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Aguilera as torture device

18 October 2007 - Change the context, and irons and Christina Aguilera songs become torture devices. Artists Jonas Staal and Vincent van Gerven Oei analyse the phenomenon at exhibitions in Amsterdam and Rotterdam.

At Guantánamo, Staal explains, Muslim prisoners have been subjected to strobe light, images of 911 victims and of swimsuit models, and Christina Aguilera’s song Dirty being played very loud. Seemingly innocent elements of the Western entertainment culture have been turned into torture devices.

At the Amsterdam exhibition, which opens next Saturday, the Guantánamo interrogation context has been recreated. The effect the installation has on visitors is rather aggressive, Staal says. The only difference with Guantánamo is free will: people can choose to leave.

Whereas the Amsterdam exhibition analyses how Americans use everyday objects as instruments of torture, another exhibition in Rotterdam will analyse how Al Qaeda does the same.

The Rotterdam exhibition was inspired by a torture handbook found in Iraq, containing ‘Art Brut-like drawings’ (see illustration), as Van Gerven Oei describes them. Objects used in the handbook, including irons, drills, blowtorches and pincers, will be displayed in a ‘Jeff Koons-like manner’.

Unlike Koons, however, Staal and Van Gerven Oei say their work is not ironic. Their exhibitions are not meant to be haunted attractions, which are fun because the threat is unreal. To the contrary, the exhibitions intend to confront visitors with reality.

Staal is known for the Geert Wilders Werken, shrines at public places with flowers, candles, teddy bears and photos of right-wing populist politician Geert Wilders. It was not immediately clear that the shrines were works of art, and some saw them as an implicit death threat against the politician.

When Staal was brought to trial, he sent out invitations to make the proceedings part of his artwork. He was acquitted, but the public prosecutor has lodged an appeal against the ruling.

Illustration: Al Qaeda torture manual (from The Smoking Gun). Staal and Van Gerven Oei


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