ART Critics | 20220819

 It is difficult to draw the line between bearing witness to a violent past and fetishizing violent images. Jean-Jacques Lebel’s installation Soluble Poison in the 12th Berlin Biennale is a contentious work that many people find it hard to accurately describe. Soluble Poison is a labyrinth with gruesome photographs of the Iraq war and prisons printed to life-size on both sides of the path. The artist designed the labyrinth in a way that visitors would be confronted by these photographs with no escape. Images such as prisoners’ faces behind bars, mushroom clouds from explosions in Iraq, wounded bodies, and the smirk on US soldiers’ faces standing by nude Iraqi bodies all piled up.

The curators’ decision to include Lebel’s work in the Berlin Biennale endows this work with an elevated status, and naturally visitors are primed to find the social and cultural commentaries the artwork contributes to. When the intellectual search ends up futile, visitors always shoulder the blame for not understanding the artwork — “Am I not radical enough to be able to appreciate Lebel’s artwork?” Is this reaction a representation of visitors’ inability to confront the atrocities of the world, or is Lebel’s artwork in the wrong, normalizing the act of killing and appropriating others’ pain?

Installation photo of the trigger warning sign outside of Jean-Jacques Lebel’s Soluble Poison, The 12th Berlin Biennale. Photography by Sharon Liu

We are desperate to find “useful” artworks that can lead to some social changes. However, when the political purpose of violent images is elusive, the images risk becoming voyeuristic displays of cruelty. Lebel’s work is a simple and brutal expression of our collective memory of a violent past, an artistic intervention that falls short of criticalness. The violence in Lebel’s artworks is not about small and individual crimes, but rather systemic violence in wars or revolutions. There is great political urgency for using the image of systemic violence in art, as the shock of a violent image might force people to confront the darkness in the world, which we so often ignore. The yellow trigger warning sign outside of the room of Lebel’s installation argues that the violent images were for “antiracist and antiwar movements.” Indeed, we have witnessed various anti-racism and anti-war social movements in recent years, but Lebel’s images of the torture of Iraqi prisoners do not connect with specific recent social movements. His artwork did manage to send a clear message, “please acknowledge what had happened.” Nevertheless, considering the composition of the Biennale audience, the acknowledgment of problems with the American prisons is not unfamiliar to visitors. On top of that, Lebel’s narrative doesn’t go very far. There are no political changes Lebel’s installation appeals to. Without a clear political agenda, the artwork devolves into a compilation of violent images.

Some might argue that there is always a need to use visual information to bear witness to history. If Lebel’s work represents the priority of visuals over narratives, the artwork is essentially in conflict with the exhibition theme and the meaning of modern and contemporary art. In Susan Sontag’s 2003 book Regarding the Pain of Others, the author argued that photographs, unlike narratives, function as a haunting ghost to encourage people to critically examine and reflect on our belief systems. The photographs “eclipse other forms of understanding, and remembering.”[1] It is worth noting that the visuals are not necessarily secondary to narratives. Yet, the “visual first” thinking, which devalues narratives, is not what an exhibition centering on decolonization should feature. Soluble Poisondoes use pure visuals to remind people of Americans’ atrocities, but the use of images of violence here did not contribute to any new critical discourse. The artist failed to give reasons why something deserves more revisits. The Biennale exhibition context and the greater contemporary art environment determines the unsuitability of this artwork in this show.

In the Berlin Biennale this year, Ariella Aïsha Azoulay’s work The Natural History of Rape offers a great example of how photographs of violence when read historically can defend the public against cultural amnesia. Azoulay researched photographs and texts from Berlin immediately after World War II. Through reflecting on the absence of the photography of rape, the artwork questions the relationship between media culture and the priorities as well as presumptions behind the Allies’ logic to legitimize their violence. The work leads viewers closer to the reality outside of photography frames. In the photos of Berlin after World War II, the violence was present, but it is invisible. Azoulay’s choice of archival materials and photographs have a clear agenda, giving voice to the group of German women with untold stories that impact the national history of Germany. In this way, the image of violence becomes a tool to give the silenced the right to speak.

