Truth is communal.
It consists of hundreds of different truths.
– Svetlana Aleksievitch
Truth, lies, and shadows are unearthed, exposed, and remembered in Broken Secrets. Using photography, sound, and video, four artists explore the ways secrets are withheld, kept, and revealed. The boundaries of historical and political cartographies that have been drafted for us are re-examined using the camera as a confidant and a secret weapon, one that reveals and retells hundreds of truths. Avetisjans, Selley, Yaghmaian, and Jiang craft dialogues in relation to larger questions of migration, militancy and oppression, and in so doing depict different aspects of secrecy. But the exhibition edges further and does more than investigate a repository of secrets. It engages what is broken or freed within us when secrets are laid bare.
Retracing the story of his family, Avetisjans consults archival material, family albums, state records, and oral histories. “Motherland. Far Beyond the Polar Circle” is a body of work that maps out his own journey, and that of the deportation of his grandmother on June 14, 1941, from Latvia to Siberia. Igarka, the birthplace of his mother and her twin brother, becomes a nexus of then and now as the artist unlocks symbols— Christmas trees, crosses, snow, and other signifiers that bring clarity to a hazy past. Secret documents disclose how expulsions to remote areas and Gulag labour camps were to be carried out. One instructs the militia: “the deportation of anti-Soviet elements from the Baltic States is a task of great political importance [that] should be conducted without noise and panic, so as not to permit any demonstrations and other excesses not only by the deportees, but also certain part of the surrounding populations inimically inclined toward the Soviet administration.” In returning to Igarka, 163 km north of the Arctic Circle, with an average temperature of -40°C, Avetisjans pays tribute not only to those who suffered under Stalin, but those who passed on, or still live there.
Where Avetisjans presents archival material alongside landscapes and portraits, Selley tampers with The Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual to show “how cold actions of the state can be.” His project, “Human Exploitation,” echoes Brecht´s “War Primer,” where poems are set alongside photographs of the Second World War. The artist here turns to Latin America, transposing the pictures of Eugene Vernon Harris and Isaiah Bowman found at the University of Milwaukee Photography Archive, and creates a montage with segments of the training manual used at the US Army School of the Americas. He repurposes the manual, breaks its linear chronology, cuts at it up and pastes it to perform a repetitive action of protest that denounces the manipulation of young soldiers who went on to commit some of the worst crimes of the twentieth century. In this collection of dialectical collages, Selley draws over unknown faces reminiscent of “los desaparecidos” (the disappeared) of Latin America.
While the artworks that comprise “The Smell of Earth and Tree” by Yaghmaian move into the contemporary moment in the Persian Gulf, they are very much rooted in the past. A deeply personal project, her oeuvre is a summation of interpretations describing and imagining the subjects’ lives. It begins with water, the stars, and a dream. Her images capture the very colours of the land – terracotta, brown hues, and blues. The artist shows waterscapes and landscapes, but never cityscapes, though we see muted traces of this in the found objects like a compass and a fishnet – symbols that determine the sailor’s movement across the Strait of Hormuz, an international trade route linking to Africa, India, and Asia. Potter notes that business, family, and social networks created a “brotherhood of the sea.” And while her subjects never look directly back at us, there is a feeling that a connection exists.
Of all four artists, Jiang transposes us into the present moment through “Provocative Jokes Deconstructed” and “Quirky Science Questions,” which form part of a larger body of work called “The Instagram Project”. Hers is a language of intervention, where she appropriates and dissects images from a popular Instagram account that uploads content based on a certain viewpoint of Chinese society. In so doing, she addresses racism beyond its visual aspects and breathes dignity into the people photographed, who are at the receiving end of unamusing “jokes.”. Using photoshop, she edits out profanities from their t-shirts and creates a disjuncture between the bigotry with which they were thought up. The result is a play on images and words that is both comedic and disorientating, and at the same time identifies all too obvious prejudices. By publicly exposing those that participate in the consumption of the Chinese as “the other,” Jiang not only depicts these latent secrets, but inverts them. In the latter project, Jiang neatly devises unconventional science questions that, while workable, are absurd.
Jiang´s science problems illicit a response, unlike Aleksievitch who rhetorically asks “why is it that our suffering doesn’t convert into freedom?”. In the same vein, Broken Secrets adds: How are we incarcerated, not only by what we know, but by what we don’t know, by what is omitted? The exhibition is one in search of freedom, and the four artists depict glimpses of possible solutions, but they never instruct. Through this collaborative journey, we consider how to better understand and confront growing networks of oppression. Photography, we learn, plays a fundamental role in the disclosure of secrets, or rather, in the slow disentanglement of hundreds of truths.