In times of deep human struggle, is art our only way forward? Richard Mosse, Ai Weiwei, Douglas Emory, and more, say it is
Crisis is often defined as a time when a difficult or important decision must be made. It’s a word which has been used across all of time, as history repeats itself with humanitarian, social, political, and environmental crises plaguing the world daily. But in moments of intense difficulty, how can enough clarity be sought in order to make decisions that will push human suffering beyond crisis and into progression?
For many people searching desperately for a way out, art comes as a strong catalyst for change. In the face of austerity, art has the power to challenge hostility and alleviate the pain, as much as it can produce alternative realities for escapism and become a voice for those who go unheard.
In light of the Liverpool Biennale 2018 theme, Beautiful world, where are you? where artists and audiences are invited to reflect art at the intersection of a world of social, political and economic turmoil, here are ten times art proved its role in crisis:
AIDS CRISIS: DAVID WOJNAROWICZ, “LEATHER JACKET”, 1988
The first recorded death by Aids was Missouri teenager, Robert Rayford, in 1969. Six years later, 6,000 people had died before President Ronald Reagan first said the word ‘Aids’ – America was in crisis yet the government refused to acknowledge it. This sent people into a blind panic which severely deepened discrimination against queer people who were most affected by the illness. Americans were scared of getting sick from human contact, or public toilet seats, and some even stooped so low as to name the disease ‘gay cancer’. It’s horrifying that at a time when queer communities were attending two-three funerals a week, the world lacked basic human empathy.
It wasn’t long before organisations and artists began working to make the suffering heard. David Wojnarowicz was an American artist with Aids who devoted his entire career to this cause, alongside Nan Goldin and Keith Haring. It’s artworks like his “Leather Jacket”, 1988, that make him one of the most radical Aids activists in American history. On October 11 1988, Wojnarowicz appeared at ACT UP’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA) protest with a jacket that read “If I die of Aids – forget burial – just drop my body on the steps of the F.D.A”. The statement was intended to ring alarm bells in the institution who was then dragging its feet over Aids research, and the intensity of Wojnarowicz’s words was exactly the volume needed for Aids activists to be heard over the white noise of mainstream media and wider society who commonly degraded Aids victims. Here, art soars as the only way for activists to humanise and voice the plight of human crisis.
AIDS CRISIS: KIA LABEIJA, “KIA LABEIJA FEATURING THE MOON”, 2018
On Monday 30 July, ACT UP Aids protesters stormed Wojnarowicz’ current retrospective at the Whitney to oppose the canonisation of Aids as a historical event. They handed out fliers that stated “Aids is not history”. It was a powerful sentiment, gievn 37 million people still live with the illness today. Continuing the legacy of artists like Wojnarowicz is interdisciplinary American artist and voguing radical Kia LaBeija. Through photography and dance, LaBeija draws on her experiences of being a queer WoC living with Aids to inform her art.
In her most recent photo series, Fear is only a Fraction of Love, first featured in Art Forum in 2017, LaBeija aims to increase the representation of people with Aids, especially black women. The series features a set of self-portraits so dark, you can just trace the outline of LaBeija’s body as (in the featured image) as she pulls a structured pose under a glistening image of the moon. The red on her lips is a symbol of solidarity. “Illness isn’t something that is ever portrayed as glamorous, especially HIV, but I think it’s all a state of mind,” she told Dazed. “The world heavily stigmatises people living with HIV/Aids, and I’d like to break that mould. The beginning of the Aids epidemic was devastating, traumatic and heartbreaking, but, because of those who fought for treatment, healthcare and visibility, folks like me are living healthy lives. The early days left a long-lasting impression, and I think it’s important to honour those incredibly sad stories – but also to tell new ones.”
REFUGEE CRISIS: AI WEIWEI, HUMAN FLOW, 2018
Since the Syrian war began in 2011, 5.6 million people have fled the country for safety – a basic human right. There are also currently 25.4 million refugees worldwide, which is the highest number the world has seen since the end of World War II. It’s this staggering figure that coaxed Chinese exiled-artist Ai Weiwei to create a string of works that explored human displacement, exalted by his own experiences as a refugee. In 2016, he set up a studio on the island of Lesvos: a place most impacted by refugees who are forced at gunpoint onto life rafts, often filled with holes, in Turkey, to cross the 500km sea to safety. Despite the impact on an economically suffering island, the Lesvians welcome refugees with open arms.