Installation photo of Ariella Azoulay’sThe Natural History of Rape, The 12th Berlin Biennale.
Photography by Sharon Liu ©️Sharon Liu

Both Jean-Jacques Lebel and Ariella Azoulay’s works employ photography of violence, but their affects take completely different directions. Should there be a screening process in museum or art fair spaces for the image of violence? The 12th Berlin Biennale also features many other works that deal with different levels of violence. For example, Noel Anderson’s Downward Dog is based on a photo of black bodies as objects to be disciplined. Mai Nguyen-Long’s The Vomit Girl Project employs playful and grotesque images to respond to the violence of the Vietnam War. Determining which type of art is inappropriate for public exhibitions depends on the exhibition context. It is also a rather subjective decision. Art exhibitions like Berlin Biennale 2022 and Documenta 15 face the conundrum to keep a balance between artists’ freedom of expression and public sentiments.

Perhaps instead of censorship in institutions, the screening process should start with artists themselves. Artists must learn to respect visitors, artists, and the community represented in the art in the first place. Rijin Shahakian mentioned in his article “Regarding the Torture at the Berlin Biennale 2022”that for Lebel’s work some very critical information about image rights is missing. The yellow trigger warning sign outside of the installation room didn’t state anything about the permission to use these images. Some other Iraqi artists have withdrawn their works from the Biennale exhibition, for Lebel’s insensitiveness to people’s experience in Iraq.[2] Dealing with sensitive photography of violence requires artists’ respect for the victims, a respect that stems from an artist’s willingness to show consideration for the victims and an eagerness to conduct self-examination. In this case, the curators and Jean-Jacques Lebel transferred the responsibility of self-examination to visitors by saying, “please do not enter if you have experienced racial trauma or abuse, as you might be triggered,” on the trigger warning sign. The sign itself constitutes a traumatizing experience for many visitors. The phrase “racial trauma and abuse” gives no clear definition and it doesn’t help alert the audience about the content of the work. Moreover, the exclusion of “racial trauma and abuse” victims from accessing an artwork would leave some visitors feeling patronized and marginalized.

Installation photo of Noel Anderson’sDownward Dog, The 12th Berlin Biennale.
Photography by Sharon Liu ©️Sharon Liu

Lebel’s work kindles again the debate of censorship for the image of violence. Censorship does limit artists’ freedom of expression and the public’s access to art. Now that Lebel’s artwork has already been included in the exhibition, discussing its value in relation to the context becomes the most important task for public education. If an artwork responds to a contentious historical event or if the artwork is a historical object created in a problematic context to our contemporary eyes, removing such artwork from the exhibitions would take away the public’s access to art and kill the ensuing debates. Artists defend their artistic freedom, but the public also has the freedom to comment on artworks. The controversy over artist Dana Schut’s Open Casket painting about Emmet Till in the Whitney Biennale 2016 was not that long ago. Although the photo of Emmet Till’s mutilated body was made public by his mother to remind people of what had happened, Dana Schut’s manipulation of Emmet Till’s photograph triggered debates and also protests at the museum. The Whitney Museum organized a panel and issued various statements afterwards. Curatorial work only moves forward with feedback from the public. It is time to voice discomfort and disagreement with some artists’ practices if there are any. It is an opportunity for the public to get involved and understand the broader social and cultural environments.

On the train leaving Berlin Biennale, I had a conversation with a Turkish German businessman about art festivals in Germany this summer. German news reports in the past months covered the antisemitism scandal at Documenta 15 and the issue reached many German families. Surprised that Taring Padi’s contentious work was withdrawn, he genuinely hoped the discussion about the controversy could continue. While the Documenta 15 controversy is still unfolding, should not the conversation about the image of violence in the 12th Berlin Biennale also continue?

[1] Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others, (New York, St. Martin’s Press, 2003), 26.

[2] Rijin Shahakian, “Regarding Torture at Berlin Biennale,” ARTFORUM, accessed on 08/16/2022,


Sharon Xiaorong Liu

Sharon is a researcher, curator, freelance writer, and currently 2022-2023 Ishibashi Research Student at Tokyo University of the Arts. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in art history and math from Wellesley College, and obtained her master’s degree in East Asian studies from Yale University. She has curated the exhibition Crafting the Past from the Future (2022, New York, Fou Gallery) and Michael Eade: After the Burn (2022, New York, Fou Gallery). She has also assisted with the implementation of the exhibition Art and China after 1989 (2017, New York, Guggenheim Museum) and developed the program for the photography exhibition Icons of New China (2019, New Haven, Yale-China Institute). As a freelance writer, she has written for CAFA ART INFO and Artron.

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