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Torture as Portrayed through Jenny Holzer's "Protect/Protect"

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Jenny Holzer's "Protect/Protect" leaves the Whitney at the end of this month. Of the myriad of cultural offerings now available in New York City, none is more disarmingly pertinent.

As Marty Kaplan recently argued here, it may well be the artists and writers who most insightfully reveal the torture story in all of its complexities and contradictions. Holzer's exhibit is a powerful beginning. I first visited the exhibit on April 17, coincidentally the same day the New York Times reported the release of memos by the Bush Justice Department detailing torture tactics. There is nothing protective or protecting about the exhibit and its message is neither didactic nor simplistic. Now is the time to see it.

Its title derives from one of the exhibited paintings, a purple silkscreened map of Iraq from the United States Central Command's 2002 presentation of plans for the Iraq war, pegged with strategy pointers commanding, "Protect," "Suppress," "Exploit." Like many other works in the exhibit, the nakedness of military language is in concert with Holzer's own pointedly terse style and raises essential questions: What information is the public "protected" from and why? How does the government determine what type of information is worth protecting, what areas of a country? When does protection become harm?

Holzer reveals the voices of torture victims, voices the Times recently argued we need to hear much more often. One of the Redaction paintings, a series based on torture documents declassified under the Freedom of Information Act from 2004-2009, shows the sworn statement by a 20-year-old Iraqi student, son of a former Fedayeen Lieutenant. According to the statement, American soldiers put a bag over his head, kicked him in the head, and broke his jaw. When he regained consciousness, the soldiers told the student that he had not been beaten, but had merely fallen down. He was then transported from Mosul to Baghdad without treatment.

But Holzer is also interested in how definitions of torture, victim and victimizer overlap. A painting in the same series shows a letter from a distraught parent begging Army officials that his son not be court marshaled for the unnamed crimes he has committed. Another is a report from a soldier implicated in a massacre, who recounts his killing of a child ambiguously enough as to make the viewer wonder whether it he might have possibly acted out of self-defense. "Green Purple Cross" and "Blue Cross" are interlacing messages between lovers or family members, ("I cover you/I shelter you/I run from you"), reminders of how we privately torment ourselves and each other.

Holzer also reinforces how much public information actually remains private even after it is declassified. In the austere white room filled with the predominantly black and white Redaction series, the first works we see are two Malevich-like black squares. Complete redaction has transformed the document into a work of abstraction. Some secrets remain secret, it seems to say.

But other documents, slightly redacted, are overwhelming in their power. One is an email exchange between army officials on August 14, 2003. The first message begins, "The gloves are coming off gentlemen regarding these detainees. _____________ has made it clear we want these individuals broken."

Part of the response:

As for "the gloves need to come off" we need to take a deep breath and remember who we are. Those gloves are most definitely not based on Cold War or World War II enemies -- they are based on clearly established standards of international law to which we as signatories are in part the originators. These in turn derive from practices commonly accepted as morally correct, the so-called "usages of war." It comes down to standards of right and wrong -- something we cannot just put aside when we find it inconvenient, any more than we can declare that we will "take no prisoners" and therefore shoot those who surrender simply because we find prisoners inconvenient. Bottom line: We are American soldiers, heirs of a long tradition of staying on the high ground. We need to stay there.

The author of the email above includes Psalm 24:3-8 after his name, which is unsurprisingly blocked out. Interestingly, so is the psalm.

The exhibit is as physically rigorous as it is intellectually and emotionally demanding. Streams of text flash and glide across the floor in the installation "For Chicago." Monument (2008) is a Tatlinesque tower that flashes Holzer's truisms ("Humanism is obsolete," for example), forcing the eye to take in more than one statement at a time, and to focus on two or more simultaneously. Even resting on one of the two benches rouses moral ambiguity. Each is constructed out of granite and has a statement lettered on its seat in government font. One reads:

It takes a while before you can step over inert bodies and go ahead with what you were trying to do.

Other texts are in eerie dialogue with Holzer's brutally laconic style. Comments by a US soldier about a detainee suspected of Al Qaeda connections read: "He is bad. He is bad, very bad. I think in addition to all approaches, fear of broomstick in the ass should be used. He is bad."

But it is perhaps the last room that possesses the most symbolic resonance. A row of redacted hand prints of US Army soldiers accused of crimes line the wall. Some of the prints are fully blocked out, some have single lines outlining the fingers, as if to emphasize the bones beneath the flesh. Still others are redacted with squiggles. All are periodically illuminated by the cyclical flashes of light from the LED display, "Purple 2008," comprised of text from US Army reports of detainee torture. The redaction obviously protects the accused, but there also exists a sinister sense of negation of the individual and individual responsibility.

Michael Kinsley recently argued that the American public needs to take partial blame for allowing the torture of detainees to occur. "If you're going to punish people for condoning torture," he wrote, "you'd better include the American citizenry itself," The sixty two million people who voted for Bush in 2004, as well as the rest of us who had access to articles about water boarding as early as May, 2004 are at fault, he says.

Some accountability is ours: we must take the time to read the available documents and not only in the (dis)comfort of Holzer's exhibit at the Whitney. They are available from the ACLU and on the website of the National Security Archive, a nonpartisan, nongovernmental organization. Perhaps then there would be hope that one of Holzer's truisms would become an accurate rather than bitterly ironic description of the American public: "You're a watchdog, a protector of things decent."

Kinsley also argues that prosecuting government officials would not do the full job because "the real culprits" -- the voting public -- would be let off the hook and prosecuting them "would not serve justice or historical memory." On the contrary, those who argue against prosecution need to cease protection of those who must be held accountable. Embedded within such protection is the desire to minimize responsibility.

Last week it was reported that the Justice Department lawyers who penned the opinions that allowed for torture methods such as waterboarding, wall standing and shackling to take place will most likely not face prosecution. We should be demanding the release of the report by the Office of Professional Responsibility, the internal branch of the Justice Department that suggested that prosecution would not take place. According to the New York Times, a version may be made public later this month.

After the memos were released, Obama said, "As a general view, I think that we should be looking forward and not backwards." "Protect/Protect" reminds us with ferocious intensity that we desperately need to look backwards in order to assess the present and more carefully determine the future. Justice cannot be served by "moving on," unless we are moving on to a truth commission to examine the torture documents of the past eight years as argued for by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Pat Leahy (D-Vt.). As one of Holzer's truisms points out: "People are responsible for what they do unless they are insane."