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Beautiful, Gruesome, and True: Artists at Work in the Face of War

Beautiful, Gruesome, and True: Artists at Work in the Face of War

by Kaelen Wilson-Goldie
Beautiful, Gruesome, and True: Artists at Work in the Face of War

Beautiful, Gruesome, and True: Artists at Work in the Face of War

by Kaelen Wilson-Goldie

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Overview

Why have some of the most interesting artists of our time committed themselves to some of the most devastating conflicts on Earth?

Why are some of the most interesting artists of our time committed to engaging with conflict and exploitation around the world? Beautiful, Gruesome, and True tells the stories of three of them: Amar Kanwar makes riveting films about the destruction of rural India in the drive to extract natural resources. Teresa Margolles creates haunting installations from the traces of crime scenes and drug-related violence in Mexico. The anonymous collective Abounaddara has produced more than four hundred short films chronicling the uprising and civil war in Syria. Drawing on years of research and extensive reporting, Kaelen Wilson-Goldie vividly recounts how a group of “political” artists found ways to produce remarkable works of art that demand deliberate and methodical ways of thinking—works that are contemplative, thoughtful, even redemptive.

Named one of the best art books of the year by Holland Cotter of the New York Times

“A gifted critic and a compelling journalist, Wilson-Goldie offers many important insights into the challenges these artists face in their confrontation with authority, repressive regimes, death, and violence. The story she tells could not be more timely.”
—Glenn D. Lowry, David Rockefeller Director, Museum of Modern Art


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781735913728
Publisher: Columbia Global Reports
Publication date: 09/06/2022
Pages: 146
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 7.50(h) x (d)

About the Author

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie is a writer and critic who contributes regularly to Artforum, Aperture, and Afterall, among other publications. She is the author of Etel Adnan, a monographic study on the paintings of the Lebanese-American poet Etel Adnan, and a contributor to numerous books on modern and contemporary art, including Art Cities of the Future: 21st-Century Avant-Gardes and Huguette Caland: Everything Takes the Shape of a Person. She lives in New York City and Beirut.

Read an Excerpt

Introduction

Throughout the summer and into the fall of 2019, a haunting artwork by Mexican artist Teresa Margolles stood in a darkened corner of an old warehouse in the Italian port city of Venice. The piece consisted of three large glass panels, each fitted into a free-standing metal frame, placed side-by-side at a bend in the segmented path through the Corderie, a former rope-making facility that runs, corridorlike, for nearly three hundred and fifty yards, through the ancient brick columns and fresh plywood dividers of the Arsenale, a vast complex of decommissioned armories and shipyards in the Venetian neighborhood of Castello.

The glass panels in Margolles’s installation, titled La búsqueda (The Search), 2014, were dirty, scratched in stray graffiti, and covered at eye-level with wheat-pasted flyers that had been torn by time, weather, and the hands of passersby. The posters announced the names of one or a half-dozen missing women, with accompanying pictures ranging from unsmiling ID photos to joyous graduation portraits and the hopeful headshots of young professionals at the starts of their careers. Listed beneath the images were the identifying details: ages, heights, specifics of appearance, dates of disappearance, places lived in or vanished from. Across the three panels, the ages of the missing women were frightful. Few of them were older than nineteen. Several were as young as thirteen. Many of them had been gone for a decade. All of the posters implored: “Ayúdanos . . . Ayúdanos. . . . Ayúdanos a localizarla” (Help us . . . Help us. . . . Help us locate her).

Margolles had found the glass panels five years earlier in Ciudad Juárez, a city plagued by drugs, crime, and the struggles of low-wage labor on the Mexican side of the border with the United States. For decades, the gruesome violence of competing drug cartels had overwhelmed Juárez. Then, starting in the early 1990s, there was a sudden and dramatic uptick in the number of women being kidnapped, tortured, and murdered in the city. More than three thousand people were murdered in Juárez in the year 2010 alone, out of a population of just 1.3 million. But even as the rates of other crimes eventually began to level off, the killing of women, most but not all of them young and poor, remained high. Hundreds of those murders were left unsolved. The crime wave continued and beyond the battered social circles of the city itself the femicides were largely forgotten.

