would be known and discerned—the deceased body’s interior would trace the origin of disease allowing a tabulation and organization of attendant symptoms, as opposed to a loose assemblage of symptoms signifying disease in the living. And Foucault primarily explains this fissure through language that references the visual—the medical gaze. Preceding Bichat, observation was limited to the visual study of manifest symptoms. At this juncture, the medical gaze was a survey of surface. In contradistinction, the gaze of Bichat used autopsy as an instrument to chart a geographic spatiality, of actual lesion in the dead rather than symptom in the living, a “plunging from the manifest to the hidden.” Foucault writes:

The gaze plunges into the space that it has given itself the task of traversing. In its primary form, the clinical reading implied an external, deciphering subject, which, on the basis of and beyond that which it spelt out, ordered and defined kinships. In anatamo-clinical experience, the medical eye must see the illness spread before it, horizontally and vertically in graded depth, as it penetrates into the body, as it advances into is bulk, as it circumvents or lifts its masses, as it descends into its depths. Disease is no longer a bundle of characters disseminated here and there over the surface of the body and linked together by statistically observable concomitances and successions; it is a set of forms and deformations, figures, and accidents and of displaced, destroyed, or modified elements bound together in sequence according to a geography that can be followed step by step. It is no longer a pathological species inserting itself into the body wherever possible; it is the body itself that has become ill.

If torture can be considered an illness (a palsy of policy), with particular sources that can be empirically examined, I have taken the autopsy as painting by Jenny Holzer as a visual means of diagnosing it. Following Foucault’s analysis of medical observation, the autopsy document creates the tortured body as a legal subject when the medical procedure of seeing is inscribed within bureaucratic discourse. Piercing the illusion of exception and surface, the autopsy document not only reconstitutes the tortured body within a legal, juridical, medical, and political framework, but permits the circulation of it within an archive capable of constructing torture as policy and not event—that is, torture no longer as “a bundle of character disseminated here and there over the surface of the body” but as “the body itself that has become ill.”

Holzer has hung the two panels of each autopsy painting stacked on top of each other. Displayed in this totemic fashion, the painting measures twenty-five and a half by sixty-six inches (a factor of the original 8.5 x 11 inch document), approximately human size. She considers it critical to have the idea of body (both of the viewer and the deceased) implicated, accentuated even, in this clinical presentation. The bureaucratic body, then, a matrix of the political, the medical, and the juridical, looks back at us. And as it does, we are undone before it into the strands of competing structural formations that weave a life—our nationalities, medical histories, ranks, political affiliations, statistics, titles, statuses. There is some consolation that the concession of autopsy suggests that the life of the “Other” finally is deemed substantial enough to be categorized in “our” bureaucratic terms. The mourning at work in the paintings is that “our” very terms are the ones that invalidated those bodies and lives to begin with. The hope is that they provide enough to hold the guilty accountable.

David Breslin is a project manager at the Jenny Holzer Studio and is a doctoral candidate in the History of Art and Architecture at Harvard University.

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