Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Behind closed doors: Gabrielle Goliath

Lucy from Faces of People who may or may not be victims or perpetrators of
domestic violence
Silence is one of the hardest qualities or conditions to articulate. How do you evoke an absence when the act of doing so will immediately negate it? This is a conundrum that plagues writers and visual artists concerned with highlighting conditions society conspires to suppress.
Gabrielle Goliath makes a forthright stab in this direction in her new exhibition Faces of War, which appears on every level to be engineered to express “silence”.

Her visual and aural (in the Personal Accounts series) mode of presentation is shaped by this objective; in other words, all her artistic products are the result of a series of devices aimed at “silencing” the subjects.
In the photographic series Faces of People who may or may not be Victims or Perpetrators of Domestic Violence, she achieves this by adopting a uniform visual aesthetic that is defined by stripping back the details or visual indexes of identity that might shed light on them.

Paradoxically, she does this under the guise of offering up their faces for close inspection; you are confronted with cropped close-ups that allow you to detect almost every hair, blemish or wrinkle. In this way she encourages us to scrutinise these subjects closely, creating the illusion that if we sustain our gaze we will somehow learn whether they are victims or perpetrators of domestic violence.

Naturally, there is nothing about their appearance that provides evidence of either; there are no bruises, and what does a perpetrator look like? Is he white, black, and can a perpetrator be female? In leaving it up to the viewer to decide, Goliath forces us to confront our inbuilt prejudices around victims and perpetrators, setting up this macabre game where we get to decide their status.  She gives us control in a context where we have none but in doing so she makes us complicit.

Of course, statistics and news reports tell us that most perpetrators of this kind of crime are men, so perhaps the guessing game in that regard is narrowed down by the gender profile of her random subjects who are strangers or people peripheral to her. The artist has no definitive knowledge about the status of her subjects.
They may be unaware of their own status; so often perpetrators of domestic violence aren’t able to acknowledge culpability and victims too may be in denial. It is also possible that none of these subjects may be victims or perpetrators, though our vexed history somehow demands and has shaped a dichotomised view of our society where you must be one or the other.
Marc  from Faces of People who may or may not be victims or perpetrators of
domestic violence

Perhaps even the insidious impact of domestic violence on our society as a whole has rendered us all victims or perpetrators in the sense that we don’t act when it is clear someone is in trouble or is causing it. It is likely even that the phenomenon is a by product of our history and patriarchal culture.

The only feature these subjects have in common is that their faces are symmetrical, the result of digital manipulation. Presumably, this ensures that they appear one-dimensional and ideal, although this is also what makes them slightly abnormal. The portrait of Marc looks slightly freakish because of this device.
The two bodies of work on this show are united by a contradiction; by not showing us abuse or even victims or perpetrators of it, Goliath aims to direct our attention to it.

Does this work? Is Goliath not simply avoiding the topic and conspiring to maintain the silence around this crime? This is troubling because it embodies the stance of the perpetrator whose abuse includes securing the victim’s silence. She may successfully prove that domestic abuse can happen to anyone or be committed by anyone, that appearances are not reliable but, by reproducing the public face of domestic violence – silence – she fails to disrupt it.

For certainly artworks addressing this issue, or which are issue-driven, are supposed to have some didactic objective, which seems missing here. This could be to the work’s credit, except that it has no impact - it is structured to avoid this.  Goliath does not evoke our sympathy, she does not make us share in the horror of these intimate crimes, nor does she compel us to act. In reproducing the silence, Goliath leaves us with nothing – just our imaginations. Is that sufficient, when it is easier not to imagine what may or may not have happened to these subjects?

The video series, Personal Accounts, generates a different response to the photographic one as it is clear that the subjects – all women – have been “silenced”. As their testimony of abuse has been edited out there is a real sense that they have an account that is sufficiently disturbing that it must be erased.
In denying us these accounts and the information pertaining to the subjects in her photographic series, Goliath leaves her viewers with a sense of frustration: the supposed object of their gaze – domestic abuse – which is usually concealed is not revealed.

This exposes our macabre sense of interest in this kind of documentary project: on some level we derive pleasure from the visual representation of abuse. In other words, these projects to make private pains public opens up a platform for a kind of twisted voyeurism that may well even perpetuate such crimes – regular depictions of it make them become normalised.
Goliath is negotiating difficult territory here. In sidestepping the pitfalls of bringing domestic violence into view, she has risked underplaying its impact. Part of the silence that pervades this show is also linked to the fact that domestic violence is unrepresentable: words, images, documentary accounts can’t describe the phenomenon.

Perhaps this accounts for the pervasive feeling of absence that lingers when you leave this exhibition. What complicates it for Goliath is that it seems to point to an inadequacy with the work. Visually – and conceptually – it is probably her strongest work, though in presenting her subjects bare and unadorned she employs what has become a popular device present in Pieter Hugo and Roelof van Wyk’s photography. As with both of these artists she is presuming to challenge and subvert the documentary mode and the validity of it as a social and cultural tool. In this body of work Goliath cunningly exposes  it as a shield that facilitates silence. - first published February 2, 2014, in The Sunday Independent.

Faces of War shows at the Goodman Gallery in Joburg until February 15

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