Despite the prevalence of digital manipulation in photography, whether it’s the model on the cover of Vogue or a Jeff Wall photograph, the idea that “photographs don’t lie” still remains strong in the popular consciousness. What we see of war in wartime is just as controlled and monitored as the cover of a fashion magazine. It was only several months ago (the end of February) that Defense Secretary Robert Gates lifted the 1991 ban on media access to the Dover Air Force Base, where the flag-draped caskets of America’s fallen soldiers arrive.
It is this control and manipulation of the images coming from Iraq that artist Jesse McLean confronted in her exhibition “Invisible Tracks” which just closed over the weekend at threewalls. McLean presents a variety of images to purposely avoid as she puts it “a ‘standard’ image of Iraq, i.e. the destroyed site.” The result is images of people going about their daily business in Iraq with an emphasis on figures enjoying relaxing activities like swimming and diving. But the specter of violence is never far off.
In the main gallery, the prints presented show various divers and swimmers isolated against the recognizable gray checkerboard of Adobe Photoshop (as seen above). They set up the most interesting aspect of the exhibition, the video pieces that McLean presents. Accompanying the prints is the video Clone (all videos 2009), in which an image of someone diving into a pool is being actively touched up in Photoshop. There are close zooms that show the viewer individual pixels and small portions of the image, so it takes a few seconds to get orientated and to even figure out what the image itself is of. Then once you have figured that out, it becomes noticeable that this is not just any pool at the local gym or something. This pool is behind a grand structure, most likely a presidential palace of the Hussein family, buildings that the military does in fact currently use for rest and relaxation. This palace has suffered some battle damage and using the titular clone tool McLean sets about digitally fixing up and blending in this damage into the rest of the building. This action signifies a myriad of meanings, from the overt image manipulation to the individual desire to help rebuild Iraq.
In the second gallery the video Magic Wand uses that same tool as its feature. The magic wand can select the outline of a vector based on similar colors. In practice this allows the user to fairly easily isolate objects, people or large fields. In McLean’s video we see different fields that the magic wand isolates in rapid succession. The rapid shifts also create a strobe light effect, which evokes explosions or muzzle flashes from a gun. Sometimes the fields are recognizable shapes, but more often the fields appear as Clyfford Still-like abstractions and are unrecognizable. Occasionally the source images appear sometimes showing the viewer a street scene for a split second or the twisted wreckage of a car. This revelation of the source image is quite effective, bringing the viewer back from an abstract contemplation to reality. And this is a war that has now been couched in abstract terms of “freedom” and “liberty,” once the concrete justifications (the WMD’s, chemical weapons, 9/11 cooperation, etc.) for the Iraq invasion turned out to be fabrications.
In the video pieces McLean most effectively explores many issues revolving around the Iraq war, from media coverage to our own perceptions. The impact that digital editing tools have on our perception of images is still generally less understood and quite ready for artistic exploration such as this: exposing the method of manipulation is quite fascinating and relevant. Even as our national attention is still focused on our floundering economy, McLean reminds us that we’re still at war in Iraq, people are still losing their lives and there’s no magic wand that can fix this mess.