|In our post-9/11 world, we are saturated by images of torture, both by our enemies and by our own government. Terror is pervasively present in the visual environment: stories from Saddam Hussein’s torture chambers, reports on the treatment of detainees at Guantánamo Bay, and images of Abu Ghraib, have become a part of our collective consciousness, and it’s reflected in Kata Mejia and Rodney Dickson’s performance and installation work, Romper Room. Romper Room serves as a “counter-performance” to torture by re-presenting terrorism as a safe act within a gallery space—where neither life is lost, or blood is shed.|
IIn our post-9/11 world, we are saturated by images of torture, both by our enemies and by our own government. Terror is pervasively present in the visual environment: stories from Saddam Hussein’s torture chambers, reports on the treatment of detainees at Guantánamo Bay, and images of Abu Ghraib, have become a part of our collective consciousness, and it’s reflected in Kata Mejia and Rodney Dickson’s performance and installation work, Romper Room.
Romper Room serves as a “counter-performance” to torture by re-presenting terrorism as a safe act within a gallery space—where neither life is lost, or blood is shed. Consequently, this re-inscribes the terrorist drama as a humane form of political expression. Performance art responds to terrorism in its own rhetoric, yet through a humane embodiment of its inhumanity. In the installation, the audience/passer-by is confronted by an empty bright-yellow room. The perimeter is framed by household tools that have been transfigured into implements of torture by duct tape and through their contextual relationship with each other. In the center there is a wooden chair, tethered to the ceiling, on a rectangular, checker-board pattern drawn with sand on the floor. As the performance begins, Mejia is brought in by Dickson and duct-taped to the chair. For an hour she moves in a circle of muted despair and lingering agony. This sad and pathetic meandering, which neither can free her nor resolve the drama, leaves a trace in the disturbed sand—a silent, yet aesthetic embodiment of the pain and suffering of the torture victim. After an hour, Dickson escorts her out of the room. Her fate is unknown. The performance is as much an act of mourning and commemoration, as it is a reenactment of existential waiting and resignation.
At first, one is terrified by the performance’s potential to become a horror spectacle. As a viewer, I could not help but recall Chris Burden’s 1971 performance piece, Shoot, where the artist had a friend shoot him in the arm while standing in a gallery before spectators. Feasibly, it would not have been out of the question for the performance to include some form of violence against Mejia’s body, whether real, symbolic or a handicraft of modern theatrics. Nevertheless, the human body remained undamaged. Yet her mere presence in the gallery, a reliquary of torture and terror, made the terrorism all the more vivid. Mejia existed like a relic in a reliquary. Her being, her physical presence adds a level of realness that empowers the work. In our world of simulacrum we are bombarded by images of torture. Yet we must always trust in the existence of the subjects, never given actual, physical proof of these images, except the assumed indexical nature of a photograph, one which is all the more deteriorated with computer manipulation. The actual presence of the human being before us in the performance gives the installation an actual meaning. Through the notion of what could be called “re-presence-ing” in art, that is the reintroduction of the relic in art, the viewer is allowed to overcome the barrier of simulacrum. Essentially, art is empowered in order to “matter” again.
To understand this we must first ask: Why is this performance safe? The performance elicited intense responses of disgust and fear from the public, various people showed concern for the well-being of Mejia. Nevertheless, in the end, it is a “safe” work. The performance is horrific. One, as an audience member, waits for Mejia to be tortured with full bystander compliancy. Romper Room’s predominantly non-narrative plot allows the work to be accessible to passersby who only catch bits and pieces of it. In this sense, the non-narrative plot is a practical choice. It causes an even more traumatizing effect. As they wait, the captivated audience begins to desire a climax. The desire for a plot line produces results in sadism. Sadism to any conscious mind also results in masochism, both the desire to see suffering and the horrific terror of witnessing suffering. In this sense, both the viewer and Mejia await torture. The audience waits patiently with a perverse and captive desire to see her be tortured. The performance can best be described by one term: “sublime.” The sublime was defined by the 18th-century philosopher, Edmund Burke, as an intense pleasure derived from anything that elicits terror in the spectator while assuring the spectator’s own safety and distance. This safety, which I have alluded to, is provided in the performance by the masterful use of the shop window display.
The shop window functions like a reliquary that displays and channels the power of the relic, while protecting and isolating the physical relic of Mejia’s being. This so-called “power” is the knowledge of her actual, physical presence before the viewer and presence within the expected narrative of a torture room. The gallery wall creates a perfect barrier of protection between the viewer and the romper room. Suspended disbelief allows you to trust in the veracity of the scene, while keeping you safe from danger as to make the horrific scene all the more sublime, all the more pleasurable. This assuring and stable separation would be effective were this a museum case or pedestal. As a shop window, however, the viewer’s interaction with the performance is tainted by an unconscious and perhaps unintended masochism. The rhetoric of the shop window is to produce a desire for possession of the object within. It establishes a lustful cycle of the commodity and one’s desire for ownership.
The idea of relic and reliquary serves as a useful model through which to understand the sublime dynamic of a physical presence and the complexities of its exposition. Through the act of re-presence-ing the Romper Room installation is empowered by the physical trace of being (the relic: Mejia’s performance and the sand that bears her trace) that is exhibited through the glass of commodity and commercialism (the reliquary: the torture tool-lined shop window). It is the very nature of hostage-taking and torture that function as a reliquary. The terrorist, for example, takes a high-profile person as a relic, which they can contain and expose through their own context. The hostage’s existence must be constantly stressed and exhibited to empower the terrorist group and give them their social agency. If their hostage-relic ceases to be then they cease to matter. Romper Room has concisely engaged the timely juncture of terrorism and commercialism, two parallel concepts that have been forcefully and unwillingly collided for us in our recent memory.