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It would be hard to accuse Polish artist Krzysztof Wodiczko of being timid or unambitious. His works, which often utilize the exterior of entire buildings—including a former munitions factory and a cathedral—focus on what has become a highly politicized issue: the battlefields of the Middle East and their casualties. Wodiczko’s focus has been on the dialogue of veterans; he will often project video of the veterans speaking, while broadcasting their words. His most recent work, created for and shown at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in Boston, is smaller in scale, but does not depart from the frank manner in which he addresses war. Wodiczko attempts to make his audiences understand the nature of war by inundating them with emotionally charged visual and auditory material. He comes tantalizingly close by plastering safe and static public buildings with the frightening chaos of a foreign war, but his aggressive approach overwhelms the substance of his pieces.
Wodiczko’s piece, “...Out of Here: The Veterans Project,” on display until March 28, consists of two parts. The first, installed in a small dark room, contains screens that show similar installations Wodiczko has created. These works consist of video testimonies from veterans that are amplified and projected on various forms of architecture.
Wodiczko relies predominantly on documentary in his work. Most of the dialogue he presents comes directly from veterans. This technique, in effect, positions Wodiczko in the role of translator—by projecting the veterans’ words and playing them at full volume, the artist focuses on, but does not profess to change, their messages. The choice Wodiczko makes to amplify the voices with loudspeakers and display the videos on public buildings is deliberate. His confrontational style unavoidably instills in the stories a larger political message that the veterans may not have originally intended.
The crux of the exhibition, however, is Wodiczko’s new work, housed in the larger of the two spaces in the ICA. The room, which displays images projected onto the walls, gives viewers the experience of standing in a warehouse. The majority of the room is black, with high windows projected on three sides. Shrouded in darkness, the viewers can only see what would plausibly be visible through these windows. At the beginning of the installation, the frosted glass panes reveal only a blue sky.
Inside the room, viewers become witnesses to an unfolding story, played out through the windows and accompanying sound. The scene begins uneventfully, but ominously. Pundit-like voices discussing a Middle Eastern war flood the room, and then sounds of everyday life replace the conversation. The shadow of a soccer ball flits by the projected window. Other voices chatter in Arabic while music plays in the background. The scene seems unexceptional, but the shadow of a helicopter signals the chaos that is to come.
Suddenly, American soldiers arrive, and it becomes apparent that they suspect that dangerous forces dwell inside the warehouse. Cacophony erupts—the soldiers shatter the windows and blow holes into the sides of the building. The volume of the audio element deafens. Just as abruptly, the commotion ends, and sounds of street life resume, as if oblivious to the passing turmoil. Only the twisted metal of the windows serves as a sign of the skirmish that just occurred.
Wodiczko tries to achieve verisimilitude in this piece with visual and auditory effects, without relying on his usual documentary measures. Yet he still encounters the problem of exploitation. By creating his own narrative and dialogue, he projects his perception of the defining characteristics of war onto the audience.
What is most frustrating about this piece is how close Wodiczko’s depiction of war comes to feeling real. He manages to truly immerse the audience, particularly with the absence of apparent gore, but the dialogue he pairs with the images is ineffective. The men talking seem as if they are reading off a script; what they say is a clichéd version of what one might expect soldiers to say, and the way that they say it is stilted rather than realistic.
The visual cues also take on a mechanical quality. It becomes clear that the images are computer-generated, and because of this realization, the explosions and smoke seem more suitable to a video game.
The ICA introduces Wodiczko as an artist who has expanded the definition of a veteran to refer to any victim of war. With “...Out of Here: The Veterans Project,” Wodiczko attempts to transform the audience into veterans. He transports them into the center of the kind of confrontation that is an everyday reality for many. However, because audience members remain protected by the walls of the warehouse environment, and by the fact that they cannot directly participate in the narrative, they remain as spectators.
The full immersion technique of this piece serves its function in the beginning, when it is simple and understated. However, as soon as the attack from the soldiers begins, the work veers into cliché. Wodiczko is at his best when he manipulates images and scale, instilling simple images with significance. His choice to project closed fists on a government building carries much more weight than the booming loudspeaker that often accompanies these images. Wodiczko shouts with all his strength to turn the audience’s attention to the horror of war, but the terrible images and stories he portrays hardly need amplification.
—Staff writer Rebecca J. Levitan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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