Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg
26.01 – 04.03.2017
A man wearing a black balaclava declaims loudly in Arabic to a small crowd of men somewhere in the Middle East who watch as the camera pans over them. A hooded young man, his hands bound behind his back, is dragged by men with guns into a nearby building. The scene cuts to the view from the top of the building where the young man is unceremoniously thrown to the ground. When his body lands it’s hard to tell whether he’s alive or not as almost immediately the men in the crowd grab stones from a pile on the ground and begin to throw them at him. Some of the stones turn red from the blood of the victim and soon his inert body is shown being wrapped in a blood-spattered white shroud in preparation for burial. All of this takes place to the sounds of what is presumably Islamic praise music. It’s a slick ten minute production, forming part of the propaganda put out by ISIS in countries like Iraq and Syria and what it shows is a chillingly barbaric ancient method used by the organisation for dealing with those guilty of the sin of homosexuality.
The only reason I watched this video is because, before seeing Clive van den Berg’s new exhibition ‘A Pile of Stones’, I was unaware of the existence of these gruesome adverts for ISIS’ intolerance. For two years van den Berg has been watching these “spectacularisations” of ISIS’ barbarity, wondering about the nameless men thrown to their deaths, the groupthink of the men who stone them and ways in which the artist might attempt to give some sort of dignity to those guilty of nothing more than the crime of love.
For decades van den Berg’s practice as an artist has addressed the issue of love and in particular the attitudes towards men who love other men. He has also operated concurrently in the world of museum design and memorialisation and his new exhibition combines elements from both of these worlds in a sometimes uneven but overall effective attempt to draw attention to a terrifyingly inhumane practice that defies the belief of those of us who consider ourselves to be urbane citizens of the globalised, interconnected world. Problem is that for all the ways it may open up the world to us, the Internet also serves as a means for opening us up to the brutal, horrific small-mindedness of so many sections of society and in the age of Donald Trump….well, God help us.
While the videos are the starting point for van den Berg’s show, they are absent from the walls of the Goodman and this is a conscious choice – for to show them would only give them a significance and a voice that they do not deserve. Rather the sculptures, paintings and drawings on show provide a creatively ruminative response to the horrors condoned by ISIS’ all too easily accessible snuff films.
The central piece of the exhibition is a sculptural installation titled A Pile of Stones which is a kind of obelisk consisting of various sculpted figures representing different elements of the gruesome ritual – those who throw stones, those who are stoned and those who watch – which requires the viewer to actively overcome any cold objective observation by looking around, through, above and below in order to fully appreciate it’s multi-faceted dissection. Van den Berg has said that he chose wood and other painstaking materials to work with in order to mimic his own slow working through of the violence of the videos and their intellectual consequences. The attention to details evident in this central piece, as well as a series of additional sculptures, bears this out.
The separate sculptures each titled with the word Murder followed by the location of the crimes in Syria and Iraq depict the bodies of victims in various stages of falling towards their fates and it’s hard not to make connections with the more heteronormative, pro-democracy, heart-tugging Richard Drew image of the Falling Man. Two sides of a coin tarnished by the extreme enactment of religious fundamentalism – one beamed around the world as the ultimate symbol of the brutality of jihad, the other equally appalling but less broadcast because of the stigma still attached to the idea of homosexuality. Falling also brings to mind, ironically, the opening of the quintessential perceived Western spit-in-the-face to Islam – Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses in which the two protagonists tumble toward the earth from a plane.
Anyway – to get back to van den Berg, the point of the show is that by refusing to rebroadcast ISIS’ videos and deal with them by breaking down elements into carefully constructed objects – the nameless and wrongly remembered (for their sins rather than their humanity) victims of the celebration of ignorance are relocated in an empathetic, humanity-focussed space. By focussing on a range of different actors from the victims to the executioners to those who seem to pause for a second before throwing their rocks – van den Berg highlights the discrepancies between the “God is great and his word is final” meta-narrative which ISIS seeks to propagate and the very real conundrums that tear at the psyches of human beings facing impossibly inhumane choices under the sword of philistinism.