“I Am Awake in the Place Where Women Die”:. Violent Death in the Art of Abigail Lane. and Jenny Holzer LISA COULTHARD
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In a commentary written for the art exhibit Scene of the Crime, Ralph Rugoff highlights what he sees in contemporary art as a fascination with violence and crime and, in particular, with the residues and traces that define the forensic scene of violent crime. Blood stains, bodies, and the debris of violence occupy a significant place in this often shocking and grotesque trend in postmodern art; but equally significant is the framing absence and pervasive sense of loss. It is the traces of crime and death, the absence of the human figure and the attention to the ruins of modernity that characterize this art. More than merely a formal characteristic or trope, Rugoff argues that, in its foregrounding of absence, this “forensic aesthetic” suggests a distinct mode of spectator – ship, one based in detection and active investigation rather than in absorption or observation. The forensic spectator is thus asked to inspect and organize details and traces of action and, because the traces never construct a narrative whole, the spectator is led to recognize in his or her failure the incomplete and contingent nature of clues:
Taken as a whole, this art puts us in a position akin to that of the forensic anthropologist or scientist, forcing us to speculatively piece together histories that remain largely invisible to the eye… .As with any investigation, one of the difficulties of this task is the temptation to make things fit, to squeeze clues into a coherent picture by highlighting some facts and excluding others. Any competent detective must be suspicious when evidence falls too neatly into a pattern. (Rugoff 1997, 62)
Looking carefully and obliquely for the clues and minutiae that might betray the narrative of violent crime, the investigative spectator becomes a suspicious agent, vigilant for the banal or missed detail. Merging the postmortem with the postmodern, this forensically obsessed art thus asserts absence as a positive value as the ignored and mundane traces and details of acts committed and lives lived become the focus of artistic and spectatorial inquiry.
In this chapter I consider two art works that use this forensic fascination with absence and evidence to examine the hidden and quotidian aspects of violence against women: Abigail Lane’s Bloody Wallpaper and Jenny Holzer’s Lustmord. Taking their cues from documented acts of the murder of women, these works do not explicitly represent the acts of violence addressed; instead, depicting violence obliquely or rendering it in written form, each of these works uses visual absence to approach acts of brutal murder. There are clues and traces in the images and stories of violence evoked in each work, but it is through visual absence that the spectator is invited to recognize the particular murderous events that prompted each work. In Lane this absence is evoked through a problematized visual representation that makes violence a feature that is only discovered slowly and through careful spectatorship; in Holzer, it is discovered through the negation of visual imaging in favour of letters and words shaped into austere, aphoristic statements. While viscerally descriptive, Holzer’s aphorisms, like Lane’s patterned images, are not immediately indicative of violence (letters printed in light or engraved in stone), and it is only through the active process of reading that the spectator gradually forms a narrative of brutal violence. In both works the violence referenced is distanced from forms of visual certainty, representation, or narrative clarity; the narrative of violence is one constructed by the viewer through careful engagement with, and investigation of, its traces and effects. In both works the fact that only traces or partial narratives of violence are given thus offers a commentary on the pervasive after-effects of acts of brutal violence and gives a sense of the particularly problematic visibility of forms of violence against women (battery, rape, domestic abuse)—forms that are often ignored, repressed, or disavowed as unverifiable, invisible, or culturally and legally ambiguous.
Because her installation pieces address crime scenes, found bodies, lost dogs, lost persons, and unknown events, British artist Abigail Lane’s complex works have been linked to issues of memory, history, and the status and residue of evidence. Essays and books having to do with her work bear titles like “Missing Miss Lane,” “Repeating the Unrepeatable,” “Body of Evidence,” “Stilled Lives,” and “Apocalyptic Wallpaper,” and several commentators have made direct connections between Lane’s art and Freud’s analysis of the uncanny, of the once familiar that has been estranged through repression: Iwona Blazwick refers to the unheimlich dread that resides in her domestic settings, Gill Saunders notes the unheimlich nature of the bottom and bloody wallpaper prints with their evocation of silencing and suffocating domesticity, and other critics hint at the strange and unfamiliar dread that surrounds her work. But more than merely defamiliarizing the familiar, Lane’s uncanny images make what seems unfamiliar (violence, murder, blood, death), familiar and mundane through the attention to the details and traces of violent events. In this attention to detail, violence is everywhere evoked in Lane’s work even though it may not be explicitly represented, and the viewer is brought into forensic reconstructions of scenes of trauma or murder in a way that highlights both the material traces of violence and the absence of full knowledge of events and experiences. As one reviewer noted in ARTnews (Feaver 1995,143), “Her materials yield evidence to the forensic experts we imagine ourselves to be.”