In 2016, Ai tied 14,000 life vests collected on the island to the columns of the Berlin Konzerthaus in 2016, and this year, he released the feature-length film, Human Flow. The documentary shows the crisis through a lens of 40 refugee camps, in 23 countries such as Greece, France, Afghanistan, Iraq, Italy and more. With interviews from over 600 people, Human Flow as an artwork breaks down cultural stigmas against refugees, humanises them as individuals, and restores much-needed human sympathy for the crisis.
OPIOID CRISIS: NAN GOLDIN, DIARISING HER OPIOID ADDICTION, 2014-17
Photographer Nan Goldin has often used her lens to document crisis. From her early documentation of America’s Aids crisis in the 80s to diarising her own addiction to opioids in recent years, where her photos and paintings become an open dialogue about the dark reality of drug addiction. These images, such as the featured self-portrait from the first time she took prescription Oxycotin, are ominous for the way in which now they are a core part of her fight against America’s opioid crisis – particularly pharmaceutical company, Purdue Pharma, and the Sackler family for their distribution of prescription opioids.
In 2014, Goldin was prescribed potent Oxy for pain in her left wrist and she quickly became addicted. It took her three years to come clean after leaving a rehab facility in 2017. Throughout her addiction, Goldin didn’t just photograph, but she painted symbolic oil works such as one eerily titled “withdrawal/quicksand” (2016). In this sense, art enables addiction to be expressed in a way that doesn't rely on words or linguistic and cultural interpretation, while providing a sense of deep alleviation for the painter (as seen with art therapy). As a whole, Goldin’s oeuvre from this time in her life visually supplements her activist collective P.A.I.N that stages protests and talks around the country to raise awareness about the opioid epidemic. Despite the crackdown on prescription opioids, 175 people a day die of opioid addiction in America – Goldin’s new age art is for them.
FLINT WATER CRISIS: ZACKARY CANEPARI AND DREA COOPER, FLINT IS A PLACE, 2016/17
In 2010, the United Nations explicitly recognised that access to water was a human right, and acknowledged that clean drinking water and sanitation are essential to the realisation of all human rights. Yet, in the Michigan city of Flint residents are claiming a humanitarian water crisis.
Flint is known as one of America’s major minority cities, with around 42 per cent of the population living in poverty. In 2014, things for Flint worsened drastically when its water supply moved from Detroit city water to the Flint River in a bid for the city to cut costs. As a result, around 100,000 Flint residents were exposed to dangerous levels of lead-contamination and Obama declared the crisis a federal emergency. Four years on, and many residents are still too scared to drink the tap water, despite the government claiming it’s safe. On top of this, Flint has some of the most expensive water bills in America. Recognising the human suffering at the heart of the crisis are artists Zackary Canepari and Drea Cooper with their video and photo documentary series Flint is a Place, 2016-17. The series gives a voice to Flint’s residents: those who are impacted the most yet forgotten under the weight of the crisis’ scientific and political battle.
CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT: EMORY DOUGLAS, “WE SHALL SURVIVE WITHOUT A DOUBT”, 1971
In an era of extreme discrimination and violence against black people in America, art during the Civil Rights Movement became one of the only ways marginalised black communities could communicate, express, and fight for their futures without being suffocated by white oppression. One artist who came to define the visual message of the Black Panther movement was Emory Douglas, who became the Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party in 1967. This was just two years after the assassination of Malcolm X, and a year before the fight for equality would start to take greater effect. Douglas’ illustrations, published on the cover and within the pages of the Black Panther Newspaper, visually branded the BBP and showed African Americans in a way that they hadn’t been seen before in the media.
With what started as violent graphics that took inspiration from third world struggles and dubbed the police as pigs, in 1970 the values of the BBP shifted to focus on survival programs and so did Douglas’ imagery. His illustrations now shone with a glimmer of hope as they depicted African-Americans receiving food and clothes. We can see this in the image featured here, where Douglas propels African-American children as America’s future, seen in the way they are reflected in the child’s eyes paired with the statement “WE SHALL SURVIVE, WITHOUT A DOUBT”.
CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT: GORDON PARKS, “BOY AND JUNE BUG”, 1963
Photographer Gordon Parks was also a civil rights artist who championed the realism of the movement. His photographs, from 1942-78, exposed the stark reality of life in the era, from peaceful moments of black escapism to lensing the degradation of coloured segregation. Parks’ “Boy and a June bug” was taken in the year that changed the course of the movement – 1963 – when Martin Luther King delivered his history-making “I Have a Dream” speech. In this sense, the image is not only a zeitgeist for the change in direction of the movement, but within it, we see so much symbolism about the way in which Park's work projected black life forward. We see a young boy, a metaphor for those who will become the future of black America, taking a moment for himself. In his calmness, viewers too get to escape the commonly violent, degrading images of black people published in mainstream media at the time. Here is a black boy just living, breathing and enjoying life in the way all humans should be able to.