Equally sensitive to current events, political circumstances, and the more rebellious chapters of art history, La búsqueda evoked the work of Marcel Duchamp in two key ways, not only by repositioning a set of common objects as rarefied fine art, as Duchamp had famously done in works such as Bicycle Wheel, 1915 (a bicycle wheel), and Fountain, 1917 (a urinal), but also in emulating the sculptural form and spatial presence of the two free-standing glass panels in Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, 1915–1923, also known as The Large Glass. Margolles had taken her glass panels from a bus stop in the historic city center of Juárez, and turned them into contemporary art like unsuspecting urban readymades wrestled into the cool, serial language of minimalist sculpture.

The installation also embodied the more activist, interventionist spirit of a large subset within the field of contemporary art, roughly defined as politically engaged or driven by a demand for social justice. As documents, the faded posters, whether vandalized or smudged by greasy fingers or fixed to the glass as far back as 2009, called attention to the extreme pain of Juárez, to the fates of women who disappeared, to the struggle of mothers still searching for their daughters, and to the city’s loneliness and desolation, like night falling on a once lively place, now emptied of everything but dread.

The real power of Margolles’s piece did not from the flyers alone. It came from the fact that the glass panels were rattling slightly in their frames. The most important part of the piece was in fact a hidden audio track, which transformed sound recordings the artist had made of freight trains rumbling through Juárez into a frequency so low that it shook the glass panels at period intervals when they were installed in the exhibition space. The dim but jarring sounds of the shaking panels coupled with the stories of the missing women made it feel as though the piece was being rocked by angry ghosts.

La búsqueda had been shown in other museums and arts institutions, before the installation was transported to Northern Italy for the fifty-eighth edition of the Venice Biennale, where it was shown as part of curator Ralph Rugoff’s now seemingly prophetic exhibition, whose title, “May You Live in Interesting Times,” came from an apocryphal Chinese curse, attributed to a British diplomat, who invented its provenance and passed it along to a member of parliament, who in turn used the expression in a 1936 speech warning about the very real dangers of Hitler and the rise of fascism in Europe. “We move from one crisis to another,” the diplomat said. “We suffer one disturbance and shock after another. . . . There is no doubt that the curse has fallen on us.” The saying never actually existed in Chinese philosophy, folklore, or proverbs, but it has been repeated down the ages by everyone from Albert Camus and Arthur C. Clark to Robert F. Kennedy and Hillary Clinton. “For an exhibition that [considered] how art functions in an era of lies, it struck me as an apt title,” Rugoff wrote in a curatorial statement. An American based in London, where he directs the Hayward Gallery, a public institution down the road from Tate Modern, Rugoff turned the phrase into a capacious curatorial framework, generous enough to include the complexity and nuance of nearly eighty different artists responding to a litany of urgent, timely issues in an age of fake news and alternative facts.

“The idea was that interesting times were times of change, potentially times of revolution, disaster, war, famine,” Rugoff explained in an interview with the Los Angeles Review of Books. “So, you really wanted to live in boring, stable, prosperous times.” In addition to La búsqueda, Rugoff included in the exhibition Margolles’s Muro Ciudad Juárez (Juárez City Wall), 2010, a barrier of concrete blocks riddled with bullet holes and topped with barbed wire, which the artist had taken from the yard of a public school where four young people were killed in a run-in with organized crime.

Margolles won a special mention from the jury of the 58th Venice Biennale. Many people remembered her work for the Mexican national pavilion of the 53rd Venice Biennale, ten years earlier, which involved mopping the floor of a dilapidated palazzo with the blood of the victims of Mexico’s violence. It was called “one of the most memorable and frightening works ever shown there.”

