by Alison Hugill // Oct. 29, 2021
In two impressive parallel exhibitions currently running at Halle für Kunst Steiermark in Graz, American artists Kevin Jerome Everson and Doreen Garner are said to draw attention to political discourses in the US, specifically the lives of Afro-Americans past and present. While this delineation of the work paints a broad stroke over their mutual artistic interests, at the heart of these two shows is a focus on reclamation, both of the mundane, everyday experience of Black Americans and as a form of healing from long-standing, colonial trauma. Everson’s approach provides a subtle, poetic access to this overarching theme, through a series of essayistic video works presented under the exhibition title ‘Recover.’ Meanwhile, in ‘Steal, Kill and Destroy: A Thief Who Intended Them Maximum Harm,’ Garner uses more overt means to confront the deeply violent history of racism and colonialism, as it has manifested in the systematic exploitation of Black bodies through medical experimentation.
Everson’s exhibition takes its name from a video work presented in the show, ‘Recovery’ (2020). Though all of the works in the exhibition are shot on analog film, this one is uniquely presented in the space using a 16mm projector, its characteristic, almost soothing rattle reverberating throughout the entire exhibition space. The dizzying film depicts a young Black man who is undergoing a vertigo test as part of his flight training for the US armed forces. Shot from the waist up, his body turns rapidly in circles while he is asked to describe how he feels at intervals and perform various exercises. The camera is still as the body rotates, and we see the changing expressions on the boy’s face. Though the film does not give any heavy-handed political outlook, there’s ample time to reflect on this increasingly young-looking face and the very physical sacrifices he is making for his country. In many ways, this piece mirrors the violence present in Garner’s works, but is packaged entirely differently. The young man in the video has made a choice to join the armed forces, for reasons unknown and despite the historical and ongoing systematic racism inherent in the US and surviving notions of the American Dream. Nevertheless, Everson is anything but clear about his intentions with this depiction. The title, used to encompass the whole exhibition, speaks to the recovery of one’s senses from the disorienting experience, but also hints at the focus on reclamation present throughout his works. How to recover these everyday narratives—fraught with undertones of institutionalized racism, but also in many cases simply joyful, intimate, unspectacular—from a reading that is beyond their poetic nature?
In another video work titled ‘May June July’ (2020), presented in the back room of the exhibition, a roller skater in yellow shorts and a trucker hat is filmed in motion against the yellow-painted letters on the pavement of the newly re-named “Black Lives Matter Plaza” in Washington, DC. Acting as a kind of time capsule or historical record of this precise political season (summer 2020), which took place only a year ago, the piece similarly offers no hard conclusions but raises many questions. How has the struggle against police brutality been commodified here? At the same time, as with many of Everson’s other works, there is a playfulness and joy that pervades and complicates the narrative—the skater, Jahleel Gardner, moves with ease across the pavement while young Black Americans are seen dancing and celebrating in the background. There is a sense of victory and hope to be read in this work, even if, watching in the present, it’s clear that the time since has not revealed much systemic change.
In the basement of the Halle für Kunst, we pass through a carefully curated ‘Study Room,’ providing a table full of reading materials, books, and printed interviews and articles relating to the themes tackled in the two exhibitions. It’s a much-needed interstitial space to process the immense thought behind the two artists’ works, and to reframe one’s outlook for a tonally very different experience in Garner’s show. Inspired by the influential text ‘Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present’ (2008) by Harriet Washington, Garner’s exhibition deals with a brutal history, of suffering and mutilation imposed on Black bodies in America. On a far wall, visible from the Study Room, a large metal encasement, fitted with bright red neon lights, frames a collection of organ-like objects, hanging from meat hooks. Even from afar, the image is severe.
Moving closer, the objects in this piece—titled ‘Red Rack of Those Ravaged and Unconsenting’ (2018)—reveal themselves to be highly detailed composites of brown flesh, hands, breasts, marked by red-textiled open wounds with beaded and pearled innards cascading outward. Small pins stick out from the flesh like prickly hairs. There’s no mistaking the relationship to the body in these works, and its ruthless disfiguration. But it’s not only Black bodies depicted here. In a recent work, entitled ‘THE PALE ONE’ (2020), Garner addresses the colonizing white body, the perpetrator of this violence enacted in the name of modern medicine. Framed in a sickly neon green light, the white, crusted creature resembles a gaping, barbed wire-toothed mouth, and reveals a vaginal opening deep inside its throat. The outside of the cavernous beast—a personification of the biblical image of death riding a white horse—is clad with artificial white hair and Swarovski pearls. Unlike Everson’s experimental work, the references and intended effects are unmistakable here.
In a group of even newer works, Garner shifts gears slightly with the production of several flags hanging in metal frames. Following the national symbols of the UK and Portugal, each one is characterized by a disturbing pattern of lesions and flesh wounds. The marks and blisters are meant to represent diseases like smallpox, syphilis and scarlet fever, alluding to the spread of illness and viruses that was rampant in the colonial era, and persists today, disproportionately affecting marginalized communities. A mirror placed behind the flags reveals the backs of the canvases, which show a topography of dark flesh, similar to that present her central ‘Red Rack’ work.
As we move from the experimental poetics of Everson’s films to the very visible trauma of Garner’s installations, a certain uneasiness arises in trying to equate their work. While Garner’s exhibition focuses on a harsh history of suffering, Everson’s is underlined with a kind of joyfulness, if not outright optimism. There is no monolithic “Black American experience” to be garnered here, but two stark artistic approaches that each point to an interest in reclaiming narratives—whether from the quiet violence of the white cinematic gaze or the grim underbelly of medical racism—with a view to collective healing.
This article is part of our feature topic of ‘Repair.’ To read more from this topic, click here.
HALLE FÜR KUNST Steiermark
Kevin Jerome Everson: ‘Recover’
Doreen Garner: ‘Steal, Kill and Destroy: A Thief Who Intended Maximum Harm’
Exhibition: Sept. 3 – Nov. 14, 2021
Burgring 2, 8010 Graz, Austria, click here for map