Although forensically themed, Lane’s works do not always engage with violence, and many of the traces and clues are domestic, everyday, and often wryly humorous: in the images of ink pad bum prints (Bottom Wallpaper 1992; Blueprint 1992), fingerprints and footprints (Conspiracy Board Game 1992 and Making History 1992), lost bride posters, stuffed and concrete dogs, and domestic scenes with animal diorama spectators, Lane makes use of mundane materials that confront the viewer with seemingly innocent images. In this combination of a thematic concentration on clues and a formal use of everyday materials, these works, although placed in museum or gallery settings, counter any sense of the transcendence or permanence of art and utilize ephemerality to comment on the fleeting and inconsistent nature of evidence.
This attention to banal details is equally evident in those installations of Lane’s that confront violent crime more directly: The Incident Room (1993) and Skin of the Teeth (1995). The Incident Room confronts the viewer with a partially buried, pale wax female figure, lit with photographic lights. The earth and the body create a mound in the installation space, and the photographic lights mark off and illuminate the body, which is only visible in parts through the brown earth (the body’s head is slightly turned, her light hair visible, as is the whole one of her arms, one hand, and part of a foot). Without mess or obvious signs of trauma, the pallid and iridescent skin of the female victim contrasts with the richness of the brown earth, and the lights emphasize this contrast while reinforcing the sense of a forensic investigation: the edge of the crime scene is marked off by the presence of the lights, which in turn invite us to look more closely for clues and details. In addition to the partially discovered body, the room contains an old brown table with a mock tabloid newspaper called the “Express & Echo,” dated Friday, 18 June 1993. The headline reads “The bride, the body, the mystery and its maker: artist’s deadly plot revealed” and a photograph of Lane on the run with a human female arm in hand appears underneath. The story reveals the artist’s plan to place the installation (accompanied by posters reporting a missing bride) on-site in a flowerbed at Killerton Gardens near Exeter. The mock paper decries the gruesomeness of such an installation and suggests the problematic relations between art, life, and reality: “‘A lifelike model of a living mannequin would have been acceptable,’ the spokesperson continued, ‘but a dead one was not.’” As a mockery of the politics of death and representation, Lane’s “missing bride” implicates the public fascination with violent spectacle: the association between the model in the earth and the missing bride, and even with a violent crime, are all conjectural, and the narrative of homicide is constructed by the viewer or her/his surrogate, the Killerton Gardens spokesperson. The work dares you to be offended and suggests that the minimal ingredients for the construction of a narrative of intrigue, mystery, and violent murder are a female body, some dirt, and a light or two. Cued by the familiar framing devices of detection and criminal investigation, the spectator brings the narrative of violence to the work—a work that, after all, is merely a collection of everyday materials and objects.
