This is an essay I wrote for the catalog for an exhibit of Luc Tuymans' work curated by Mack McFarland and Modou Dieng at Pacific Northwest College of Art, "Luc Tuymans: Graphic Work -- Kristalnacht to Technicolor."
They call the secret prisons outside the United States black sites. They call the detainees whose names they don’t record ghosts. They call torture techniques that leave no physical marks clean.
Gaskamer (Gas Chamber) was the first Luc Tuymans painting I ever saw. I found it when researching the torture photographs taken at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. I wanted to know – I still want to know – if it is possible to look at violence, to represent violence, without participating in it, and this painting showed me how that might be done. Based on a watercolor Tuymans made while visiting the site of the Dachau concentration camp, Gaskamer looks, at first, like any other room, with its corner door, with its dark spots on the ceiling that could be recessed lights. Until you read the title. Until you see the drain.
Torturers often use what’s easy to find – sheets, gas masks, police batons, light bulbs, buckets, cardboard boxes, water, ice, blankets, hoses – because if anyone were to come looking for torture devices, they wouldn’t see any.[i] You can hide a blanket and a cardboard box in plain sight. You can let ice melt, point the hose toward a garden, fill showers with gas. You can wheel the body of a ghost detainee you beat to death out of the prison on a gurney, covered and hooked up to an IV, so the other prisoners will think you’re getting him the medical help he needs, so they won’t realize he’s dead and start a riot.
Of Gaskamer Tuymans said, “The room remains incredible to the end. Its purpose deception. The room deceives, the objects deceive.”[ii] Our New Quarters is also a painting of a place meant to deceive. It is based on a Nazi-era postcard of Theresienstadt, which Tuymans saw in a reproduction of the sketchbook belonging to Alfred Kantor, a concentration camp survivor. Theresienstadt was a collection center for deportations, housing prisoners between camps, who were given postcards like this one to send into the world, false images designed to create false ideas about what the Nazis were doing.[iii] When reports about the death camps began to emerge at the end of 1943, the Nazis presented Theresienstadt to the International Red Cross. Before the Red Cross committee arrived, the Nazis painted buildings and renovated barracks, opened fake stores and a coffee house, a bank and a school. They planted flower gardens.[iv] When the Red Cross left, deportations resumed. More than 140,000 Jews passed through Theresienstadt; more than 30,000 people died there; more than 90,000 were deported to be murdered.[v]
In Tuymans’ Kristallnacht, the mobs of November 1938 carrying flames to burn down stores owned by Jews are represented not by fire, not by torches that lit up the night sky, but by dark horizontal lines across the page, similar to the black lines of Our New Quarters. With these echoed lines – like words on a page, like sentences – Tuymans makes visible the real work the buildings of Our New Quarters were designed to hide. The lines of people carrying torches to burn stores to the ground become the lines of the floors and ceilings of buildings made to hold people, who, like their stores, will be burned.
In Precarious Life, Judith Butler writes, “Representation must not only fail, but must show its failure.”[vi] For Butler, “it is our inability to see what we see that is also of critical concern.”[vii] Tuymans’ work enacts this inability to see. There is a doubleness to his representations of the unrepresentable: Tuymans shows both how representations (the postcards, the newly planted gardens) can be used to hide violence, and how representations (Gaskamer, Kristallnacht, Our New Quarters) can render hidden violence visible, even as they protect the victims of that violence from the viewer’s gaze, a protection needed because the viewer’s gaze (or refusal to see) is part of the violence.
Just before the camps were liberated, Nazi soldiers planted trees to hide what they’d done.[viii] All that killing, all that burning, then shovels, then feet on shovels to push them deep inside the earth, making sure the hole was big enough to give the roots room, spacing the trees evenly so they could grow, their branches reaching toward the light.
A new set of torture photographs – 50,000 of them – has been smuggled out of Syria. The digital images document the deaths of at least 11,000 people.
Every day there are choices to make – to look or to look away – and it is still not clear to me what is the right choice to make or when to make it. I don’t know which bodies ask to be seen and which ask to be hidden.
The Nazis also interned the Roma in concentration camps. One of the doctors at Auschwitz, Josef Mengele, killed some of their children and took out their eyes so he could inject a chemical dye into them to see if he could change their color from brown to blue. In Die Wiedergutmachung (Reparations), Tuymans painted these eyes.[ix] Wiedergutmachung literally means “making good again,” and in his painting, the eyes look out, still waiting.
[i] Rejali, Darius M. Torture and Democracy. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007: 18.
[ii] Madeleine Grynaztejn, and Helen Molesworth, eds. Luc Tuymans. New York: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and Distributed Art Publishers, Inc., 2010: 76. The editors are using a Luc Tuymans’ quote from an essay titled “Disenchantment” (1991), translated by Shaun Whiteside and found in Luc Tuymans, by Ulrich Loock et al., Phaidon (2003).
[iii] Madeleine Grynaztejn, and Helen Molesworth, eds. Luc Tuymans. New York: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and Distributed Art Publishers, Inc., 2010: 72.
[vi] Butler, Judith. Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence. New York: Verso, 2004: 144.
[vii] Butler, Judith. Frames of War: When is Life Grievable. New York: Verso, 2009: 100.
[viii] Baer, Ulrich. Spectral Evidence: The Photography of Trauma. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2002: 77.
[ix] Madeleine Grynaztejn, and Helen Molesworth, eds. Luc Tuymans. New York: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and Distributed Art Publishers, Inc., 2010: 89.