If there’s anything that William Scarbrough’s recent performance at Michaelis Galleries – Weight of the World – emphasised, it is the schism between the reception of mediated and corporeal violence. Taking place as part of the month-long ‘Earth Bound’ project, the performance involved an overwhelming 30 minute video projection of horrific sourced imagery (including executions, holocaust footage, slaughterhouses, nuclear detonations, and all manner of brutal violence) interposed with a soundtrack of fragmented dialogue and sound bites. This was projected onto a large disk which Scarbrough held up in a manner reminiscent of Atlas in Greek mythology.
While the macabre imagery of Scarbrough’s collage of violence was undoubtedly unsettling, the violence on screen initially sat at a safe remove from reality. At the risk of generalising, imagery such as this is more ubiquitous than ever in the media and mass entertainment and is no doubt made more palatable by desensitisation. Disrupting this snug remove however, was a collaborator who periodically entered the performance to administer a single cut to the artist’s left scapula before returning to the shadowy sidelines. As the performance wore on, these cuts produced a series of neat trails of blood running down the artist’s back. This, combined with Scarbrough’s visibly increasing anguish, served to instil a kind of empathy in the viewer with the suffering depicted in the footage; a reminder that our own bodies are no less susceptible to experiencing pain and harm than those depicted. Needless to say, the performance became increasingly uncomfortable, claustrophobic and visceral. By the end, I was well in need of fresh air.
Providing a slightly different perspective, John Nankin recently posted an insightful Facebook reflection on Weight of the World which I quote (by permission) in abridged form:
I don’t usually choose to witness images of violence & mutilation, especially torture, torment, and other scenes of what can be called the asymmetric application of violence. One can work up many principled arguments for, or against, the various kinds of representations of violence that we are exposed to, or avoid, in news media, in entertainment and in art and literature. My avoidance has more to do with my own squeamishness than with a theoretical position. I suffered from what is now called PTSD, between the ages of 19 and 40. The process of growing out of the condition took another five years, at least. So, I have been monitoring and controlling my inputs for years, despite a reputation for recklessness. I don’t believe that catharsis or abreaction have any curative usefulness for those in a similar situation to mine. […]
This is a roundabout way of saying that I attended, witnessed (and – as a spectator- participated in) William Scarbrough’s performance ‘The Weight of the World’, at the Michaelis Gallery on Tuesday night. An hour long projection of a jump cut montage of images of the worst violence imaginable (or “that could be sourced” because it is all happening out there in the world, all the time), with a soundtrack of layered fragments culled from news, popular music, propaganda, documentary and advertising, a soundtrack that supported, or undercut, critiqued or simply collided with the stream of visual shock. […]
I am an expert at watching this kind of thing through my splayed fingers, at hiding the sudden horrors from penetrating my consciousness.
Setting aside my subjective peculiarities, it was a privilege to see work of this intensity and commitment. It was perfectly conceived and executed.