Shari Pierce: Agraphobia, Photos and Objects
Shari Pierce displayed new “body-pieces” and approximately 300 portraits of sentenced sexual offenders from different regions in the US - did you miss the show in Munich? Take a look at images from the exhibition.
Artist listShari Pierce
On Shari Pierce's Agraphobia
by Charlotte Lindenberg, M.A., Frankfurt
By mutual agreement
This show's topic is how society deals with sexual offense. In order to engage with the exhibits we have to meet a certain condition, and that is: we have to share Pierce’s assumption that each offender is a potential reoffender.
Diagnoses and treatments of perpetrators vary from country to country. While some states are concerned with data privacy to allow for possible rehabilitation of ex-convicts, in the US their further way of life is publicly monitored.
Within the framework of this show we cannot engage in general reflections like whether the culprit is fully accountable or else the defenseless victim of some organic dysfunction, which would make him sick and at the same time potentially remediable. To get in contact with Pierce’s work however, we better take up her perspective which is governed by a sensation of latent threat.
The fact I’m paranoid doesn’t mean they weren’t after me
Indeed the assessment whether this fear is valid or not would require a survey concerning verifiable dangers caused by the offenders along with their action scope and recidivism rates.
For those however whose worldview is informed by the experience of violence – be it from a victim’s or a witness' perspective – those surveys are irrelevant.
The fear of falling prey to crime remains abstract to those having been spared from it – just as those who have never been involved in an accident won’t comprehend the continuous state of alarm crash victims are susceptible to. As for persons suffering from trauma, on the contrary, the dread of a possible repetition can become overwhelming. This ongoing fear of sexual assault is indicated by the term Agraphobia – an anxiety disorder, induced by a perceived threat of unsolicited sexual approach.
The application of a psychological term1 indicates a certain distance towards the designated condition, even a kind of doubt concerning her view’s veracity. From this slightly objectified position – standing slightly next to herself, so to speak – Pierce describes the impact of sexual infringements within her social environment as well as those conveyed on a daily basis by the media.
Yes but is it art?
1 “My work is more psychological than literal.” (Unless specified otherwise all quotes stem from an email conversation with Shari Pierce, February 2011).
The severe consequences of sexual abuse notwithstanding, the question whether social issues are to be dealt with on an artistic level remains. From the artists' point of view an association of art and non-art topics causes unease concerning a possible functionalization of art. The public at large however rather wonders whether an aesthetic approach to political or juridical problems isn't an unnecessary detour towards the solution of a problem which in fact required a political or juridical solution.
This tricky conflict of opinion has been addressed by artists at the latest 1977, when Suzanne Lacy and Leslie Labowitz - in collaboration with local women's organizations - staged a performance called In Mourning and in Rage in commemoration of victims of a Los Angeles serial killer. This artistically performed protest defied the separation between “fine” and “socially engaged” arts which afterward has been flouted many times without ever having been abolished.
Nothing New under the Sun
During the history of mankind sexual violence has proven a successful means in the suppression of women – and enemies in general. Long before 20th Century wars, mass rape had become a rewarding political strategy.
Within art history violence against women has always been visualized. In the baroque period rape used to be presented as an act of war in order to present the aggressor in a somewhat dignified manner. This happened with topics like the rape of the Sabines, which Rubens had rendered like some kind of transportation problem.
Equally subtle yet obvious the subject of rape appears in Gentileschi's Judith Beheading Holofernes (approx. 1620) insofar as allusions to a conceivable biographical motivation – a pictured revenge for rape - use to accompany the painting's dissemination.
After Goya's Los Desastres de la Guerra the application of sexual violence as a strategic instrument became increasingly visible within the 19th and 20th Century.
Form Follows Function
So obviously Pierce's key issue seems to be deeply entrenched in art history. However the necessity of dealing aesthetically with non-aesthetic issues remains controversial. Yet in Pierce's case content and form are by no means opposed to each other. Moreover contents determine their form, for in the beginning of each piece there has been some subject which subsequently is given outline and materials.
At the onset of the work on show here the initial question was, “who are these individuals? And where are they now?” The material stems from a database, designated to track the whereabouts of sexual offenders within the US. This research emerged from Pierce's previous project She LL, where she presented victims' writings along with one garment each.
Inhumanity with a human face
Since neither empathy nor rational comprehension are likely to settle the question “who they are”, Pierce ended up in doing what humans have always done in order to comprehend the incomprehensible: she made it visible.
Shaping what is impalpable has always been helpful in holding abstract forces at bay. Giving invisible threats the face of demons allowed for attacking and thus subduing them. In doing so hazy anxieties became tangible - opponents on an equal footing so to speak.
This time-honored countermeasure is now taken up by Pierce who is adding faces to an overwhelming amount of data.
Since the police camera's biometric premises don't tolerate any of strategy of flattering presentation, in terms of their relentlessness the database photographs resemble ancient depictions of the satanic. This way they don't show the offenders' public face but another one only their victims know.
Diamonds are a girl's best friend
Pierce's second question concerning the offenders' present stay led her to inquire on site. On the basis of all these findings the artist chose pictures and case histories which she then made into photo collages and accessories.
Since the 1960ies several artists considered their work to be objects, offered for use by the audience, thereby breaching the separation between producers and consumers. This way former recipients became co-workers and exhibits turned from being admired artefacts to be tools whereby the audience created the piece.
The combination of decorative form with terrifying content changed Pierce's view of her familiar territory2. Instead of referring to her objects as jewelry, they rather function as memory aids like 'awareness ribbons' do3.
Wearing those photographs on the body like trinkets creates a more immediate contact compared to exhibits which remain at a distance. A necklace made from pictures of rapists causes an involvement in a more urgent way than an exhibition does. The latter is easy to access and exit whereas jewelry violates one's privacy just as the subject it deals with does. Moreover since objects attached to the body may transform one's self-perception and self-esteem, the ongoing contact with a piece constantly remaining perceptible and visible can lead to a latent feeling of imminence.
By way of building up an almost inescapable concernment, the previously distant threat comes closer and what seemed like some weird “anxiety disorder” suddenly materializes.
2 “I am not sure if they are jewelry anymore. I see the pieces as jewelry only in the sense that I want the viewer to use the body as a reference. The audience takes less distance to the work if they think about 36 sexual offenders hanging around their neck rather than viewing it as merely a wall piece to be observed from a distance.”
3 “I am inspired by the contemporary phenomenon of ‘awareness ribbons and bracelets’ that people wear to express their concern of current social issues.”
Pierce's objects are strongly motivated by gendered behavior. Particularly in the US girls grow up to the expectation to be given jewelry as evidence for being loved by a man. This major significance of jewelry made Pierce aware of its capacity to represent realities – especially realities of women. This function as a marker of meaningful events in life is now complemented by the dark side of being the object of desire.
The pros and cons of such consciousness raising remain controversial, and this is intended by the artist4 , who is guided by convictions as well as by open questions.
4 Question: „What would be the ultimate result you're expecting from all your work dealing with this subject?”
Pierce: “In the short term: Discussion, inspired thought, to be thought provoking - positive or negative discussion. In my last exhibition in Amsterdam the gallerist said he had to speak about my work all day long. Whether people loved or hated my work or the topic, they did not leave without a discussion. If people would have entered the space, said nothing and felt nothing and left then I would say that I failed.”
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