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Nancy Davenport’s stirring photo series The Apartments explores the parallels between violence sponsored by the state and violence inflicted by individual actors, the unique tension between reality and its recollection in media, and the distance – figurative and literal- between those who take part in an incident and those who only view it. From a characterless grid of white-brick facades flashes a single revolutionary banderole, an anonymous silhouette rappelling from balcony to balcony, and the telltale smoke and shrapnel of an incendiary device. With its subdued compositions and disturbingly commonplace images of terrorism and it’s inevitable backlash, The Apartments draws the viewer in to a landscape both fictional and familiar.
Rising from a featureless background of apartments likely housing a mass of faceless observers, single pinpoints of conflict highlight the isolation of the actors and the overwhelming futility of any attempt to move against a similarly faceless, featureless authority. The “terrorists” in the images burn and bomb the apartments, yet at the scale in which they are presented, the buildings remain seemingly unscathed. Revolutionaries raise their fists or their guns in gestures of triumph, at the same time being countered by equal violence from an apparently powerful government force. The apartments stretch on endlessly to the borders of picture after picture, consuming each moment quietly and almost without notice. Planes and helicopters move in to identify and squelch the source of the incident. There are no bystanders or background actions, so as the only human figures in the landscape, the viewer is invited to identify, perhaps uncomfortably, with the guerrillas. The distance from which these acts are viewed serves to intensify the impotence of the observer, as well as the ease with which such moments can be ignored out of fear, indolence, or confusion.
While the focal points of her images are not necessarily meant to be immediately recognizable, many of the chosen subjects are taken from documentary images of well-known historical incidents, such as those of the massacres at Kent State or the 1972 Munich Olympics. In this manner, Davenport points out that brutality and destruction have the same effect, no matter the perpetrators. Inferences to moments of performance art are also drawn with equal intensity, most notably Chris Burden’s now-infamous 747. The moments of violence depicted are so ubiquitous in modern media, the settings so ordinary, that in the viewer’s mind such a horrific act could take place in a distant country just as easily as it could down the street. In fact, by bizarre coincidence, The Apartments held its opening show at the Nicole Klagsburn gallery in New York just five days before the September 11th tragedy. In the days following, attendees must have felt an inescapable connection to the images of modern cityscapes being bombarded. While this immediacy has certainly faded with time, the parallel between these fictions and the possibility of another, similar attack is not lost on anyone living in a place where war and terrorism seems a genuine threat.
The Apartments also calls to mind the decades-long debate over the supposed veracity of the photograph as a form of historical documentation. While the series’ subject matter is clearly political,the heroes, the villains, and even the reasons behind the conflict in each scenario are unidentifiable. Certain aspects of the composite images are nearly seamless, but in some cases there are clear issues with distance and scale that have been deliberately included by the artist. Elements of photojournalism are imposed onto completely different landscapes with varying effects of realism, and as a result it becomes apparent that anyone with sufficient skill can easily distort truth to their whim. While this is not a new concept to those familiar with the history of photo-montage, in the public eye photographs are still often held up as incontrovertible truth. These images make it clear that it is only becoming easier to invent propaganda that strikes its audience as frighteningly real, and that the context in which certain acts are presented can alter the impressions they make from courageous to deplorable.
The Apartments is a visually entrancing and thoroughly nuanced examination of the role of the subjects in an image, that image’s subsequent role in the media, and ultimately the media’s role in the public perception of an event. The images inspire feelings of fear and ineffectuality in the face of senseless war and the political machinery behind each side. As viewers, we are asked to consider our impressions of each image we encounter in the media and elsewhere, the reasoning behind our own civic affiliations, and the likelihood of such terrifying events unfolding just around the corner.
Text by Meghan Maloney
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