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Art, Culture

In Search of Osama

by Sean O’Toole / 04.05.2011

It’s a fake. The fact, picked up a day after seeing the grim image of Bin Laden momentarily flash at intervals on television in the early hours after Obama’s announcement, reminded me of an exclamation by the underrated German philosopher TLN Hopfmann. “What a cluster fuck!” Should arts journalists write breaking news? Clearly not. Should art critics comment on images circulating in the news? Hell, why not – if they have something valid to say. I thought I did. A fake photo skewered the preciousness of my belief.

Shortly after seeing the Bin Laden image on television I started looking for artist depictions of the man, something beyond the merry-go-round of familiar media images being replayed on television. I looked first at the Sudanese artist Hassan Musa’s satirical painting of Bin Laden posing butt naked on an American flag. I saw the work, which riffs on Tom Wesselmann’s Great American Nude series from the Sixties, at the Johannesburg Art Gallery in 2007. It’s not a pretty painting. Bin Laden has feminine curves. He is neither thin nor tall, as his FBI wanted poster told. The bloody washes of red around his divan possess an eerie quality now, especially if you’ve been watching recent news reports showing where Bin Laden was shot.

Osama bin Laden Portrait
Brenda Zlamany, Portrait #81 (Osama bin Laden), 2004, oil on panel. Published in “Taking Stock of the Forever War,” by Mark Danner.

I also looked at Brenda Zlamany’s 2004 oil portrait of Bin Laden, used on the cover of the New York Times Magazine. Zlamany, who had previously done portrait commissions of such cheerful figures as Jeffrey Dahmer and Slobodan Milosevic for the magazine, painted Bin Laden for a September 11, 2005 article by journalism professor and writer Mark Danner. “The asymmetric weapons that the 19 terrorists used on 9/11,” offered Danner, “were not only the knives and box cutters they brandished or the fuel-laden airliners they managed to commandeer but, above all, that most American of technological creations: the television set.”

In an article filled with devastating insights, this one is not entirely new. In Don DeLillo’s 1991 novel Mao II, a reclusive author protagonist remarks on the way avant-garde art strategies of defamiliarising the ordinary – a urinal, an unmade bed – have been surpassed by those employed by fanatics. “What terrorists gain, novelists lose,” offers DeLillo’s character Bill Gray. “The degree to which they influence mass consciousness is the extent of our decline as shapers of sensibility and thought.”

Stacy Hardy, speaking at a get-together organised by music fan and journo Fred de Vries a couple of years ago in Joburg, said much the same thing. She is in the company of Kendell Geers at a gallery. “He pours me a glass of wine and tells me his art works are deadly bombs, cultural weapons strategically placed to blow up in the heart of the Capitalist beast.” She returns home. “I sit in front of the TV. I’m waiting to see if Kendell’s bombs make the news. The screen flickers. Afghanistan blast. Bombs in Iraq. 1000 suicide bombers “ready” in Iran. Who is kidding who? I mean even if Kendell’s bombs did make the news I probably wouldn’t notice.”

Kendell Geers, Bomb

Funny. Depressing too. Cumulatively, these sorts of insights have repeatedly prompted me to wonder about the consolation of art in the face of the real. Why look at art? Here’s why. It goes without saying that reality, which is often defined in the negative – as not artificial, not fraudulent, not illusory – is a fuzzy concept. The only way to be proximate to reality, is to be in it. For the most part, this is impossible, to be in reality, all the time, everywhere – unless, of course, you’re Woody Allen’s Leonard Zelig or Forrest Gump. I’m neither, so I place my faith in pictures, images, photographs, art, whatever the precise word is. Too much so, it turns out. I should have known better.

Alexander Gardner, Gettysburg, Pa., Dead Confederate soldier
Alexander Gardner, Gettysburg, Pa., Dead Confederate soldier in the devil’s den, July 1863. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Reproduction number: LC-B8171-7942

Long before Photoshop, people, war photographers, were finagling with the truth for effect. In July 1863, surveying the aftermath of the battlefield at Gettysburg, photographers Alexander Gardner and Timothy O’Sullivan found a confederate sharpshooter fatally wounded in the head by a fragment of shell.
“Was he delirious with agony, or did death come slowly to his relief, while memories of home grew dearer as the field of carnage faded before him?” reads the text for Plate 41 in Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Book of the War, published in 1866.

The decorative language should cue your suspicion. Apparently it didn’t. In 1975, after five years of “detective work” by the historian William A. Frassanito, it emerged that Gardner and O’Sullivan’s sharpshooter was just an infantryman, dragged from the hillside to the confederate den. He looked better dead there. The gun not standard marksman issue, also appeared in a number of other photos of Gettysburg dead. All of this came out in the wash 112 years after the fact. I should have known better.

An afterword: There is a Facebook group called “Osama Bin Laden is dead! Show us his body and Prove it”. A Guardian article posted at 20:44 on May 3 offers, “The White House said it was considering whether to release photos of Bin Laden after he was killed, but admitted the photos were ‘gruesome’.”

*Opening image credit: Hassan Musa, Great American Nude, 2002, ink on textile, 204 x 357cm

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