Margolles is certainly exceptional, but she belongs to a larger group of like-minded contemporary artists who approach their work as an inherently political practice. They delve into complicated, difficult, and ambitious subjects, such as life, death, love, pain, dignity, and injustice. But more than that, they transform the materials they find into unexpected forms that are most notable for being contemplative, thoughtful, orderly, even redemptive. From the chaos of wars or sustained periods of seemingly senseless violence come details, anecdotes, digressions, traces, examples, and evidence that are then translated into a moving array of objects, an exquisite grid of images, a beautifully composed narrative, or a highly ritualized performance. Although they don’t constitute a school or a movement, artists like Margolles represent a considerable amount of the work being made in the name of contemporary art today.

That may come as a surprise to anyone holding onto the idea that the art of our time should be pretty, pleasant, uplifting, or that the more general purpose of culture is to delight and entertain. But artists have always been working in close proximity or direct response to political violence. Even the most traditional of art histories trace a crucial if brutal lineage. The most obvious example is Picasso’s Guernica, 1937, an enormous mural capturing, in discombobulated fragments, broken glass, and shades of black and white, the incendiary bombing of a tiny Basque town by German and Italian forces. Maybe the best known anti-war work in history, it marks the advent of total war, blitzkrieg tactics, and the targeting of civilians in the mid-twentieth century. From there, one can reach back in time to the three versions of Édouard Manet’s The Execution of the Emperor Maximillian, 1867, 1867–68, and 1869, depicting a firing squad poised to kill the young Austrian archduke who was installed by Napoleon III as the ruler of a French monarchy in Mexico. The series culminates, in the last painting, with the sudden appearance of a crowd of voyeurs who foretell the ways in which atrocities will be transformed into spectacle. Moving further back, there is Goya, the eighteenth-century history paintings of Géricault and Delacroix and David, the blood and gore of Caravaggio, and the intense Renaissance battle scenes of Paolo Uccello, Leonardo Da Vinci, and more. Go as far back as the epics of ancient Greece, India, and Mesopotamia, and you’ll find that even those early poets dwelled at length on descriptions of war.

An obsession with violence doesn’t necessarily run counter to the purpose of art but rather supports its possible role in sublimating passions—redirecting, say, the death drive toward more productive ends. As Susan Sontag argues in her landmark essay “Against Interpretation,” paraphrasing Aristotle: “Art is useful . . . medicinally useful in that it arouses and purges dangerous emotions.” Some of the best and most enduring works of art about willful, man-made crises are shaded with humility. They show us that as a species, we are capable of many wondrous things, including the transcendent power of art. But at the same time, they remind us of our baser instincts, of our propensity to do great damage to each other, the planet, and ourselves.

That is not to say that artists like Margolles are making 27 explicitly political art, a dutiful category of earnest, often joyless, and mostly terrible work that is usually intended to serve as an instrument or tool in achieving a specific goal. “I don’t think anyone in this exhibition is making political art,” Rugoff said of the artists in “May You Live in Interesting Times.” “I think some of them are making art politically. They’re thinking politically. But to me political art means art that’s trying to drive home one message or is trying to make one point about one issue.” The artists in Rugoff’s show weren’t doing that. They were raising questions, making connections among disparate things, framing events of the day in new or different ways.

In that respect, such artists sometimes do the work of journalists, novelists, sociologists, and anthropologists. One of the major themes running through contemporary art since the 1990s involves archival investigations into past moments of political upheaval and potential, for example, in relation to independence movements or the process of decolonization. Or those investigations delve into periods of violence that have been overlooked or covered up. Exceptional works of contemporary art sometimes surpass investigative journalism, documentary films, or the advocacy of human rights campaigns because they are able to take their audiences by surprise. They can convey the sensation of living through a crime wave, the corporate pillaging on indigenous lands, or the collapse of a revolutionary movement in the barbaric onslaught of civil war, to a crowd of people who may have been hoping for some pretty pictures but had their minds blown by a video installation instead.

It is somewhat disorienting to look back now on “May You Live in Interesting Times.” Rugoff’s edition of the Venice Biennale was the last to happen before the start of the global COVID-19 pandemic. The next edition, organized by Italian curator Cecilia Alemani and inspired by artist Leonora Carrington’s surrealist children’s book The Milk of Dreams, was delayed by a year. Such interruptions in the schedule are rare. In retrospect, “May You Live in Interesting Times” sounds like “Be Careful What You Wish For.” The conflicts and crises of just a few years ago have multiplied in number and gravity. The institutions, circulatory systems, and survival modes of contemporary art have themselves come under enormous strain.

