Black Book of Aggressors I 17 THE HEAVY CABLE WIRE. Selma Waldman. Black Book of Aggressors 2005 – 2007, charcoal, pastel, on black paper, 8 1/2 x 11″
“The perpetration of violence takes away an individual’s humanity, abuser and victim are locked in one energy field, that is like sex, they join together with energy, but in [Waldman's] energy field, they are killing and being killed.”
– Susan Noyes Platt (Source)
Selma Waldman (1932-2008) is one of the great American artists of the 20th and 21st centuries. Unfortunately for the American public, her work has been more widely exhibited in other parts of the world, particularly in Germany.
Just as I insisted when I wrote about Daniel Heyman’s Portraits of Iraqis, it’s often worthwhile to look non-photographic work. As with Heyman’s work, I was introduced to Waldman’s work through Susan Noyes Platt’s vital book Art and Politics Now.
One of her final projects, Waldman’s Black Book of Aggressors explores her life long exploration of personal abuse between humans set in the milieu of widespread terror. The work is clearly to be understood within the context of the Abu Ghraib images but Waldman’s use of pastel extends the horror and successfully creates something significantly different and more nuanced. (I point people towards Antonin Kratochvil’s Homage to Abu Ghraib as an example of how photography can fail in it’s response to atrocity.)
Waldman conjures violent sexual depravity that represents any torture scenario, but because of global events, we know she is passing commentary on the U.S. military. It is difficult work … even for the art establishment.
Of Black Book of Aggressors Noyes Platt says:
“No museum will touch her potent work that exposes the intersection of sex, war, and torture. Her most recent series is on black paper with chalk lines in blue, red, yellow. It is a tangle of passionate fury that ensnarls interrogators and victims in a process that has no moral parameters. She declares in the brochure “War is the Crime, Naked/Aggression is the work”
In as much as the artistic process can mimic the mayhem of torture, I think Waldman succeeds and viewers are mired in what she described as “the pornography of power”.
I don’t repeat the phrase “the pornography of power” lightly. Particularly in photography circles there have been recent re-examinations of what it actually means to describe an image as pornographic. See David Campbell’s excellent essay The Problem with Regarding Photography of Suffering as ‘Pornographic’ as an introduction to the topic.
But with Waldman’s work we’re dealing with pastels and not photos.
One of the challenges to the lazy use of the term ‘pornography’ is that it is often applied specifically to photography, and as such infers something innately violating about photography. Susan Sontag is the often quoted name when people want to discuss photography and violation.
To determine what Waldman achieved with her work and also what we experience as viewers, it is worth considering Campbell’s summary of the term ‘pornographic’:
As a signifier of responses to bodily suffering, ‘pornography’ has come to mean the violation of dignity, cultural degradation, taking things out of context, exploitation, objectification, putting misery and horror on display, the encouragement of voyeurism, the construction of desire, unacceptable sexuality, moral and political perversion, and a fair number more.
Most of these are present in Waldman’s work and yet because she has created a scene and expressed it in pastel, the artworks are essentially invitations to join the artist in protest.
We know that Waldman was not present as the torture and perversions occurred. With photography, on the other hand, we cannot escape the fact that along with the camera there is (usually) the camera operator.
Photography “places us” in the violent space of the original act, whereas painting often puts us in the artist’s imagination. When we engage with a photograph and substitute the camera operator with ourselves, we are repulsed. Often we’ll look away and often we ask, how could they take such a photograph?
Painted art is rarely in the position to be so closely associated with the violence of the act it depicts. When we note Waldman’s violent brushstrokes we celebrate them as conceptually consistent. When we note that a button on a camera was pushed, we may think, “Why didn’t the photographer intervene.” The answers are many and the interventions not as easy as we might hope.
Under the Websters entry for ‘pornography’ the third of three definitions reads:
The depiction of acts in a sensational manner so as to arouse a quick intense emotional reaction, i.e. the pornography of violence.
So, the issue is not that depictions of violence shouldn’t be referred to as pornographic, the issue is that too often images – and particularly photographs – of violence are referred to wrongly as pornographic.
Perhaps the most licentious element of pornographic photos is that of voyeurism. As much as people who consider photography like to discuss the contradictions and layers of meaning within photography, it seems to me, in this comparative case at least, that Waldman’s simpler direct pastel-works are a more substantive experience for the audience. They cannot be dismissed as cheap voyeurism.
Think about it. If we are shown photographs of violence then we must automatically denounce the violence. Simultaneously, the presumption is we are also repulsed. Yes, we can be made to look away, but does that mean we never look back?
A photograph holds within it a never-ending capacity for voyeurism. It is a literal depiction and (I might get in trouble for saying this) it is closer to representational truth than any painting is.
Waldman’s pastels truly are the pornography of power; it is an appropriate phrase for her work. It’s a pornography we can look at and possibly learn from. Waldman depicts the perversions of imperial power without implicating our perversions. Her artwork severs the view of the aggressor from our own view.
In Black Book of Aggressors, you don’t find the voyeuristic tension that exists in photography. It’s powerful, relevant and persistent art.
Black Book of Aggressors, NAKED/AGGRESSION. Selma Waldman. Black Book of Aggressors 2005 – 2007, charcoal, pastel, on black paper, 8 1/2 x 11″
Black Book of Aggressors I. CHAINS OF COMMAND. Selma Waldman Black Book of Aggressors 2005 – 2007, charcoal, pastel, on black paper, 8 1/2 x 11″
Black Book of Aggressors IV 35 WATERBOARDING. Selma Waldman Black Book of Aggressors 2005 – 2007, charcoal, pastel, on black paper, 8 1/2 x 11″
Black Book of aggresors IV WATERBOARDING. Selma Waldman Black Book of Aggressors 2005 – 2007, charcoal, pastel, on black paper, 8 1/2 x 11″
Selma Waldman. Black Book of Aggressors 2005 – 2007, charcoal, pastel, on black paper, 8 1/2 x 11″
Black Book of Aggressors IV 39 WATERBOARDING PROFESSIONAL. Selma Waldman. Black Book of Aggressors 2005 – 2007, charcoal, pastel, on black paper, 8 1/2 x 11″