It’s within Parks’ photos that we see the power images have in crossing cultural and linguistic barriers to expose a crisis of human suffering. We can all understand and interpret images, no matter what language we speak, and the way Park’s images traverse racial barriers to move us is a bold testament to this.
CLIMATE CHANGE: OLAFUR ELIASSON, ICE WATCH, 2014/15
As humans keep trashing the earth, climate change worsens every day. Sea levels continue to rise and one by one species become extinct and our weather becomes wilder. While it feels like a dystopian reality, the work of climate change artists exists to remind you that planet earth is in crisis.
It’s this exact need to demonstrate to humans how real an impact their actions are having on the earth that drove Icelandic-Danish artist Olafur Eliasson to create “Ice Watch” in 2014 and 2015. During the UN Climate Summit (COP21) in Paris, Eliasson literally harvested free-floating icebergs from a fjord in Greenland, turned them into 12 blocks of ice and arranged in clock formation at the Place du Pantheon. The work was a replication of the same piece he did in Copenhagen in 2014. “Ice Watch” was aimed at replicating the sheer sound, scale, and volume at which glacial ice is melting every day in Greenland, which raises sea level approximately 0.3 mm each year – an amount which is dramatically increasing. By bringing the ice closer to the human eye, Eliasson uses art to dramatise the crisis and alert humans to the alarming rate of climate change. “As an artist, I hope my works touch people,” Eliasson states on the project’s website, “which in turn can make something that may have previously seemed quite abstract into reality. Art has the ability to change our perceptions and perspectives on the world and “Ice Watch” makes the climate challenges we are facing tangible. I hope it will inspire shared commitment to taking climate action.”
THE CONGO CONFLICT: RICHARD MOSSE, INFRA, 2011
Since 1998, the Democratic Republic of Congo has been victim tp one of the world’s largest and longest humanitarian crises that has killed 5.4 million people. And throughout all of the destruction, Congo’s face in the media has been overshadowed by endless images of conflict, meaning the humanity at the core of the suffering has forever been suffocated by war. This was until the works of Irish photographer Richard Mosse surfaced in 2011.
Mosse’s Infra series uses surrealism to turn perceptions of Congo upside down by featuring the landscapes and people of Congo in unexpected colours. Using a type of film designed by the U.S military in the 1940s for camouflage detection, the landscapes appear as if through a psycheclic lense that turns shades of lush green into strong pinks and vibrant reds. Mosse’s exacerbation of colour alarms viewers about the harrowing urgency of the crisis at hand just as much as it’s surrealism turns the vouyer’s eye away from the harsh canonisation of war, allowing viewers to resonate with the human suffering at the core of Congo. In 2013, Mosse took the project further and turned it into a short video, Enclave, to which he stated to CNN takes “two counter-worlds into collision: art's potential to represent narratives so painful that they exist beyond language, and photography's capacity to document specific tragedies and communicate them to the world.”
STANDING ROCK: LAURA HINMAN, INSTAGRAM FILMS (2017)
In 2016, it was declared by the American government that the sacred Indigenous area of Standing Rock in North Dakota would be industrialised for the Dakota Access Pipeline. Not only was this invasion of sacred land, but any breach in the pipeline was said to contaminate the Missouri River – a water source for over 10 million people.
It wasn't long before a string of protests broke out, with many camping in the area. For Indigenous Americans (particularly the water protectors), protesting was a form of religious and spiritual healing, in an attempt to save their land. Sadly, it wasn't received this way by authorities who retaliated with a string of violent clashes. Standing Rock and its Indigenous water protectors were in crisis and artist Laura Hinman was there to record it.
An Indigenous water protector herself, Hinman created a set of unique video art showing what life is really like at Standing Rock. Amongst the smoke and mirrors of mainstream media who were canonising the protests through images and videos of violence, Hinman's videos humanised the fight. Her films show intimate moments of indigenous communities uniting to pray, sing, ride horses and cook breakfast together. “Through this experience, I'm learning things have to escalate in order for people to actually take notice and get moving,” she told Dazed in 2017, which is indicative of the power of her work. “...People are going to keep rising and uniting now, because of this escalation. And I think that goes for any group whose voices have been silenced.”