Similarly concerned with crime scenes, Lane’s Skin of the Teeth, conceived for the Upper Gallery space of ica (the Institute of Contemporary Arts), was composed of several items with only loose connections between them. Although composed of household objects (fireplace, dog, wallpaper) and common materials (wax, cement, paper), the work created an atmosphere of intrigue and mystery that prompted one reviewer to describe the installation as an “Edgar Allan Poe psychodrama, complete with heavy breathing beneath floorboards and such memorable methods of disposal as an acid bath or stuffing body parts down the drain” (Feaver 1995,143). This reference to body parts and hidden violent murder are confirmed when one considers the arrangement of materials in the exhibition: Skin of the Teeth consisted of a room with red – patterned wallpaper, a cement fireplace hearth, a red wax hanging head and arms, a huge red wax ink pad with hinged zinc cover, the sounds of muffled scratching, and a life-sized cement Jack Russell terrier, looking up at the viewer with ears pricked in attention. Upon close examination the wallpaper reveals a repeated motif of random splatters and the appearance of a handprint. Information produced along with the exhibit explains that the pattern is modelled on a New York police archive photograph of a homicide crime scene: the patterned wallpaper is thus exposed as the blood splatters and desperate clamouring of a woman fighting to survive a violent murder. With this additional material and its traces of a coldly forensic process of investigation and detection, a scene of a bourgeois, domestic interior is transformed into a scene of violence and of evidentiary traces. In its repeated motif and deceptive simplicity and beauty, this bloody wallpaper offers a comment on survival (the handprint, the last traces of life fighting to live), on the banality of death (it can happen in the home, in an environment of supposed safety and harmony), and on the problematic visibility of violence (the wallpaper is not initially understood or seen as a marker of violence).
In addition to the disconcerting stain of the wallpaper is the presence of the pet dog, which also initially seems to offer comfort rather than threat, but which, like the wallpaper, upon close examination reveals its own stain. For the exhibit, Lane had a dog stuffed then cast in concrete; the dog’s hair exists in trace form on the concrete surface and one is faced with the absent presence of the dead companion animal. As Lane comments, there is a confusion between inside and outside in the surface of the dog’s skin, a confusion that is tied to the ambiguity set up by the presence of a dead dog in an animated pose: “I wanted to avoid making a perfectly carved dog. Instead I wanted something that still had energy but has been grounded because it’s concrete. You get that sense as soon as you see its face, because the eyes are concrete. They’re just dead. It’s something that continues to interest me—where the line is drawn” (quoted in Flood 1995, 61). As confusion between interior and exterior, the hair of the inverted dog skin acts as an inverted and perverse echo of the blood on the walls. As cover, the wallpaper acts as another kind of skin, which replicates the disorienting liveness of the dog skin and draws attention to the sardonic twist of the exhibition title (these victims did not survive by “the skin of the teeth”). The blood on the walls of the domestic interior set up a connection between body and home that is violated in the act of murder; the blood becomes a kind of writing on the wall, and the wallpaper in its domestic resonance operates as a testament to the violence that occurred within a particular domestic space (the murder of a woman within her home) and a critique of the covering up of scenes of domestic violence that is a part of a society and culture that values the idealization of hearth and home.
Using material from a crime scene, Lane transforms the image of domesticity into a crime scene, but with the notable difference that without the detective, the clues are not guaranteed meaning or narrative closure and the viewer is left to assemble them him or herself. The wallpaper’s violence is only perceptible in its repetition and in close investigation; the viewer is forced into a position of crime-scene investigator as he or she tries to piece together the separate elements of the exhibit in order to construct a narrative of events. The clues are disparate and all are shockingly mundane—banal figures (dog, room, fireplace, human body) and familiar materials (cement, wax, paper)— and all are equally deceptive or duplicitous: they are not what they first appear and it is only in their details that they are betrayed. The violence is manifest as much in its absence as its presence: there is no body, no kinetic, active, or disruptive sense of violence, only the clean and domesticated traces of an absence of life (paint blood, wax body, cement dog).
In its slow revelation of details, Bloody Wallpaper thus exposes the distorted truth of the scene of domestic coziness and harmony (the banal comfort of a nice patterned wall covering, a warm hearth, and the presence of the household dog): the reality of violent death is not hidden behind this image of home but, rather, is constitutive of it. Lacanian theorist Slavoj Zizek notes the disruption inherent in this kind of revelation. For Zizek (1991,165), the horror of the real is not an underworld or hidden feature of life but its core, and the image of harmony is merely the fantasmatic idealization necessary for existence: “The kernel of reality is horror—horror of the real—and what constitutes reality is the minimum of idealization the subject needs to be able to sustain the real.” When the real intrudes, it does so in the form of a stain or blot on an otherwise innocent image, thus marking the traumatic kernel, with a detail or clue.1 In Bloody Wallpaper it is the detail—the handprint, the eeriness of the repeated abstract patterns, the hair on the cement dog—that renders the domestic home unheimlich. The blood of murder and the skin of the dead dog are uncomplicatedly viewed (at least initially) as familiar and banal instances of bourgeois home decoration; the disturbance comes from the ease with which the objects slip from one context to another and the impact is one of unsettling disorientation—home and homicide become too close for comfort.
