Tuesday 31 July 2012

Journal I "sudden vicinity of things" - some thoughts on [Photographs from S21: 1975-79] at MoMA (1997)

By Riya de los Reyes


vicinity of

Re:  Afterthoughts on the tutorial about the 1997 MoMA exhibit on photographs of those killed under the Khmer Rouge (Photographs from S-21: 1975-79)

  • Background to the Exhibition (May 15-early Fall 1997):

Political Tensions in Cambodia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1997_clashes_in_Cambodia

This happened in July 1997, but there was already a threat of potential violence as “long before July 1997, Hun Sen had tried but failed to convince his party to authorize military action against FUNCINPEC.” (http://www.hrw.org/ja/news/2007/07/27/cambodia-july-1997-shock-and-aftermath).

The photographic exhibit began in May 1997. Read the MoMA exhibit’s Press Release here: http://www.moma.org/docs/press_archives/7527/releases/MOMA_1997_0040_32.pdf?2010

  • The exhibit is an example of the relationship between cultural policy and international political affairs, as well as cultural policy and negotiating historical/artistic canon

In my opinion, it was a demonstration of MoMA taking a ‘soft interventionist’ approach (i.e., influenced by Cambodian politics at that time, yet also making the decision to take a political stance about it by invoking the memory of the Khmer Rouge and the crimes of humanity under that regime – thereby, effectively moralizing both events). The fact that MoMA could take a political stance and have the exhibit to substantiate that stance is a veritable show of power. Also, isn’t that akin to the usual way that the United States employ its interventionist approach to other countries?

The exhibit could also be interpreted as a way to democratize the “trope of historical trauma”, a way to “dilute the canon” by diverting away from seeing the Holocaust as the “universal trope” of genocide and historical trauma (read Andreas Huyssen). Although the exhibit could be viewed as a potential attempt to ‘democratize’ the narrative of historical trauma, the fact that MoMA does the diluting of the canon and decides how democratization will be done is in itself - again - already a display of its power. It appears that only MoMA could and has the authority and means (e.g. acquiring the photographs) to ‘re-work’ the historical/artistic canon.

  • The photographs as a ‘mirror’ reflecting the ‘sudden vicinity of things’ and the question of ‘authorship’

The question of authorship could be resolved if the photographs put on exhibit are viewed as a ‘mirror’ reflecting the parallel between the photographer and the visitor to the museum.

The curator talked about “transferring the burden(guilt)” to the viewer. As such, the curator acts as an ‘authority’ on the viewer by imposing that burden of having acquired, catalogued and subsequently exhibiting them for the viewer. This could be viewed as analogous to the role of Pol Pot as the “author” of the monstrosity that was the Khmer Rogue genocide, and the photographer (Khen Eim?) was given the burden of “shooting” those people, metaphorically already killing them before they were killed for real.

Viewed in this way, I feel that the exhibition of the photographs could potentially give agency to those who were killed...if, depending on the context and time period within which they are situated, the photographs could evince awareness of authorial and spectatorial roles. Those photographed become, at once, both timeless (captured and crystallized by a camera before death) and temporal (being allowed to speak again in a different time and space to the visitor of the museum). I think that's better than silencing them, and never allowing them to 'speak' to the contemporary viewer.

It is also worth noting that MoMA (est. 1929) and modern art and modernity were a reaction to the rapid industrialisation towards the late 1800s and then the Great War (WWI). Modern art and modernity were themselves borne out of historical trauma and questions of morality vis-a-vis commercialisation/industrialisation/imperialism, which makes it somehow apt to have the exhibit there -- that exhibiting the photographs as artwork at MoMA was just as valid as exhibiting them in a history museum as an artifact. The striking effect of the exhibit would be how the visitor as an individual can retroactively/retrospectively be provoked to make judgment of ‘modernity’ and to question the path that humanity had taken to experience that ‘modernity’ - was it towards progress or regression, for instance?

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