'Bound' exhibition, Open Eye Gallery Liverpool
Providing a space in which visitors are encouraged to take a moral perspective on the issue of slavery both historical and present-day, to actively examine their own beliefs and reactions has been a significant challenge for many museums and galleries. One art exhibition which has attempted to create such a space is Bound, a travelling exhibition which features the work of a number of artists inspired by the issues which have arisen from the bicentenary. Bound thereby examines the psychological and physical effect of slavery on the human condition in the past and the present. An examination of the installation of Bound in the Open Eye Gallery in Liverpool provides a means of assessing the success of this collection
The appeal of the exhibition is that it places the viewer in association with the artworks which force a performance from the viewer themselves. It situates the viewer into worlds which they may not have had access to before, by communicating scenes of enslavement, exploitation, crime, and repression. The work of a number of artists operate to disorientate the viewer from a stable present by depicting the ways in which slavery in various forms continues to shape and inform societies. The first piece which confronts the visitor is the video installation Vervoerd Speaks by Penny Siopis. By combining documentary footage of 1960s South Africa with a recorded speech by Hendrik Verwoerd, a key figure in the creation of Apartheid, Siopis has created a haunting, powerful depiction of complacency. As images of white families and individuals are shown enjoying the opportunities of the nation, signs of 'whites only' appear as Verwoerd propounds the arguments for segregation. The enjoyment of life by those in the footage can only be understood in relation to the oppression endured by the absent 'other', the majority black population of South Africa. The installation serves as a stark reminder of the ease at which groups benefit and acquiesce in the suppression of others. This message is reiterated further in the photography display taken from the series Bound by History by Martin Effert. The artist has photographed the sites of the thousands of Nazi labour camps which were once located across Europe. The remains of some of these camps can still be seen in the photographs, some are now obscured by the growth of vegetation, whilst settlements are also visible in the backdrop of others. The photographs operate as memorials to those who suffered in these camps but they also stick in the consciousness of present-day societies. They are reminders of a trauma which is still recent, they act to disturb the present by revealing a history which might be too easily brushed over. Their proximity to towns and villages raise questions again of collusion and responsibility by inquiring how easily such crimes against humanity can be perpetrated.
The photographs of Juul Hondius in Layers Istanbul Background and Rachel Wilberforce in the series Missing both use notions of past, present and future exploitation and abuse. Hondius uses the distanced perspective in photographs to give a weight of expectation to the images; conflict, violence and repression all seem to await the subjects of the images. This appears as inevitable as the viewer is incapable of saving the people in the photographs from their fate. A distinct sense of helplessness is apprehended as the lives of others unfurls. Rather than being merely a voyeuristic experience the photographs demand that a moral context is placed for them by the viewer. The absence of assistance and the overwhelming sense that it is desired reinforce the belief that something should be done. This is certainly apparent in the images taken by Wilberforce, which focus on crime-scenes related to the sexual exploitation and forced labour of women and children in Britain. Alleyways, staircases and massage parlours are the settings for these crimes, the victims and perpetrators are absent, drawing the viewer to fill the scenes with a sense of injustice. Again, the apparent absence of action against these abuses serves not to dishearten but to disturb the viewer into provoking a sense of outrage.
The video installation of Santiago Sierra, The Corridor of the People's House is certainly one of the most disabling pieces in the exhibition. The installation is taken from Sierra's original display in Bucharest, which used three long corridors, lined with 396 women who repeated the line, 'give me money' to visitors as they walked through. The almost Kafkaesque suffocation of the corridor and the confrontational nature of the exhibition forces viewers to undergo an experience which breaks down any desensitised aspects of their life to realise the needs of the women. The viewer cannot escape or walk-by and forget. Again, complacency is brought to the fore as the artist seemingly asks the visitor, 'how many times can you hear pleas for help and ignore them.' Such questions are repeated in the works by Maja Bajevic in Le Voyage and Yasmeen Al Awadi, Stone Breakers. Both these exhibitions portray the exploitation of labour and the choices and conditions the global market has placed individuals in; a global market which brings prosperity for some and hardships for the majority. Le Voyage is a film which depicts scenes from city-life in Casablanca and which ends with migrant labourers preparing to journey to Europe, whilst Stone Breakers creates a scene of hardship and exploitation using migrant labourers in Dubai. Whilst these pieces portray the hardships inflicted upon others, Oreet Ashery in Oh Jerusalem and Emily Jacir in Crossing Surda, both highlight the divisions in society which are caused by prejudice, fear and hatred. Ashery's film features an Arab man and an orthodox Jew who are locked unknowingly into similar lives, each obsessed over a map of Jerusalem but each oblivious to the other's existence. Jacir uses her daily walk to work in Ramallah, through the various security checkpoints, to illustrate the boundaries that are constructed between the 'self' and 'the other.'
Bound is a quite unique collection of artworks which convey similar themes of the dangers of exclusion and complacency. It provides viewers with a space in which they must undergo a challenge to their morality, their perspectives and their awareness to the issues in the world. Its contribution to the bicentenary is its capacity to broaden the horizons of visitors beyond that of the historical importance of abolitionism and the transatlantic slave trade towards a negotiation of how people live today, the choices they make and the actions they take.
'Bound' provokes a variety of questions regarding the manner in which we can confront the past with the present. If you wish to contribute your opinion to this article or the exhibition email the 1807 Commemorated project team - firstname.lastname@example.org