In Lane’s work as a whole, this stain of violence is often made concrete through the presence of animals, which in taxidermied or cast form occupy central places in her installation art and photography. The violence of Lane’s animal figures is oblique, indirect, visible only as trace: hidden violence is both a part of the construction of the animal figures (where did she acquire the skins of the dogs for example?) and a part of their positioning within the forensic framework or narrative of her installations. For example, the dog in Bloody Wallpaper is frozen (cast in concrete) and seems strangely out of place and unrelated to the violence of the wallpaper, the eerie scratching at the door, or the screaming wax head. The dog is not party to violence but functions as its mute witness and curious bystander.2 The pet dog, Lane seems to be suggesting, is as ambivalent as the bloody wallpaper, which is both a sign of domestic coziness and extreme violence, and is as dead as the photograph, which both preserves a moment and kills it through stillness.
This ambivalent domestic/wild is constitutive of Lane’s more recent series, Still Lives (1997), which shows, not domestic pets, but people in domestic settings being watched by “wild,” albeit stuffed, animals. The Still Lives are part of an exhibition entitled Whether the Roast Burns, the Train Leaves, or the Heavens Fall (1998), which also included the installation You Know Who You Are (a pair of smoking shoes that offers that image of disappeared, evaporated, or inchoate human form), and the video project The Figment (1998), which Lane has recently made (with the addition of The Inspirator and The Inclination into a three-part series entitled Tomorrows World, Yesterdays Fever (Mental Guests Incorporated) (2001). The Still Lives photographs (with titles like “Her Life Became Nocturnal,”“His Values Were Personal,” and “It Was on the Tip of Her Tongue” display humans going about daily (and not so daily) activities, oblivious to the world outside and to the animals watching them through the windows. The wild animals in the dioramas outside these scenes look on, curious yet strangely calm. The animals here are spectators: elevated on plateaus, lit with an ethereal, otherworldly glow, they are the viewers, not the exhibits. The domestic scenes range from the mundane (watching television, sleeping), to the disturbing (a woman on the floor is dead or unconscious), to the outright violent (a women tied to a chair). The animals are mute witnesses, psychic projections, and voyeuristic stand-ins to these domestic scenes, and they occupy a place at once familiar and yet otherworldly. Animals and spectators thus form the borders or mirror images for the viewed human dioramas, which come to occupy a place between our world and the imitation wild nature of the exterior world.
Two of these photographs stand out in the series for the implied violence of the frozen action: in “She Imagined She Knew the Future” (1997), a woman is gagged and tied to a chair in a living room, with a stuffed tiger prowling behind her outside the window, and in another, “She Didn’t Need Her Eyes Open in Order to See” (1997), a woman in a housedress lies face down on the floor of a kitchen, lit by a glow from an open doorway and observed by a mountain goat. There is no outright violence represented in either scene (the bound woman is alone and the only ominous presence is that of the stuffed tiger) and the woman in the housedress is accompanied by signs of disarray (a fallen glass lies beside her) but there is no physical evidence of violent trauma. The violence is implied, felt, or sensed but not depicted, and the taxi – dermied animals, in their banality and transcendent positioning, are important clues in the scenes displayed.3
Like Bloody Wallpaper and Incident Room, the Still Lives offer not direct violence to the viewer but, rather, the clues from which she/he can, and is invited to, construct a narrative of violence. The animals are there as clues (the growling tiger invites the construction of a violent story to explain its presence) and as traces of human conquest and aggression (their reanimation signalling and recreating the occasions of their deaths). Through them the viewer is placed in a role of secondary witness (we are watching the animals watching the humans) and forensic investigator (the animals presence suggests a mystery, an action having occurred or about to occur that requires an observer or protector). They remind us of their own exhibition framework, their own death and reanimation in scenes of hunting, feeding, or wariness before the impact of the hunter’s bullet, and we are left wondering if the frozen moments of the humans are significant ones (of threat or pursuit) or merely mundane quotations of typical human acts (human specimens in natural habitats), and we are left to reconstruct the corollary of their frozen animation: are these moments caught in the instant before the hunter’s bullet strikes? In each the evocation of violence, and in particular of a masculinized violence of conquest and scientific inquiry, is implied in the museum frame of animal exhibition, and their attentive yet dead gazes suggest that we should view the frozen moments with care and attention. Like the killed and reconstructed growling tiger, the woman tied to the chair suggests the invisible violence to come, referencing the instance just after what we observe, the instance before her own violent death: she is frozen in this moment of impending doom, of anticipated violence, for the eyes of the curious spectator.
