One is surprised by the scope of “Crime Unseen” at the Museum of Contemporary Photography. It spans all three floors of the gallery space and presents the work of eight contemporary American artists and a selection of news images from the Chicago History Museum. Perhaps it is not the scope, but the subject matter — the revisiting of past crime scenes by artists, and an implicit rethinking of the power of photography as evidence — which seems to catch one off guard with its ability to occupy and engage a large art space. Of course, this discovery is an intentional component of the curator, Karen Irvine’s case, who frames the exhibition as “a rallying cry against forgetting,” the forgetting being the flip-side of our total fascination with murder.
Let us consider the evidence.
The first two rooms of the exhibition are devoted to artists that directly explore the de-contextualization of the crime scene in the indiscriminate hands of time and its accomplices — nature and refurnishing. Deborah Luster and Angela Strassheim present us with parking lots and living rooms, once the domain of yellow tape and photojournalism, the subjectivity of which is accentuated by the artists’ aesthetic touch. The images themselves do not illuminate the ghosts of atrocities they capture, and it thus becomes apparent that the message of the exhibition vanishes without the accompanying text. The issue of vanishing — the disappearing memory of crimes as their spectacle flashes and withers — is of key concern for all the artists and their unique subject matter. We read that the black-and-white photo of a wood cabin in the middle of an empty warehouse is Richard Barnes’ “Unabomber 01”, 1998, and that the image is of Ted Kaczynski’s home transplanted from rural Montana to the FBI headquarters. The adjacent photograph of an empty rectangle of land, its flourishing in grassy oblivion delineated by a fence, also comes into context through the labels. The artists are obviously using the gory allusions to expose the objective/subjective trickery of our double agent — the camera. Perhaps this exposé is redundant, after all, even Susan Sontag in her 1973 book On Photography acknowledges “That photographic recording is always, potentially, a means of control was already recognized when such powers were in their infancy” (after which she quotes Delacroix from 1850).
There are two series of works that draw you in for closer examination. The eighteen photographs from the Chicago Daily News archive of 1900-1930, on loan from the Chicago History Museum, are fascinating. Framed, small, and thoroughly aged, the photographs of the nascent documentation of the infamous Chicago crime world are the stuff that still feeds the entertainment industry and keeps captivating our imagination. There is an excellent photo of Al Capone arriving to trial with his posse of lawyers from 1931. Another lovely image, sepia with age, of a wooden table in some sort of a barn, topped with bottles, canisters and a strange mink garment — it is the evidence from a major drug bust, cocaine and other drug containers, arranged on display by the police, 1908.
The second engaging series is the work of Corinne May Botz. The artist takes close-up shots of doll-houses which were originally made for the forensic police training in 1940- 50’s. The photos are sweet and thus mildly disturbing. They depict the rooms of a utopian doll-house — florid wallpaper, a full stocked kitchen, a comfy sitting room — and are adorned with a hopscotch splatter of brown stains or a bottle of liquor rolling on the floor. Some of the images have doll victims laying face down on the carpet, or covered in blood under the covers of their miniature beds. The perversity of the detail is oddly entertaining.
The only work in the exhibition that speaks directly of victims is the video project by the artist Taryn Simon, occupying a modest space at the end of the staircase. The artist worked with several former inmates — some on death row — but after serving several years in prison, were later acquitted through DNA evidence. The videos are excerpts from interviews with the men, who are mostly middle-aged, and are conducted in places that are somehow tied to their conviction. “The Innocents,” 2004, initially exhibited at the Gagosian Gallery in London in 2004, has real emotional resonance. The stories of the men are powerful, and effectively challenge the notion of victim-hood. The accusations that destroyed their lives are never redeemed, and the men continue to live in their shadow, though proven innocent. There is nothing that can be done to save the lives of people who are gone, which the rest of the exhibition honors. Counterbalancing the exhibitions’ defeatism, the draw to action is particularly heartfelt.
On the third floor artists Christopher Dawson and Krista Wortendyke offer closing remarks. The former presents work that reveals the monstrosity of the technological occupation by television crews of crime scenes. Among other works, Wortendyke in “Killing Season: Chicago” shows a website that documents the site of murders in Chicago with captions of basic information about the victim.
After seeing the last evidence in particular, I ask myself whether this exhibition — having dug up and revisited what we have collectively buried — has reincarnated the facts of these committed crimes, their victims and memory? I am not sure that the appeal is qualitatively different from what it might have been before. In many ways, the exhibition continues the spectacle, which some of its artists critique, by giving it new details; blood stains that are now only visible with Blue Start forensic technology, familiar street names, a victim of the same age as me. Nonetheless, it is as if by critiquing the sensationalism and then the ephemerality of the photojournalism that accompanies a gruesome crime, the exhibition simply restores it to a more dignified place of observation. Knowing it is art, it is indeed less perverse to let your imagination go wild while contemplating stains of blood.
through January 15, 2011
Museum of Contemporary Photography
600 S. Michigan