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Why we cry is an open question, though research indicates what we intuitively know; tears contain stress hormones and natural painkillers that both stabilize mood and signal to others our state of vulnerability. The tension between the visceral response of the body to indicate suffering and the inadvertent observation of that suffering is explicitly tested by the artists in The Pain of Others.
As Susan Sontag points out in Regarding the Pain of Others, when images of violence lack technical artistry they arouse more compassion.1 Arthur Jafa masterfully applies this method of provocation in his use of appropriated footage synchronized with orchestrated soundtracks. In Cassowary_Mechanics of Empathy (2017), Jafa interweaves close-up, cropped views of tears gradually collecting in the eyes of a young black face, cut between iphone clips of Alton Sterling’s killing and news interviews with family members affected by the Dallas sniper shooting. Incongruously, Dan Finsel’s 2008 video of himself performing scenes as a battered housewife from a 1984 made-for-TV movie feels more like a shoddy editing exercise than a thoughtful consideration of domestic abuse.
Lydia Ourahmane’s modest display of her video, Haraga: “The Burning” (2014), on a cracked iPhone reaffirms Sontag’s observation. Though the shaky cell phone footage of North African immigrants entering Spanish waters is absent of violence, the implication of struggle is ominously present. Watching a private recording of friends brazenly declare enthusiasm for their new life in Europe makes the immunity of digital voyeurism all the more evident, as their momentary optimism obscures the risk of illegal immigration. Spectatorship is a sport in Andra Uruta’s Alps 5 (2016), a massive climbing wall made with screw-on footholds cast from actual dicks and sex toys, tantalizing the viewer to step up.
Though it’s surprising that science still ponders why we cry, the question of why and how images induce empathy is respectfully a difficult one. Complicating the matter further, this show suggests that looking itself may implicate us as the anonymous patrons of other people’s pain.
The Pain of Others runs January 26–March 3, 2018 at Ghebaly Gallery (2245 E. Washington Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90021)