Violence is sexy, at least that’s how it’s often depicted in pop culture and even art. Nonviolence, though, that’s a bit tougher to picture.
Could nonviolence take the form of a pair of sandals, glasses, a bowl and book, the last possessions of one India man on Jan 30, 1948? Is it found in the image of an older man looking again through the bars of a cell that had imprisoned him for almost two decades? Perhaps it’s a small figure in white and black standing in the path of four tanks.
“What does peace look like?” is the question the Menil Collection asks in its monumental exhibition organized by Josef Helfenstein.
“What does peace look like?” is the question the Menil Collection asks in its monumental exhibition Experiments with Truth: Gandhi and Images of Nonviolence, organized by Menil director Josef Helfenstein. These photographs of Gandhi’s last possession, Nelson Mandela’s revisit to Robben Island and Tank Man of Tiananmen Square are some of the answers to this question.
In an early walk through the exhibition before it opened on Oct 2, Gandhi’s birthday, Helfenstein explained the problem with trying to depict nonviolence.
“It’s so much more sexy to document violence,” Helfenstein admitted. “That’s what TV is interested in or the media. It’s just the way we are. It’s quite complicated to visualize nonviolence.”
While it might be easy to summarize the exhibition as the Gandhi show, and the life and work of Gandhi are its inspiration, the exhibition sets out to chronicle those complicated ways we have imagined and on rare occasioned, after much struggle have achieved peace.
“Even if they attack you, even if they kill you, you don’t fight back. It’s a very noble attitude, and in a way it’s a very spiritual thing too. It’s kind of scary to do.”
Once inside the first gallery the exhibition begins with photographs of Gandhi’s last days taken by Henri Cartier-Bresson. On other walls, we find portraits of those advocates for justice and peace who came before, like Henry David Thoreau, Sojourner Truth and Leo Tolstoy.
Going deeper into the exhibition, viewers move back and forth through time, place, art and artifact, to explore the struggle against violence, spotting along the journey Rembrandt’s Christ Teaching, a 8th century Folio from a Qur’an, Ai Weiwei’s arrangement of 10 Buddha feet from sculptures of the Northern Wei period and Dan Flavin’s untitled fluorescent sculpture dedicated to the students killed at Kent State and Jackson State University.
The exhibition illustrates the path to peace is a hard, dangerous road.
“There’s nothing easy about nonviolence. Many people think that nonviolence is sitting back and being afraid and not doing anything, but of course it’s exactly the opposite, said Helfenstein and went on to describe the some of the core beliefs of many nonviolent action campaigns: “Even if they attack you, even if they kill you, you don’t fight back. It’s a very noble attitude, and in a way it’s a very spiritual thing too. It’s kind of scary to do.”
Some of these images and works are well known, others rare, but by showing them together Helfenstein wishes to create a dialog between the pieces and viewer, which seems quite appropriate since many of these artists, advocates and philosophers were influenced by each other. Perhaps this is most crystallized in the photo, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the SCLC Office, where King stands in front of a portrait of Gandhi.
Some of these images and works are well known, others rare, but by showing them together Helfenstein wishes to create a dialog between the pieces and viewer.
The works are powerful by themselves, but their juxtaposition with each other is what halted me in my walk, and forced me to pause and see. The arrangement of works within each gallery or on a single wall are particularly striking. For example, Warhol’s Little Race Riot is placed besides Theaster Gates’s recent work, Hose for Fire and Other Tragic Encounters, created from decommissioned fire hoses.
Art and artifact even seem to call to each other from across galleries and perhaps time. My favorite moment of this call and response came when I wandered around a wooden sculpture of Saint Martin and the Beggar (ca. 1500-10) and then looked back into the previous gallery to find when viewing it from that exact angle it almost appeared that both Saint Martin and the beggar were giving comfort to the blue figures of Yves Klein’s Hiroshima.
“That is, of course, an attempt to create a kind of dialogue between the pieces without having to explain them,” Helfenstein told me when I mentioned this angle of sight and insight I had found. “The idea would be to not do too much pedagogy but to allow this kind of discovery. The whole relationship between the galleries and between these different types of material is very important. . .the hope is that there is a kind of associated dialogue.”
The exhibition begins and end in the Menil’s West Gallery, but the spirit of the show moves out throughout the collection and, it is Helfenstein’s hope, into our city.
Running simultaneously and next to Experiments with Truth is Amar Kanwar’s mixed media installation The Sovereign Forest. The east wing of the collection will showcase a concurrent exhibition the Menil is calling “Modern and Contemporary Experiments with Truth” that includes South Korean born, New York based artist Kimsooja’s video installation A Needle Woman; animated films by William Kentridge; and a very rare treat, a gallery of Mark Rothko alternate panels painted for the Rothko Chapel but not used in the final display.
The staff of the Menil have also reached out to other institutions and organizations in Houston to present Gandhi's Legacy: Houston Perspectives, four months of programs, exhibitions, films and lectures. Rice, UH, the MFAH, the Asia Society and many more will be pondering the question “What does peace look like?” and they’ll all be looking for individual Houstonians to voice their own answers.
Experiments with Truth: Gandhi and Images of Nonviolence runs through Feb. 1, 2015.