For all its promise, Rugoff’s exhibition didn’t always hold together or add up to the sum of its parts. One could argue that Rugoff padded the exhibition with more frivolous modes of art-making, in order to make it palatable to mainstream tastes. Still, at its core, the show offered a remarkable concentration of artists thinking politically today. There have been other shows like it, and there are more artists working in the same vein as Margolles. Few of them are as good or as challenging as she is. But the ones who are have much to tell us about how contemporary art has changed and what it could be in the future. This book focuses on three of them.


The story of the work of Amar Kanwar begins, in part one, with the assassination of a charismatic labor leader in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh, an event the artist describes as both the gate-crashing arrival of twentieth-century globalization and a pivotal moment in his political life.

Part two takes up the story of Teresa Margolles’s work, first by revisiting the explosive exhibition “What Else Could We Talk About?” staged in 2009, and then moving backward and forward in time to consider her early work with the collective SEMEFO, and her more recent work on a group of transgender women and sex workers in Ciudad Juárez.

The work of Abounaddara rounds out part three. Initially composed of a small group of filmmakers working anonymously in Syria, the group came to widespread attention in the years following the start of the revolution, which began in 2011 with protests scattered around the country, inspired by the Arab Spring. Just as the uprising was organized around Friday demonstrations, Abounaddara posted one short film to Facebook, Twitter, and Vimeo at the end of every week, in solidarity with the protesters.

The idea for this book came together at a time when I had been following the work of each of these three artists, separately, for a number of years. I began to wonder what it would mean to look at their projects side by side. Amar Kanwar, Teresa Margolles, and Abounaddara create dramatically different art. What linked them together in my mind, and set them apart from their peers, was the consistency and coherence of what each of them was doing in the face of horrific violence and longstanding conflict, the awful if typical forever wars of our age. As I began to think about their work together, the importance of collaboration, of trying out different modes of working collectively, quickly emerged as a question I wanted to pursue. It was a common element that distinguished their work, and it seemed to have been born of the time and seriousness they had each devoted to their subjects.

That said, this book is not a work of critical theory or art history. Although I dwell at length on certain institutions as nodes in the circulatory systems of contemporary art, and despite my abiding interest in how those institutions are tied to longer, older histories of war, violence, and political conflict, this book is not an exposé of all the contradictions, compromises, and complicities inherent to the art world today. This book is lastly not a joint biography of these three artists. Some people love to place their own stories, backgrounds, and identities at the heart of their work. Amar Kanwar, Teresa Margolles, and Abounaddara decidedly do not. The stories I tell are the stories of the work, not the stories of the makers, and those stories are themselves a work of journalism and criticism, first and foremost.

The title Beautiful, Gruesome, and True is meant to describe the many artworks that are discussed at length but never shown in a book that is being published without a single image reproduced on its cover or in its pages. My hope is that some readers will already know those artworks and other readers will enjoy the freedom to imagine them. In any case, anyone with a decent internet connection can find a wealth of images online showing many stills from Kanwar’s films and multiple views of Margolles’s installations; Abounaddara’s archive of four hundred-plus films, made from 2010 through 2017, is still parked on Vimeo, free for all to see.

Kanwar, Margolles, and Abounaddara belong to a long tradition of artists dealing with political violence in their work. But the recitation of epic poems that told of distant wars operated in a very different conception of time from our own. Renaissance battle scenes that were meant to cower viewers with their grisly details assumed an audience that was almost always on the winning side. Kanwar, Margolles, and Abounaddara have more in common with artists closer to their time, a generation before, a generation after, contending with how ubiquitous images of 31 atrocity have become, whether in magazines, on television, or online. What sets Kanwar, Margolles, and Abounaddara apart is how long each has spent at work in a single place, in response to a specific conflict, finding modes of enduring collectivity and lasting collaboration—and in doing so, slowing the pace of internet time by demanding more deliberate and methodical ways of thinking.