Similarly concerned with witnessing and piecing together the traces of violence, Holtzer’s Lustmord series offers words rather than objects to represent the rape and murder of women. While the title refers to a generalized mode of sexual murder, the impetus for Lustmord was the reports of the rape and murder of Bosnian women during the war in the former Yugoslavia, a connection that was made explicit in the first incarnation of the work as a magazine edition, which used ink mixed with the blood of Bosnian women (volunteered donations for this express purpose) for the title page heading “I am awake in the place where women die.” For Lustmord Holzer abandoned the ironic objective rationality of her aphoristic art (her series Truisms, for example, offered philosophical thoughts brought down to the level of cliche, which were displayed on everything from billboards to T-shirts and televisions) and approached the war horrors from three subjectively defined perspectives: the perpetrator, the victim, and the observer. The work is a series of statements from the perspective of each of the persons who are involved in the violent rape and murder of a woman. In its first incarnation, Lustmord appeared as a series of photographs of the phrases printed in capital letters on the skin of women. The surfaces are photographed in detail (you can see hairs, pores, variations in skin tones), and the parts of the body are anonymous and nondescript (the skin covers the whole area of the photograph and there are no images that would clearly identify a body part). Later versions of the work have involved the inscription of the phrases on marble benches, LED displays, red leather walls of a house interior, and printed silver bands around human bones.
In each incarnation the focus is on the words and the effects of the variation in modes are surprisingly consistent in so far as each focuses on traces: traces of writing (the impermanence of writing, whether on skin, including the tanned hides of leather, or with light) and traces of the body (skin, blood, bones). This focus on residue and remains is in keeping with the forensic statements that make up the exhibit and depict the scene of the crime from the perspectives of those involved. The statements are brutal, detailed, and disturbingly simultaneously concise and evocative: they are discrete speech acts that coldly describe events without adjectival qualification and are often without emotional response, but they stick with the viewer and resonate. This coldness is especially evident in the phrases ascribed to the perpetrator, of which there are twenty-seven, who presents his acts objectively and refers to his victim only as “her”: “i want to fuck her were she has too much hair”; “she acts like an animal left for cooking”; “i find her squatting on her heels and this opens her so i can get her from below”; “she roots with her blunt face”; “she hunts me with her mouth”; “she has three colors in her eyes”; “i bite her closed again.” The phrases are notable for their simple brutality (both syntactical and descriptive) and for the cold breakdown of violence into discrete acts perpetrated on an observed but dehumanized victim. The perpetrator is given no psychology or motivation separate from his present acts on the victim, and there is no sense of remorse, passion, or even pleasure: the descriptions are clinical (“i step on her hands”; “i splay her fingers”) and the victim is an object that appears to the perpetrator to be especially designed for these acts of brutal violence (“the color of her where she is inside out is enough to make me kill her”). As Sabine Sielke (1996) notes, these acts are figured in terms of female excess (“too much hair”; “her breasts are all nipple”), but it is interesting that this excess is defined only in the most vague and generic terms: the victim is merely hands, mouth, fingers, and breasts: there are no adjectival qualifications or descriptions that would personalize, define, or set this victim apart. This generic victimization is echoed in the artistic presentation, where all voices (perpetrator, victim, and bystander) are given the same formal qualities and the accumulation of discrete statements has an end result evocative of repetitive acts of violence. Although the piece offers a story of one victim, one perpetrator, and one bystander, the repetition of statements, the variation in form, and the generic violence of the statements work to extend the violence described beyond the particular subjectivities and beyond the impetus for the installation (the rape and murder of Bosnian women).
