I've just finished getting in an argument with a friend on Facebook about Syrian refugees. He's not good at it, has a tendency to shut down and wave his hand dismissively. I have a tendency to repeat my argument ad nauseam until it becomes badgering, so even raising our voices at each other is something to be avoided. He has been posting increasingly fearful memes and videos that suggest what happened in Paris is going to happen here. I believe the U.S. should be more like the European Union and have less restrictive immigration policies. We disagreed, got angry, and now we've stopped talking.
Terrorism arguments aside, to me, the deeper question is whether our country—one that has its share of strained psyches, easy access to guns and lack of adequate mental-health care—can provide a home for the even-more-precarious emotional states of people escaping bombardment and bloodshed. Curator John Spiak's latest moving installation at Grand Central Art Center—Aida Šehovic and Leonard Correa's unique collaboration, “Unfinished Conversation: Reconstructing the Invisible”—examines the idea that trauma lingers for many years, even decades, that it's something that may never go away. In an individual or a community.
Correa is a longtime Santa Ana forensic investigator, and the decades he spent collecting evidence of death and destruction has taken its toll, with more than a few of the bodies and circumstances behind the murders he has seen staying with him. While the photographs hanging in the gallery seem innocent enough—a neighborhood street with a canopy of tree limbs shading the sidewalk, fallen leaves dusting the pavement; a panadería advertising pan dulce; a quiet freeway ramp; red-brick warehouses near the Santa Ana water tower; a black-and-white picture of an underground parking structure, the concrete stained and marked by years of tires and leaked oil; aging apartments, the paint flaking and windows barred, a pair of bicycles chained to the fence—each carries a sense of foreboding.
I can't say whether the ominous feeling is because I read the curatorial notes before I started and gathered pretty quickly that there were corpses attached to the locations or because there aren't any people in the photos and the fraught sense of missing humanity set me off. Near the last of the pictures is a glass case holding snapshots of each site (different angles . . . perhaps even different years?) with a handwritten note below each one citing details of the case: mostly homicides, save one hit-and-run accident that killed an entire family. The details are a mix of the human and the monstrous: a man pours too much cream in his coffee, bends down to take a sip, and two men walk in and kill him as he's leaning over; a young boy is mistaken for a gang member and shot, rides his bike home, wounded, and dies on the sidewalk in front of his family; a Grand Theft Auto-inspired series of murders and carjackings that ends with a suicide; a love triangle, with the new boyfriend ending up dead in the street. Mercifully enough, there aren't any photos of the bodies—we've seen enough of those recently, from Nigeria to Paris to Beirut. The pieces themselves offer just the briefest of details, coolly noted, scratched out, not always easy to read.
In another case, more pictures: a boxy apartment complex, clothes drying on a balcony, a lone figure standing in the car park. It's the same picture, all different sizes, each inked with a silhouette. Watching Šehovic's video of her parents leafing through a photo album subtly reveals the individuals behind the silhouettes. As they talk about leaving their home during the Bosnian Civil War—the video screen in the gallery leaning against the floor as though it were abandoned in a rush—the artist's mother tells how she fled to Turkey with the children, worrying about whether her husband would make it out alive; the sense of helplessness her father had when he handed over his house keys to someone who'd kill him if he didn't; the reunion and eventual immigration to America. We never see her parents' faces, just a hand scratching out a floorplan of what was left behind, nervously massaging another hand or lifting a cigarette from an ashtray. As personal as the piece is, not putting a face onscreen here universalizes the story and makes it ours.
Those moments hang on as you pass through the exit doors, but it's in the foyer that yet another piece hits you. Not associated with Correa and Šehovic's installation, Joseph DeLappe's tender Liberty Weeps seems made for the moments of the past few weeks, a brilliant rebuke to the shameful vote from the House of Representatives and the callousness of the mayors in many of our southern states. It's an unexpectedly moving cardboard sculpture of the head and shoulders of the Statue of Liberty, her face hidden in her hands, distraught over what she has seen.
Dave Barton has written for the OC Weekly for over twenty years, the last eight as their lead art critic. He has interviewed artists from punk rock photographer Edward Colver to monologist Mike Daisey, playwright Joe Penhall to culture jammer Ron English.