“Artists are seldom brave, nor need they be,” the art historian T. J. Clark said about Picasso and others in the time of Guernica. Kanwar, Margolles, and Abounaddara would never describe themselves as brave, though their work is undoubtedly fearless. This book about them is dedicated to two younger artists like them, who came along in the generation after and should have been just now hitting their stride. Amal Kenawy and Leila Alaoui worked in similar ways. They put themselves in volatile situations, stuck with it, created an incredible record of work, and paid far too heavy a price for their bravery. Kenawy, who made wildly surrealist videos and provocative street performances that chiseled into deeply held hatreds of women in Egypt, earning her run-ins with the police and prison, died of illness in 2012 at the age of thirty-seven. Leila Alaoui, who made films and photographs about the effects of migration on identity and community in Morocco, was killed in 2016 in a terrorist attack in Burkina Faso, caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, at the age of thirty-three. I wrote this book for them, for the risks they took, and for the work they made in a world that still has a lot to learn from artists like them.

Preface

Introduction

Throughout the summer and into the fall of 2019, a haunting artwork by Mexican artist Teresa Margolles stood in a darkened corner of an old warehouse in the Italian port city of Venice. The piece consisted of three large glass panels, each fitted into a free-standing metal frame, placed side-by-side at a bend in the segmented path through the Corderie, a former rope-making facility that runs, corridorlike, for nearly three hundred and fifty yards, through the ancient brick columns and fresh plywood dividers of the Arsenale, a vast complex of decommissioned armories and shipyards in the Venetian neighborhood of Castello.

The glass panels in Margolles’s installation, titled La búsqueda (The Search), 2014, were dirty, scratched in stray graffiti, and covered at eye-level with wheat-pasted flyers that had been torn by time, weather, and the hands of passersby. The posters announced the names of one or a half-dozen missing women, with accompanying pictures ranging from unsmiling ID photos to joyous graduation portraits and the hopeful headshots of young professionals at the starts of their careers. Listed beneath the images were the identifying details: ages, heights, specifics of appearance, dates of disappearance, places lived in or vanished from. Across the three panels, the ages of the missing women were frightful. Few of them were older than nineteen. Several were as young as thirteen. Many of them had been gone for a decade. All of the posters implored: “Ayúdanos . . . Ayúdanos. . . . Ayúdanos a localizarla” (Help us . . . Help us. . . . Help us locate her).

Margolles had found the glass panels five years earlier in Ciudad Juárez, a city plagued by drugs, crime, and the struggles of low-wage labor on the Mexican side of the border with the United States. For decades, the gruesome violence of competing drug cartels had overwhelmed Juárez. Then, starting in the early 1990s, there was a sudden and dramatic uptick in the number of women being kidnapped, tortured, and murdered in the city. More than three thousand people were murdered in Juárez in the year 2010 alone, out of a population of just 1.3 million. But even as the rates of other crimes eventually began to level off, the killing of women, most but not all of them young and poor, remained high. Hundreds of those murders were left unsolved. The crime wave continued and beyond the battered social circles of the city itself the femicides were largely forgotten.

Equally sensitive to current events, political circumstances, and the more rebellious chapters of art history, La búsqueda evoked the work of Marcel Duchamp in two key ways, not only by repositioning a set of common objects as rarefied fine art, as Duchamp had famously done in works such as Bicycle Wheel, 1915 (a bicycle wheel), and Fountain, 1917 (a urinal), but also in emulating the sculptural form and spatial presence of the two free-standing glass panels in Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, 1915–1923, also known as The Large Glass. Margolles had taken her glass panels from a bus stop in the historic city center of Juárez, and turned them into contemporary art like unsuspecting urban readymades wrestled into the cool, serial language of minimalist sculpture.

The installation also embodied the more activist, interventionist spirit of a large subset within the field of contemporary art, roughly defined as politically engaged or driven by a demand for social justice. As documents, the faded posters, whether vandalized or smudged by greasy fingers or fixed to the glass as far back as 2009, called attention to the extreme pain of Juárez, to the fates of women who disappeared, to the struggle of mothers still searching for their daughters, and to the city’s loneliness and desolation, like night falling on a once lively place, now emptied of everything but dread.

