The Aesthetics of Terror

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Untitled #23 (''Lynndied''), 2006 © courtesy of the artist and the Chelsea Art Museum
Stalker Suspect, 2007 © courtesy of the artist and the Chelsea Art Museum
The Abduction from the Seraglio, 2006 © courtesy of the artist and the Chelsea Art Museum
The Aesthetics of Terror
Curated by: Joshua Simon

556 W 22nd St.
New York, NY 10011
November 7th, 2008 - January 31st, 2009

Please note that the museum and bookstore are closed.


Terror is, in and of itself, an image making machine. The very point of terror is a spectacle that plays endlessly in the media. In 9/11, thousands may have died, but billions of people watched the attack and the falling towers endlessly until those images were etched into the global psyche. While terrorism and its representations have been widely discussed ever since 9/11, very few of these contemplations have tackled the issue of specific formal qualities and pictorial strategies of terrorism. The exhibition The Aesthetics of Terror tries to do exactly that; namely, it investigates certain visual characteristics of the spectacle of Terror and its echoes in contemporary art. The exhibition employs the distinction made by artist Roee Rosen on the principle gap between representations of underground terrorism, produced by terrorist groups, and images of State Terror - this is the gap between figuration and abstraction. The representational apparatus of State Terror, says Rosen, is based on the blurring or erasure of central figures, exchanging it for abstraction: Smart Bombs' aerial views of bombardments, for example, or the blocking of visibility by grids or satellite type images that obscure rather than illuminate. On the other end, representations of underground terrorism strive for a central, powerful figure or symbol - the portrait of a suicide bomber, collapsing skyscrapers and the icon of bearded Bin Laden with his golden gown and triangular composition - "this is an icon in the religious sense: a human, semi-divine person whose very appearance defies the divide of life and death", Rosen claims.

What happens when an image of war or terrorism moves from the newspaper or news networks, to the gallery or museum? What causes the shift from an image having "documentary" relevance to it becoming an aesthetic object circulating in the art system? As artists navigate these boundaries, either through direct translation or through appropriation, does violence retain its power to inspire fear and dread, or does this contextual transposition fetishize violence, stripping it of meaning through aestheticization? The Aesthetics of Terror explores the juxtaposition/integration of the traumas of the daily news with art and question the nature and purport of this integration.

The Aesthetics of Terror maps the relationship between abstraction and technology; color and violence, pixilated images and sovereignty, saturation and contour, authenticity and resolution. Much of the work in the exhibition deals less with direct depiction of violence and terror than with its media representations or perceptions of war as filtered through the media - itself a corporate entity whose failure to lay bare the species of evil that is being enacted under the rubric of a war on terror is also very much the point. The Aesthetics of Terror strives to suggest the emergence of an artistic sensibility which has been informed by the imagery and politics of terrorism in the current common culture as they have been formulated and conveyed through the popular media. Artworks might imitate or mirror this media rhetoric, identify its mechanisms to the viewer, critique it, push back or protest against it.

Through the writings of contemporary scholars from around the world, the exhibition catalogue proposes a further investigation into the image production machine of terror. Co-curator Manon Slome implements the exhibition's formalistic reading of terror imagery through the exhibited works. Co-curator Joshua Simon presents a close reading of suicide bombers videos as a case study for terror as image making. Dutch writer and curator Sven Lutticken suggests a survey of recent image wars in Europe. Israeli writer, curator and filmmaker Ariella Azoulay presents a visual essay on State Terror - through photo documentation from the West Bank and Gaza, she depicts destruction as the sovereign's architecture. German critic Boris Groys reads the Abu Ghraib photos in relation to western traditions of humiliation and survival and scholar Eric Stryker suggests an historical overview of the relations of art and terror from the French revolution to present day.