This generic quality is mitigated in the victim’s statements, which are more personalized and which involve direct address: “my nose broke in the grass. my eyes are sore moving against your palm”; “i have the blood jelly”; “with you inside me comes the knowledge of my death”; “you have skin in your mouth. you lick me stupidly”; “you confuse me with something that is in you. i will not predict how you want to use me”; “i feel who you are and it does me no good at all”; “i am awake in the place where women die.” In the shift from objective description to subjective response, the victim’s statements have a more immediate, personal, and visceral impact. The focus shifts from acts to sensations (“you lick me stupidly”), and towards the more subjective experiences of knowledge, prediction, and pain. There is an awareness of bodily boundaries and sensations (“i do not like to walk because i feel it between my legs”) and an awareness of the other human presence: “your awful language is in the air by my head.” Significantly, the victim’s statements do not mirror the perpetrator’s; there are fewer statements and they do not describe the exact same moments. This disjuncture between reports suggests the vast differences in the experiences of perpetrator and victim and works to expand the viewer’s understanding or empathetic knowledge: we get distinct, separate, and additional information from the other side of violence. Moreover, the use of “you” implicates the reader/viewer in the role of perpetrator; in responding to these unspoken statements we are at once the “you” addressed and the witnesses who have been granted subjective access to the victim’s thoughts.
The sense of being implicated in the acts of violence is furthered in the statements attributed to the Observer. As might be expected from a witness to traumatic violence, the Observer—who is presented as being the daughter of the victim (“i want to lie down beside her. i have not since i was a child.”)—speaks in a voice that is ambivalent in its mixture of objective description and subjective horror and hurt: “i find her towels shoved in tight spots. i take them to burn although i fear touching things”; “she asks me to sleep in the house but i will not with her new body and its noises and wetness”;“she smiles at me because she imagines i can help her”; “she is narrow and flat in the blue sack and i stand when they lift her.” There is empathy, a sense of loss, and a desire to help, but there is also a recognition of powerlessness and an attitude of disgust. Personal threat, helplessness, and the bodily presence of the victim impinge on any sentimentalized or purely empathetic response to violence. The confrontation with the violence of rape, torture, and death thus becomes inseparable from the act of grieving, and both are abject, repugnant, and messy. This messiness means that the survivor does not merely live on with loss but lives on to clean up and remove the traces of death: “she fell on the floor in my room. she tried to be clean but she was not. i see her trail”; “her gore is in the ball of cleaning rags. i carry out the dampness from my mother. i return to hide her jewelry.”
In language, attitude, and deed, the Observer finds herself in between the statements of the Perpetrator and the Victim: she uses the first person, more subjective voice of the victim (“I”), but the references to the victimized person are in generic and objective terms (“she,”“her”). We are given more information about her, there is a suggestion of a past and an indication of a future; unlike the victim and the perpetrator she exists outside of the moment of violence. She is there to respond, to clean up, and carry on. As viewer and witness to violence, this voice acts as surrogate for the exhibit viewer: we are likewise observers and witnesses to violence and we are both caught up in the acts of violence and victimized by them. Significantly, though, this slippage is attenuated by the victim’s discursive implication of the viewer in the acts of violence, and even the place of the observer is not an easy or unequivocal one as it is burdened by the contradictions and uncertainties of the survivor.