The real power of Margolles’s piece did not from the flyers alone. It came from the fact that the glass panels were rattling slightly in their frames. The most important part of the piece was in fact a hidden audio track, which transformed sound recordings the artist had made of freight trains rumbling through Juárez into a frequency so low that it shook the glass panels at period intervals when they were installed in the exhibition space. The dim but jarring sounds of the shaking panels coupled with the stories of the missing women made it feel as though the piece was being rocked by angry ghosts.

La búsqueda had been shown in other museums and arts institutions, before the installation was transported to Northern Italy for the fifty-eighth edition of the Venice Biennale, where it was shown as part of curator Ralph Rugoff’s now seemingly prophetic exhibition, whose title, “May You Live in Interesting Times,” came from an apocryphal Chinese curse, attributed to a British diplomat, who invented its provenance and passed it along to a member of parliament, who in turn used the expression in a 1936 speech warning about the very real dangers of Hitler and the rise of fascism in Europe. “We move from one crisis to another,” the diplomat said. “We suffer one disturbance and shock after another. . . . There is no doubt that the curse has fallen on us.” The saying never actually existed in Chinese philosophy, folklore, or proverbs, but it has been repeated down the ages by everyone from Albert Camus and Arthur C. Clark to Robert F. Kennedy and Hillary Clinton. “For an exhibition that [considered] how art functions in an era of lies, it struck me as an apt title,” Rugoff wrote in a curatorial statement. An American based in London, where he directs the Hayward Gallery, a public institution down the road from Tate Modern, Rugoff turned the phrase into a capacious curatorial framework, generous enough to include the complexity and nuance of nearly eighty different artists responding to a litany of urgent, timely issues in an age of fake news and alternative facts.

“The idea was that interesting times were times of change, potentially times of revolution, disaster, war, famine,” Rugoff explained in an interview with the Los Angeles Review of Books. “So, you really wanted to live in boring, stable, prosperous times.” In addition to La búsqueda, Rugoff included in the exhibition Margolles’s Muro Ciudad Juárez (Juárez City Wall), 2010, a barrier of concrete blocks riddled with bullet holes and topped with barbed wire, which the artist had taken from the yard of a public school where four young people were killed in a run-in with organized crime.

Margolles won a special mention from the jury of the 58th Venice Biennale. Many people remembered her work for the Mexican national pavilion of the 53rd Venice Biennale, ten years earlier, which involved mopping the floor of a dilapidated palazzo with the blood of the victims of Mexico’s violence. It was called “one of the most memorable and frightening works ever shown there.”

Margolles is certainly exceptional, but she belongs to a larger group of like-minded contemporary artists who approach their work as an inherently political practice. They delve into complicated, difficult, and ambitious subjects, such as life, death, love, pain, dignity, and injustice. But more than that, they transform the materials they find into unexpected forms that are most notable for being contemplative, thoughtful, orderly, even redemptive. From the chaos of wars or sustained periods of seemingly senseless violence come details, anecdotes, digressions, traces, examples, and evidence that are then translated into a moving array of objects, an exquisite grid of images, a beautifully composed narrative, or a highly ritualized performance. Although they don’t constitute a school or a movement, artists like Margolles represent a considerable amount of the work being made in the name of contemporary art today.

