Stockholm Syndrome–while the phrase might cause an emotional shudder for some, others might take it with a grain of skepticism. “I’d never fall under the spell of my captors,” these naysayers would argue. Therein lies the syndrome’s insidious nature–the shell shock slowly morphs into acceptance, so subtly that you aren’t aware of the shifting sands that gird your sense of reality. For artist Larry Cook, this acquiescence is personal. He spies it in his community and experiences it in the reactions of his African-American peers. And it incites him. But rather than lash out in rage, he confronts this complex web of lies, denials and wishful thinking head-on with emotionally-laden works that disrupt so-called “truths” we consider as God-given. Indeed, titling his current solo show at Hamiltonian Gallery Stockholm Syndrome is simultaneously a wake-up call and a call to arms.
Given the intensity of his siren call, I was surprised at how sedate the gallery felt walking into the exhibition for the first time. Staged as vignettes running the length of the gallery’s main walls, one first encounters a series of mirrors on the right and what appears to be framed, black parchment on the left. Towards the rear of the gallery a two-channel video streams continuously, but its content is still undecipherable; the far end of the gallery is bathed in mysterious florescent light. The materials are simplistic, yielding little clue as to their meanings. These are intentional considerations Cook explained during a recent artist’s talk held at the gallery. As a self-proclaimed conceptual artist, his choice and placement of materials is solely in service to his ideas rather than the creation of a “beautiful” object in and of itself.
The simple nature of these materials–the lack of ornamentation or adornment–heighten the emotional tension lying just below the surface. The mirrors used in The making of an identity series appear mundane, but standing in front of them with the companion headphones over one’s ears is a painfully poignant experience. A whip lashes out, cutting through air into skin; a man whimpers, speaking his rightful name: Kunta Kinte. “Master gave you a name… and it’s going to be yours to the day you die,” speaks an ominous voice. The sequence repeats over and over; I’m off balance and don’t want to listen. I can’t look myself in the eye as I wonder how to make it stop. I change headphones and while the imposed names change across the series, the agony is just as fresh and it is increasingly difficult to reconcile the face in the mirror with the auditory images. Cook takes no joy in creating this torment, but he refuses to let you shy away from the truthful experiences of many who’ve arrived on American shores.
Exposing painful truths indelibly links these series of vignettes together, but that search doesn’t merely begin on this continent. The Whitewashed series features historical truths that over millennia have purposefully been altered and repackaged; indeed this reframing of history created the circumstances by which the founders of our country felt justified treating human beings as property to be bought and sold. Four of the “images” feature historical text rendered virtually unreadable. Perhaps provocatively, Cook has chosen historical texts that align the Jewish state within a more North-African context as well as doctrinal proof that black icons were venerated before the fall of Constantinople. It is no small irony that Cook has chosen to title these images Whitewashed while literally covering the texts with an inky-black pigment; the truth is not whitewashed or massaged as much as bludgeoned and buried. The series culminates in an image of Christ in all his Caucasian splendor. But why, Cook seems to ask, given historical fact, do we assume he resembles an Indo-European? Further, what psychological damage does it impose upon those of African descent to place a white face upon their deity?
When an oppressed people have their history erased and their personalities often brutally altered, how do they learn to cope? That is exactly where the Stockholm syndrome comes into play. Indeed, Cook’s large, two-channel video work of the same name seems to indicate a desire to overlook the past is a crutch many in this country willingly undertake, much to our collective peril. The video is simple in design while complex in narrative: the left side of the work features the camera slowly panning across groups of slaves (the imagery comes from Roots and 12 Years a Slave) while the right side offers up jubilant election-night footage of President Obama. On the surface the work seems to celebrate how far we have come. While it is true that “progress” has been made, the artist seems to have more pressing concerns. The smiling, multiracial and ethnic crowds portend a more harmonious future for all of us, but the cultural building blocks that undergird that harmony are broken or missing. Ominously, as the present-day crowds fade away, we’re left with a group of ten slaves standing in silent pose, nary a hopeful glance in sight. We ignore our past at our own peril.
The majority of the works on view seem designed to speak directly to his community. Some of my best friends are black confronts the rest of us. It is a phrase we’ve all heard (and perhaps used ourselves) but replicated in blindingly-white neon it implicates us in this charade of history. Bright and garish, it stands out like an elephant in the room, reminding us that “we” (the majority) are participants and, unwillingly or not, benefit in the perpetuation of both historical inaccuracies and a modern society built upon the foundations of slave labor those inaccuracies allowed.
This is a tough, but necessary, exhibition to view. Most exhibitions, as is most artwork, are designed to stimulate vision; there is nothing beautiful to see here. Our thoughts and impressions are corralled into uncomfortable territory, regardless of the color of one’s skin. While this provides food for thought for white people in the audience, Cook’s message is aimed more directly at his African-American brothers and sisters. Calling the dominant cultural paradigm “psychological and biological warfare”, Cook asserts we, “cannot liberate ourselves unless we face the harsh reality of what has been whitewashed.”
As a reviewer, it can be difficult to accurately assess work loaded with such complex emotions. I experienced some of the work as heavy-handed, leaving questions hanging in the air without solid answers. That said, I am also aware that as a person of European ancestry, I can cannot fully experience the African-American journey through this awakening. I’m left wondering if my experience is perhaps irrelevant. Cook would likely chuckle knowingly at my discomfort; after all, I am not the focus of his concern, and perhaps the benefits I’ve received from the status quo should make me ill at ease. But that discomfort only inspires me to continue this conversation outside the gallery, which is a fitting testament to the power of his art.
Stockholm Syndrome runs through June 20, 2015 at the Hamiltonian Gallery. For more information, visit the gallery’s website here.