Art Notes – Genocides, Massacres and War Crimes are Bad, m’kay.

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When I first saw the above photograph of Doris Salcedo’s artwork: Istanbul Project; I was like, “Wow, far out, dude. That is way cool.”

It shows a demolished space between two multi-story buildings packed full to the brim with a chaotic jumble of 1550-odd wooden chairs. The whole idea of literally stacking all those chairs on top of one another like that in a public space appeared to me to be such a cool and creative thing to do, and so bold and fascinating, too.

However, once I started to read more about the intentions behind the artwork, I was more like, “Whoa! I think I need to sit the fuck down”.

Each of those wooden chairs are just like the ones that would sit around your family’s dining room table at home. It is what your father and mother, brother and sister, and all of your other loved ones would plonk their bottoms down upon each night as they spoke over dinner about what happened at work, their day at school, or the contents of the latest stupid blog article they have posted.

They are the kinds of chairs you might find at a table in your favourite restaurant. They are the simple chairs that your friends and lovers would have graced with their butts while you all waited for your Pad Thai or you Fettuccine to arrive at the table. They are the chairs that you would have sat on as you rocked back and forth, passionately discussing politics, philosophy and film amongst yourselves with all the conviction and authority of youth.

These are the types of chairs that you and your neighbours would have ungraciously slumped your arses upon during a town hall meeting. Important decisions might have been under discussion about garbage collection and public parks, but you would not have been alone amongst your fellow neighbours when you started to find these chairs uncomfortable, wiggling and squirming on them with boredom.

Having noted the above, what is conspicuously absent amongst all the chairs in this building sized sculpture are the family members, loved ones, friends and neighbours that would normally have been ensconced upon them. Not such a bad thing you might say. After all, who would want to be caught up in all those interlocking chairs squished together in such a tiny and compressed space. Surely, it would have been no good for one’s posture. But the thing is, all those empty chairs represent a displacement: Where have all those absent people gone?

The artwork was actually an installation by Colombian artist Doris Salcedo for the 8th International Istanbul Biennial. Salcedo was walking through the city when she noticed all of these discarded and demolished buildings located amongst the busiest parts of town. Trying to make sense of all of those ruins, she came to learn that they were the homes of Jewish and Greek people that were forcibly and violently kicked out of their buildings over the previous 50 years. Disturbed, Salcedo wanted to use these spaces to create a monument to those that had been displaced.

Salcedo found the simple wooden chair to be the perfect material for her installation. With the implementation of her vision, these everyday objects were transformed into something with a far greater significance than their quotidian function. Each one is elevated from a mere domestic item into a stark and confronting emblem of each of the unfortunate souls who once sat on those chairs and then found themselves at the wrong end of the boot.

Extending this concept, Salcedo did not intend the installation to be a symbol merely circumscribed by a specific and localised phenomena in Istanbul, rather she saw it as an even more general statement with a far greater scope and impact. In her mind, the chairs that she had chaotically tumbled and discarded into the space between these buildings were reminiscent of the corpses of the family members, loved ones, friends and neighbours that have been bulldozed into mass graves the world over. Those chairs, packed into their tenement grave, are representative of the silent victims of genocides, massacres and war crimes throughout history and that still occur today as I type.

As these ideas started to sink beneath my skin, the photograph before me of Salcedo’s installation started to metamorphose into a profound gut-punch of emotion. That sense of loss, of people forcibly removed and displaced, of people tortured and murdered, of the extreme anguish and the heart-ache of all victims throughout place and time: it seeped in between the wooden frames of those chairs and settled into my mind with all of that crushing weight of pain, loss and suffering. It was laid bare before me with brutal clarity like the razor sharp negative of a crime scene photograph.

I might not have been able to see the victims, but I could hear their voices, and the lament of those that were left behind, as they penetrated and reverberated around my skull like a ricochet. What looked like a pretty cool artwork turned out to be a massively reflective and and totally heavy experience. Now, that is one deep artwork, dude.

On the lighter side, last week I came across this other artwork below. Now this looks like a lot of fun… or is it part of the same discussion started by Salcedo. I am going to go with fun, I don’t think I can cope with anything else that is as serious as Istanbul project and all its empty chairs today.

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