That may come as a surprise to anyone holding onto the idea that the art of our time should be pretty, pleasant, uplifting, or that the more general purpose of culture is to delight and entertain. But artists have always been working in close proximity or direct response to political violence. Even the most traditional of art histories trace a crucial if brutal lineage. The most obvious example is Picasso’s Guernica, 1937, an enormous mural capturing, in discombobulated fragments, broken glass, and shades of black and white, the incendiary bombing of a tiny Basque town by German and Italian forces. Maybe the best known anti-war work in history, it marks the advent of total war, blitzkrieg tactics, and the targeting of civilians in the mid-twentieth century. From there, one can reach back in time to the three versions of Édouard Manet’s The Execution of the Emperor Maximillian, 1867, 1867–68, and 1869, depicting a firing squad poised to kill the young Austrian archduke who was installed by Napoleon III as the ruler of a French monarchy in Mexico. The series culminates, in the last painting, with the sudden appearance of a crowd of voyeurs who foretell the ways in which atrocities will be transformed into spectacle. Moving further back, there is Goya, the eighteenth-century history paintings of Géricault and Delacroix and David, the blood and gore of Caravaggio, and the intense Renaissance battle scenes of Paolo Uccello, Leonardo Da Vinci, and more. Go as far back as the epics of ancient Greece, India, and Mesopotamia, and you’ll find that even those early poets dwelled at length on descriptions of war.

An obsession with violence doesn’t necessarily run counter to the purpose of art but rather supports its possible role in sublimating passions—redirecting, say, the death drive toward more productive ends. As Susan Sontag argues in her landmark essay “Against Interpretation,” paraphrasing Aristotle: “Art is useful . . . medicinally useful in that it arouses and purges dangerous emotions.” Some of the best and most enduring works of art about willful, man-made crises are shaded with humility. They show us that as a species, we are capable of many wondrous things, including the transcendent power of art. But at the same time, they remind us of our baser instincts, of our propensity to do great damage to each other, the planet, and ourselves.

That is not to say that artists like Margolles are making 27 explicitly political art, a dutiful category of earnest, often joyless, and mostly terrible work that is usually intended to serve as an instrument or tool in achieving a specific goal. “I don’t think anyone in this exhibition is making political art,” Rugoff said of the artists in “May You Live in Interesting Times.” “I think some of them are making art politically. They’re thinking politically. But to me political art means art that’s trying to drive home one message or is trying to make one point about one issue.” The artists in Rugoff’s show weren’t doing that. They were raising questions, making connections among disparate things, framing events of the day in new or different ways.

In that respect, such artists sometimes do the work of journalists, novelists, sociologists, and anthropologists. One of the major themes running through contemporary art since the 1990s involves archival investigations into past moments of political upheaval and potential, for example, in relation to independence movements or the process of decolonization. Or those investigations delve into periods of violence that have been overlooked or covered up. Exceptional works of contemporary art sometimes surpass investigative journalism, documentary films, or the advocacy of human rights campaigns because they are able to take their audiences by surprise. They can convey the sensation of living through a crime wave, the corporate pillaging on indigenous lands, or the collapse of a revolutionary movement in the barbaric onslaught of civil war, to a crowd of people who may have been hoping for some pretty pictures but had their minds blown by a video installation instead.

It is somewhat disorienting to look back now on “May You Live in Interesting Times.” Rugoff’s edition of the Venice Biennale was the last to happen before the start of the global COVID-19 pandemic. The next edition, organized by Italian curator Cecilia Alemani and inspired by artist Leonora Carrington’s surrealist children’s book The Milk of Dreams, was delayed by a year. Such interruptions in the schedule are rare. In retrospect, “May You Live in Interesting Times” sounds like “Be Careful What You Wish For.” The conflicts and crises of just a few years ago have multiplied in number and gravity. The institutions, circulatory systems, and survival modes of contemporary art have themselves come under enormous strain.

For all its promise, Rugoff’s exhibition didn’t always hold together or add up to the sum of its parts. One could argue that Rugoff padded the exhibition with more frivolous modes of art-making, in order to make it palatable to mainstream tastes. Still, at its core, the show offered a remarkable concentration of artists thinking politically today. There have been other shows like it, and there are more artists working in the same vein as Margolles. Few of them are as good or as challenging as she is. But the ones who are have much to tell us about how contemporary art has changed and what it could be in the future. This book focuses on three of them.


The story of the work of Amar Kanwar begins, in part one, with the assassination of a charismatic labor leader in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh, an event the artist describes as both the gate-crashing arrival of twentieth-century globalization and a pivotal moment in his political life.

