By Molly Bryson
[originally published 11/15/19]
Omid Shekari is a haunted artist. His work, which deals primarily with the effects of U.S. military action overseas, does not only depict ravaged human subjects, but reworks the language and imagery of war into a conceptual framework that is at once commemorative of and defiled by the (ghosts of) victims, soldiers, and political leaders implicated in our country’s violent history of foreign affairs.
Shekari’s latest exhibition—aptly and informatively named Of Aggression and Domination—comprises around twenty works that all center around the human experience of war, and the U.S. media’s corrupt and disingenuous coverage of it. On opening night, the space—despite being well populated—feels oddly and eerily quiet, and I am struck by the simultaneous sense of weight and ephemerality present throughout Shekari’s work. Arranged on the southernmost wall of the front room are four rectangular drawings, the first of which is entitled “800 and Counting” and depicts a handwritten list of all the known U.S. military bases currently or recently located overseas. Compounded in such a way, the list feels massive, and yet the wavering border of gold (a substance which, upon further inspection/reading, I identify as powdered bullet shells), implies a state of transience. As my eyes shift between the written words and the streak of sparkly bullet shells smeared across the page, I am reminded that the spectacle of violence has the power to obscure—even dilute—the factual, numerical proof of war.
The following three drawings have human bodies as their subjects, but the bodies are all proportionally or anatomically warped. In “Can’t Go,” a decapitated, surgical-masked head floats behind a lone partition (the kind you find in hospitals to divide the rooms of patients). A wall of powdered bullet shells looms in the background. In “This administration is dominated and directed by wealth…” a series of naked and sparsely clothed bodies appear to be waiting in line to be turned to dust (A.K.A. powdered bullet shells). In “The Institution Is So Big,” three toso-less people—thus diminished to the size and stature of small animals—stare up at a fenced-off building, the sides of which are decorated with strips of glittering gold (A.K.A.—you know what). In each of these drawings, pieces of the human subject are erased and replaced by bullet shell powder, a substance which is, evidently, Shekari’s choice surrogate for war.
The further into the gallery I go, the more chillingly realistic Shekari’s visual narratives become. A large tapestry-like piece hangs from the western wall, depicting a man—identified by the wall text as Iraq war veteran Jon Turner—slumped over with his arms extended, like a zombie. One of his legs, which is significantly shorter than the other (a war injury, I am made to assume), is strapped onto a block. The block seems heavy and cumbersome; it drags. A blown-up pointer finger (the hand of militant authority?) pushes at the small of Turner’s back. Overlaid atop his profile is the heavy handed scrawl of his testimony; it begins: “On April 18, 2006, I had my first confirmed kill.” It is unclear whether Turner’s story is one that should be widely and ostensibly known, but his experience remains poignant, nonetheless. The viewer has no choice but to bear witness to Turner’s tragic reality, and to attempt to understand the conditions under which he was encouraged and rewarded for committing such a crime.
Positioned in the corner of the room is a desk with a microphone on top of it. A woman sits there. She reads from a stack of papers, testimonies and confessions from various U.S. war veterans. Her voice wavers; she is saying: “We just picked up all the rocks and smeared him. We just wiped him out.” She stops. This interactive piece is called “I can’t read it.” The woman gets up and motions for me to take her place. “It’s a different experience to read it out loud,” she tells me. I believe her, but decide against it. I do not want to hear the echoes of my own voice describe an act of murder. I do not want to sound responsible.
Sam Merrick, a student of Shekari’s who assisted with the development of the exhibit, says that the inclusion of these testimonies—and the invitation to read them aloud over a microphone—is an effort to implicate and expose Shekari’s viewers to the militarized violence “from which others have no escape.” Upon hearing this, I begin to feel guilty for not having participated, but a rereading of Shekari’s artist statement alleviates—and confirms— my unease. “This exhibition strives to reflect how liberal and conservative media dominate the national conversation about the US military actions overseas,” it says. “It seeks to show how distorted this image has become.” If the media didn’t misrepresent the realities of our nation’s militancy, might these kinds of testimonies be commonplace?, I think. Might I have less of a visceral aversion to such content, if such content weren’t consistently corrupted—essentially negated—by the people who have a responsibility to communicate it to us?
Of Aggression and Domination is visually compelling, yes, but it is also political in a way that forces its viewers to confront the consequences of our nation’s history of violence, and to contend with their own (often invisible, but no less significant) role in it. By implicating his audience in the visual, physical, and emotional experience of his artwork, Shekari directly resists—and attempts to change—our country’s culture of ignorance. “Working with [Shekari] has definitely given me ideas about how to channel my own feelings of sorrow for the current state of things into functional creations that connect with other people on a most basic level,” says Merrick—and to me, that’s just the point.