In respecting this ambivalence, Lustmord suggests the significance of its tripartite structure. The three perspectives of Lustmord do not purport to offer a complete narrative of a crime; the victim’s and the observer’s statements become additions, second and third layers of clues to construct a sense of the events, rather than offering different perspectives of the same event. Not only does the work give precedence to the traumatic experience of pain and violence through its attention to the often ignored statements of female victims and bystanders, but the nature of these statements prevents any easy incorporation into clear narratives of victimization, martyrdom, or sacrifice. The discrete and unconnected statements work to thwart or disrupt any sense of full knowledge as the events of violence described will only ever be known in the most partial, fragmented, and incomplete way. The addition of layers of statements offers not a full narrative but only more details and more experiences that, in their fragmentary nature, seem to recognize the impossibility of ever revealing a full story. Lustmord does not attempt to offer a full account or reconstruction of even one story of rape and murder, let alone represent the masses of stories of violence against women both during war and during peace; instead, the three perspectives suggest by their incompleteness the impossibility of ever fully knowing violence, its origins, its enactment, its experience, or its lasting impact of loss and trauma.
Moreover, as a response to the historical invisibility of the rape and murder of civilian women as a result of war, the partial and multivalent nature of the accounts addresses the very recent and still inadequate and limited recognition of rape as a war crime, while connecting this specific violence to the greater invisibility of violence against women in times of peace as well as war.4 It is in its use of multiple perspectives (especially in the intrusion of the bystander into the usual dichotomy of victim/victimizer) as well as in its disjointed and repetitive nature that Lustmord is able to address violence against women in both a specific and general context without offering an overly harmonious, totalizing, or simplistic account of the act, experience, or effects of violence. There is no assertion of universalized victimhood but, instead, a sense of the fragmented and incomplete nature of the categories of victims, perpetrators, and bystanders and the narratives of violence that they are able to relay.
This partial knowledge is reflected as well in the materials used—discrete fragments of different skin surfaces, bones, led displays that scroll by so quickly that they are almost impossible to read. The body and the corporeal experience of rape and torture are suggested but not offered in concrete or complete form: we see body parts (the skin or the bones) or the evocation of permanence and ephemerality (cement, light) that suggest both the lasting damage of violence, the disappearance of its victims, and the passing nature of its recognition and acknowledgment. Moreover, within the exhibitions that stress a more permanent nature (cement or silver bands) there is a disjuncture between form and content (restful benches or beautifully inscribed silver) that is analogous in effect to the stress on traces (writing in light or on skin) and forensic evidence (human bones that the audience is invited to handle): in each the audience only comes to piece together a story of violence slowly and through close investigation, and the disorientation of the contradictions in form and content (a place of rest) or the fleeting nature of the writing (in light or on skin) or the piecemeal separation of decontextualized and fragmented body parts (images of skin, bones) make this process of narrative reconstruction laborious and jarring. Each mode or combination of modes (the led and the bones were part of the same installation, for example) attempt to increase audience awareness and engagement; the narrative requires the piecing together of parts of the story, invites active involvement, and the materials used in the exhibits (rapid light, handling of bones or of ink-blood in a magazine, placing oneself on a bench and only slowly recognizing what is there inscribed) reinforce this active, participatory engagement. The materials are familiar and banal, and even the bones are rendered mundane through the invitation of touch and made somehow pretty or feminized through the delicate silver bands (suggestive of bracelets or animal identification bands for scientific tracking but also evocative of shackles and forced confinement).