Part two takes up the story of Teresa Margolles’s work, first by revisiting the explosive exhibition “What Else Could We Talk About?” staged in 2009, and then moving backward and forward in time to consider her early work with the collective SEMEFO, and her more recent work on a group of transgender women and sex workers in Ciudad Juárez.

The work of Abounaddara rounds out part three. Initially composed of a small group of filmmakers working anonymously in Syria, the group came to widespread attention in the years following the start of the revolution, which began in 2011 with protests scattered around the country, inspired by the Arab Spring. Just as the uprising was organized around Friday demonstrations, Abounaddara posted one short film to Facebook, Twitter, and Vimeo at the end of every week, in solidarity with the protesters.

The idea for this book came together at a time when I had been following the work of each of these three artists, separately, for a number of years. I began to wonder what it would mean to look at their projects side by side. Amar Kanwar, Teresa Margolles, and Abounaddara create dramatically different art. What linked them together in my mind, and set them apart from their peers, was the consistency and coherence of what each of them was doing in the face of horrific violence and longstanding conflict, the awful if typical forever wars of our age. As I began to think about their work together, the importance of collaboration, of trying out different modes of working collectively, quickly emerged as a question I wanted to pursue. It was a common element that distinguished their work, and it seemed to have been born of the time and seriousness they had each devoted to their subjects.

That said, this book is not a work of critical theory or art history. Although I dwell at length on certain institutions as nodes in the circulatory systems of contemporary art, and despite my abiding interest in how those institutions are tied to longer, older histories of war, violence, and political conflict, this book is not an exposé of all the contradictions, compromises, and complicities inherent to the art world today. This book is lastly not a joint biography of these three artists. Some people love to place their own stories, backgrounds, and identities at the heart of their work. Amar Kanwar, Teresa Margolles, and Abounaddara decidedly do not. The stories I tell are the stories of the work, not the stories of the makers, and those stories are themselves a work of journalism and criticism, first and foremost.

The title Beautiful, Gruesome, and True is meant to describe the many artworks that are discussed at length but never shown in a book that is being published without a single image reproduced on its cover or in its pages. My hope is that some readers will already know those artworks and other readers will enjoy the freedom to imagine them. In any case, anyone with a decent internet connection can find a wealth of images online showing many stills from Kanwar’s films and multiple views of Margolles’s installations; Abounaddara’s archive of four hundred-plus films, made from 2010 through 2017, is still parked on Vimeo, free for all to see.

Kanwar, Margolles, and Abounaddara belong to a long tradition of artists dealing with political violence in their work. But the recitation of epic poems that told of distant wars operated in a very different conception of time from our own. Renaissance battle scenes that were meant to cower viewers with their grisly details assumed an audience that was almost always on the winning side. Kanwar, Margolles, and Abounaddara have more in common with artists closer to their time, a generation before, a generation after, contending with how ubiquitous images of 31 atrocity have become, whether in magazines, on television, or online. What sets Kanwar, Margolles, and Abounaddara apart is how long each has spent at work in a single place, in response to a specific conflict, finding modes of enduring collectivity and lasting collaboration—and in doing so, slowing the pace of internet time by demanding more deliberate and methodical ways of thinking.

“Artists are seldom brave, nor need they be,” the art historian T. J. Clark said about Picasso and others in the time of Guernica. Kanwar, Margolles, and Abounaddara would never describe themselves as brave, though their work is undoubtedly fearless. This book about them is dedicated to two younger artists like them, who came along in the generation after and should have been just now hitting their stride. Amal Kenawy and Leila Alaoui worked in similar ways. They put themselves in volatile situations, stuck with it, created an incredible record of work, and paid far too heavy a price for their bravery. Kenawy, who made wildly surrealist videos and provocative street performances that chiseled into deeply held hatreds of women in Egypt, earning her run-ins with the police and prison, died of illness in 2012 at the age of thirty-seven. Leila Alaoui, who made films and photographs about the effects of migration on identity and community in Morocco, was killed in 2016 in a terrorist attack in Burkina Faso, caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, at the age of thirty-three. I wrote this book for them, for the risks they took, and for the work they made in a world that still has a lot to learn from artists like them.

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