Carnival of the Animals (Study No. 1 for “Re/reading Riley’s Story”) re-presents as video still images drawn from Monica Haller’s artist’s book Riley and his story and envisions a kind of interior, post-traumatic recollection of war. Intrusive, loud helicopter sounds disrupt an imagined experience of the present and relocate it in memory of past war experiences. Details of murals believed to have been painted by Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib under Saddam Hussein’s rule and depicting deer and waterfowl appear and recede from view throughout the video. Within the formidable prison, these almost otherworldly animal witnesses seem to deepen the sense of a kind of dark, fearful theater. Like these animals of prey, Iraqi detainees, most of whom, as Riley describes, were deemed free of guilt and eventually released, were extremely vulnerable at the hands of the United States military. Through their capture and detention, many suffered considerable, irreparable psychological and physical harm, even death. Military personnel, who must sacrifice their autonomy through their service, were also objectified and wounded psychologically and physically by experiences that were imposed on them through their service to the United States government in the “dark carnival” of the war in Iraq.
In re-imagining representations of war, especially contemporary wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, I find it difficult to continue viewing the images that are the sources of my reinterpretations. They relocate my attention to some dark space where perception seems limited, limiting, its limits palpable—dense, static, circumscribed, uncertain.
Elaine Scarry writes of the language-, perception-, and world-destroying aspects of pain—of its “totalizing” potential to “eliminate all that is ‘not itself.’”(1) My images of other’s photographs have become less “descriptive.” Some retain corners or elements of legibility that anchor them in this world as photographs of printed matter. Others blur into abstractions that are tearing from their referents. Collapsed or expanded into moody fields of amorphous color, space becomes indeterminate. Where can a viewer locate him/herself in these images? Where is the ground? Are we refused entry and left at the surface, or do we enter a space of disorientation and uncertain depth? Scarry suggests that pain’s destruction is spatial in nature—that it is experienced “as either the contraction of the universe down to the immediate vicinity of the body or as the body swelling to fill the entire universe.”(2) Pain is “objectless,” Scarry writes—it “is not ‘of’ or ‘for’ anything—it is itself alone. This objectlessness . . . almost prevents it from being rendered in language . . . [from being] objectified in any form, material or verbal.”(3) It is, to use Scarry’s descriptive, an “unmaking” experience or a state that refuses, walls, obstructs.
1. Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the
World (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 54 – 55.
2. Ibid., 35.
3. Ibid., 162.
excerpted from it will be flowers, p. 63.
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