Over the Christmas break, I went to see Dispatches at SECCA (Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art) in Winston-Salem, NC. The exhibition proved to be a timely and topical investigation into how artists interact with and process the news. From the exhibition introduction:
Dispatches gathers and generates artistic responses to the news by 34 contemporary artists and photojournalists. The exhibition includes a survey of works from 2010 - present and launches a series of commissions, or "dispatches" on current events and the critical issues of our time.
The art works emerge from within and in defiance of today's media landscape, ranging from real-time coverage to deliberately slow and analog forms. They enlarge our collective capacity to sensitively receive stories delivered in today's unevenly regulated and fast flow of news. They decelerate the speed of information. Or, they organize collective efforts toward a more humanizing interaction.
Dispatches is divided into five thematic zones: Post-9-11 Realities; Borders and Migrations; Ecological Justice; New Forms of Social Action; and the 2016 US Presidential Election.
There was one piece in particular that stood out to me as it relates to my current project and thinking: Doug Ashford’s Next Day (2015-16), which takes the entirety of Section A from The New York Times on September 12, 2001 as the ground for abstract forms and fields of color. “Reworking image and text, Ashford harnesses the affective power of color and composition to hide, reveal and amplify the newspaper’s content.” The piece was 28 pages, laid out on a long table in the center of the room. It begged close inspection–the colors and forms attracted at first, and then the reality of what you were looking at hit. The headlines, the images, all created a sense of déja vu, but the screens of color and the interruptions caused by the shapes forced a new perspective or interpretation.
I was interested in the date of this piece, and that it was created 14 years after the event. The wall text states, “In his reappraisal of the press coverage of the 9/11 attacks, over ten years after the event, we are given an opportunity to feel, to reflect on the artifact of the newspaper and the trauma of 9/11, and to consider what has and has not changed since then.”
The idea of these abstract forms as a tool of empathy, feeling, and consideration resonates:
“In his recent work, Ashford explores the power of abstraction as it relates to our encounter with crisis and current events, combining formal approaches to painting with found images and gestures of re-enactment. He has said:
‘What I have been trying to think about...is something quite simple–how the relationship we have with art can make us more human when it shows things beyond what society allows us to experience...This production is awakening questions that I have long held on the relationship between abstract art and the feeling we call sympathy or empathy.’
While abstraction is often seen as non-naturalistic, non-representational and therefore antithetical to the human or empathetic, Ashford’s work combines arresting images of people in crisis and traumatic events with abstract element to find a language that renews our ability to feel these events.”
Most of the other work in the exhibition interacted with or reflected upon much more current and recent news, so what stood out to me about this piece, in addition to the striking formal visual language at play, was the artifact nature of the work. The fact that it was using the passing of time as a part of the structure, part of the reason for being made. This idea of the “gesture of re-enactment” is intriguing to me. How applicable that term is to my project, and how many different ways that can be used and interpreted!