In Lustmord these mundane materials do not contradict but, rather, emphasize the extreme violence of the acts described. Similar to the contradiction of the stylistic simplicity of the aphoristic statements used to describe acts of torture, rape, and murder, the mundane materials render the violence clinical, even ordinary—and it is made all the more horrific by this. Like Lane’s uncanny domestic interiors, the emphasis is on a familiarizing of what is perceived as unfamiliar, and the shock of this recontextualization, the radical desublimation of violence, and of sexual violence in particular, provides the basis for the power of the piece. In Skin of the Teeth and Lustmord violence is both shocking and banal, particular and general, and, while both make reference to real acts of violence against specific women or groups of women, this connection to actual violence is made non-specific and inclusive through an attention to the residue and traces of violent acts. Using discrete details of violent acts and repeating and recontextualizing them, these works suggest the range, breadth, and ubiquity of violence against women, while recognizing the representational limitations and complexities of depicting explicit physical violence; although connected to scenes of actual violence, neither work is limited to a particular incident of violent death, and, through its material forms, each suggests the problematic visibility of violence. Violence is not shown in action, only in its effects, and this is precisely the point: the viewer is not given a clear narrative of punishment or resolution based in character motivation and is not shown the spectacle of rape, torture, or beating. We are not subjected to the viewing of the battered female body in corporeal form but instead are given a fragmented and partial access to violence as an experience, as an act with after-effects and lasting traces. Violence does not punctuate a narrative trajectory or offer a shock effect but lingers with the spectator as trace experience and haunting presence. The recognition of violence in each work is a slow process that implicates and involves the viewer and contradicts any notion that to show an act of violence or to depict a battered, raped, or tortured female body is to fully reveal or communicate the nature, effects, impact, and traumatic implications of violence against women. Violence is revealed not as a known entity but as a persistent stain and lasting residue of brutal destruction and dissolution.
In the disturbing but muted traces of works like Bloody Wallpaper or Lustmord we recognize the banality, domesticity, and quotidian aspects of the forms of violence addressed, and through this we come to see the pervasive and repetitious nature of violence against women: violence against women is not something that happens only in war, only in Bosnia, or only in New York homes, and it is not something that occurs within a clear-cut narrative of disclosure and punishment. Many acts of domestic violence and rape are not reported or, once reported, are not recognized as violence at all. Lustmord and Bloody Wallpaper echo this cultural invisibility of violence against women by rendering the brutality and death as something that is only slowly recognized: Lane’s and Holzer’s works do not offer a narrative of violent events (there is no cause-and-effect chain, no lead-up, motivation, or explanation) nor do they place acts of violence against women as unique or exceptional occurrences. The violence is presented as already there, as having occurred, and the viewer is invited to piece together the ramifications and implications of these traces of a pervasive and ever-present violence against women. In this emphasis on a present haunted by traces of past events but not explained by them, these works engage the viewer in a process of detection and discovery that will only ever be incomplete, partial, and conjectural. The viewer is offered pieces, the clues and residues of stories of violence that metonymically stand in for the many other stories of violence that could have been told: the photograph of the bloody walls of a New York crime scene used by Abigail Lane could have easily been another photograph of another domestic murder, and the story of systematic rape and death in Lustmord is not limited to wartime or to Bosnia. In both Bloody Wallpaper and Lustmord repetition (of the handprint in Bloody Wallpaper, of the aphorisms in Lustmord) suggests recurring or reiterated scenes of violence against women. Thus, while the specificity of the violence is significant in Lustmord, its repetitions and its reincarnation as different modes of exhibition invite the spectator to extend the issues it raises to include all acts of violence against women.
In both Lane and Holzer it is the foregrounding of the spectator’s role as investigative witness that indicates the importance of recognizing violence against women, even if only in the form of partial and unsettled understanding: in these works the scene of the crime is not contained and does not end in forensic discovery and disclosure but in the implied impossibility of closure. The spectator becomes a witness to violence but only in the partial and temporally staggered form of a forensic investigation; we are curious and attempt “to speculatively piece together histories that remain largely invisible to the eye” (Rugoff 1997, 62). However, in the end it is not absolute disclosure or a harmonious narrative that is the result but a recognition that there is no full knowledge of the kinds of violence experienced by women whether in times of peace or times of war. In each, the trace or the clue transcends its unique evidentiary status (as proof of this event) and becomes instead part of a collection of evidence that is never fully absorbed into any single, unambiguous narrative of cause and effect. Evidence thus offers the viewer an understanding and awareness that does not stop at aesthetic absorption or acceptance but forces him or her to recognize that violence against women is present even in its apparent absence and that it can be found in banal details of the home or in the disappearing traces of transparent words written in light.