Monday, 23 March 2015

Presence of Absence by Rosie Vallely

The 28th of February saw the installation, 'Presence of an Absence' by Mexican artist Georgianna C. Ainsworth, put on display at Northlight Mill in Brierfield. The installation was a reproduction of Elina Chauvet’s protest art against the phenomenon of the femicide in Juarez, Mexico.

My first thoughts were how amazing the space was and how well it fitted the installation. The vast buildings of the old Smith and Nephew Mill encapsulated the piece so naturally, directing viewers' gazes to the compelling sight of 150 pairs of painted red shoes, standing together in the courtyard. At first, the full meaning and story behind the installation was not apparent, only that there was much more to know.

Watching people walk among the shoes and interact with the work was magical, and displayed the power of installation style artwork. There is something to be said for artwork being more relatable to the real world, when it is made from the real world. 

A particular thing that struck me was seeing the tiny children's shoes, and knowing the representation of their being there. Imagining my goddaughter standing in those shoes made me shudder, and brought home the true horror behind the piece. The presence of the children's shoes also reiterated the indiscriminate nature of the murders that are taking place.. Although these are predominantly women, children have also been killed.
Juarez is known as being one of the deadliest places in the world. Run by drug cartels and gangs; crime, terror, violence and murder are everyday occurrences. Innocent people are regularly  caught in the crossfire. Male or female, young or old, from whatever background, no one is safe. In the documentary, also shown at the event, entitled, 'Blood Rising,' it was said that being in Juarez you, 'learn what it means to be scared '.

I watched as people walked up and down the length of the work, slowly, pausing occasionally to look back and ponder the meaning of the piece. Although at first the details of the work were not apparent, the installation's defining red was striking and direct. The uniform nature of this colour drew together the many sizes and styles of shoes, and so too the many varied victims of the terrible murders and disappearances, in the city of Juarez, Mexico.

One cohesive, solidified message. For me, it conjured obvious ideas of blood and pain and the grotesque injustice of these deaths. One afterthought was the idea that for all these many varied victims, from different backgrounds, of different ages, genders and families; we all bleed the same.  


Another subtle suggestion of this tie between the victims, for me, was how all the shoes faced forward. It was as if they were standing together. Again, in one cohesive, solidified message. The power of this was brought on even stronger when you looked at viewers as they stood between the shoes. One comment was that, 'You almost expect people to be standing in the shoes, as if there are ghosts around '.  A definite feeling of loss and absence was apparent.

I loved how the piece affected its audience; how it very much took its message to the people but wasn't aggressively confrontational. Its power lay in the way it drew people in, its unavoidable nature compelling the viewer to think. As a piece of artwork, it played into our natural need to solve and find meaning.

I think many people felt a deep and emotional pull to the work. This was displayed by the eerie, quiet and quite gentle path people took through the shoes. Viewers felt a need to be respectful of the people the shoes represented, even without the full knowledge of the meaning of the piece.
There is something very instinctive and at a basal level about the way we react to things concerning other humans. It is something much deeper than our reaction to technology, or a building for example. This piece got into your core, and didn't let you go. 


The location at Northlight Mill was a perfect setting. Its vast space provided a stillness and calm, letting the viewers’ thoughts and feelings develop naturally. I think this was necessary as, as humans, when confronted with obvious pain, discomfort or suffering we have a tendency to look away and protect ourselves. But this work and its setting allowed that space for quiet reflection. 

An important part of the event was a documentary entitled, 'Blood Rising'. It was a vital part of the installation, I feel, as it gave the background information necessary to appreciate and truly understand the context and meaning behind the work.

The documentary told the story of the artist Brian Mcguire’s journey, as he sought to investigate the murders. He travelled to meet with some of the victims’ families and spent time actually living in the city of Juarez. A pivotal part of the documentary was his mission to give back each of the victims an identity. The sad reality is that these victims, whose lives were taken in some of the most brutal ways, have just become a number; a statistic, anonymous and silent. We must remember that each one of the victims was a person, with a family, a life, and a mind just as alive as ours. 
     
This anonymity partly stems from the sheer numbers of these murders. One figure in the documentary suggested 8500 murders in 3 years, although it is thought to be higher. This has led to a sense of normality of the brutality.

It drew parallels with a recent documentary I saw on the Holocaust entitled, 'Night Will Fall'. The documentary showed films taken when the death camps of the Nazi regime were liberated at the end of World War Two. One particular scene, showed the lifeless, naked bodies of the victims of the death camps, flung over the shoulders of soldiers, as they were carelessly tossed into pits for mass burial. 'Blood Rising' also told of bodies being dumped naked on wasteland. 

The two topics, for me, share this sense of loss of identity, of dehumanisation and the significance of both sets of victims' deaths, and indeed lives lost, along with their dignity and respect. In the documentary 'Blood Rising', one family had made a memorial for their murdered relative, where her body had been dumped on wasteland. Days later it was bulldozed; again an act of wiping away her identity.

But, acceptance of this anonymity allows us to dehumanise the victims, to be passive and apathetic. And it is dangerous. 

A key point in the documentary was the impact socially, and specifically the increase of relationship violence and murders. The allowed presence of this injustice is changing millions of people's lives and the fabric of society. 

A poignant moment was overhearing a conversation reflecting on the documentary, the content of which was that what was happening was very sad, 'But what can people like us do, for people like them?'

For me, this highlights the issue and the necessity for work of this nature. We cannot be allowed to disassociate and disconnect from very real human suffering. It is easy to put people in a box, and leave them voiceless. But ignorance is not bliss.

The truth is, we can do something. We are all human, all connected and can all feel. The first stage to changing anything is making people aware, alerting them to issues at hand and starting the process of change. It's about sharing knowledge of something like this, and opening a flow of communication. People in striking distance of this terror may be scared for their lives, but here we are in a safe position to do something. 

That is why artwork like this is so important and so necessary. It takes a message to the people and can be the start of a process of real change. It's as simple as spreading the word; telling somebody, not allowing evil to fester and grow in the safe confines that fear and isolation provide. 

Ideas are free and thoughts are the building blocks of revolutions. The fact is, an idea cannot be silenced. As long as it is alive in the mind of someone, somewhere and people come together, anything is possible.

It was once said that, 'All that is necessary for the triumph of evil, is that good men (and women!) do nothing '. 


'Presence of an Absence' had an emotional power and depth that drove you to want to do something. It is imperative that more work of its kind be displayed to the public, to continue this flow of communication and shine a light on injustice - wherever it may be.


Rosie Vallely, March 2015

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