“The important thing is no longer the storage but the display.”
– Paul Virilio
Padraig Robinson’s 228 Lashes is a sparsely populated show in Galway’s 126 gallery. The fully lit neutrality of the white rectangle space draws the viewer in to scrutinise the pieces that comprise an installation ruled by a minimalist inclination. The paucity of works highlights the artist’s three choices: An illuminated retail style sign with a cryptic logo, the lowering of a single gallery light fixture to around waist-level and a concrete slab on the floor covered with two stacks of identical literature.
An initial walk around the space raises my curiosity, as these interventions are considered and not without weight, but it is opaque, almost impenetrable and I am unable to ascertain the meaning of any one piece nor any from the combinations of the three. The violence/punishment implicit in the title keeps my expectations high and creates considerable mystery. A look through the press release and the list of works begins to unlock this heavily coded, multi-layered installation. However, it is the text Two Hundred and Twenty Eight Lashes that is the heart of the exhibition, breathing life into the other works.
The title of the show and text are from the alleged number of lashes two teenagers from Iran were punished with prior to their public hanging. The press release continues:
“A major aspect of the project comprises of a theoretical essay Two Hundred and Twenty Eight Lashes in a once off print edition of 228, the edition number referring to a particular punishment. The whole edition will be displayed as a sculptural object where the individual essay booklets will be free to the viewers, initiating for the project a type of internal critique. The text approaches concepts relating to ideological ownership and surface politics, taking its starting point from implosive debates surrounding the implied identity category of two teenagers publicly executed in Iran in 2005.”
The punished teenagers are identified only as MA and AM in Robinson’s text. On July 19, 2005 the 16 and 18 year old males were whipped and hung after being held for 14 months. Officially their crimes were anti-social, but were purportedly mis-translated to “homosexuality” in Western sources. They were also alternatively counter-reported as robbery, theft, assault and the gang rape of a 13 year old male.
Like an archaeologist, Robinson investigates the layers of strata around this story in a thoughtful, thorough and informed way. The self aware and “counter intuitive” position he takes is removed from the noise and emotion that surrounded this news event at the time it broke. Using a methodology which shares ground with both Barthes and Chomsky and directly citing the work of Paul Virilio, he unravels and traces the roots of this sensational story. Thus demonstrating the exponential and perhaps hysterical nature of information dissemination in our internet age through what Robinson calls “the cybernetic inertia”.
This possible mistranslation from reliable sources goes viral and degenerates. Notably into questionably informed and propagandistic Youtube videos like 2 IRAN GAY TEENS HANGED IN PUBLIC; in which a talking head webcast of a young man, who uses his friend’s Facebook page as his only citation ends up in a strange rant about man’s inhumanity to man in a world facing the possibility of a 2012 apocalypse. There is also
On page 2 Robinson writes:
“[There is] …something dangerous about liberalised contemporary media, and the hyper-link mass consciousness reflected in Youtube…. it is potentially harmful with respect to the way politicised information is appropriated and re-performed in a way that de-realizes, where a certain editorial decision is made to add entertainment value thus adding surface to surface, emblematic function to function. It makes the argument denser, more internally directed, and most importantly elicits a digressive paranoia. It is a fear that the ulterior is the predominant, a simulation of political communication using emotional tropes more Hollywood Hills than Stonewall Riots. This online information would of course never be used in an official capacity, but does reflect problems in ideological ownership as assimilation with the personal level of the techno-social interface.”
There is no certainty in the details of the charges, but the politically convenient and charged allegation that Iran executes minors for homosexuality proved relentless in Western press. As he follows the story it unfolds into a twisted tale where all parties have seemingly misconstrued information, knowingly or not. Strange denunciations of the rape charge come from points of view normally associated with ‘progressive’ identity politics. Seemingly informed positions come out of blanket Islamic nationalism as the issue is certainly “…becoming less and less about Human Rights in Iran”.
His quotes from Human Rights Watch’s Scott Long resonate most deeply as Long points out that the application of the term ‘gay’ to the young men strikes a chord within in the West because it suggests innocence, thus forgetting the basic issue of human life; “Does it make them any less dead?”. What Long begins to articulate and what Robinson’s essay points out indirectly is that it becomes almost impossible to side with anyone on this issue. The knee-jerk Youtube reactions become a sort of general approval or applause for the certain political motives of Western powers and the media that express their interests. The death penalty cannot be justified in any progressive sense, and to a different degree neither can the perpetuation of disinformation for propagandistic purposes. So everybody is wrong, to some degree or another, and we still don’t know exactly what happened.
To turn away from our text, we might reflect again on the metonymical ‘sign’ which greeted us. Safe Semiotic is round commercial sign of the variety which adorns many businesses on Shop or High Street. The black circle is hung at eye-level just as you enter the gallery and is indeed striking and highly visible from the passing Queen Street rush hour traffic. The small, simple illuminated text reads: MA__AM. A second, typographical glance shows a mirroring of the Times New Roman initials as evidenced by the calligraphic variations in the strokes widths, as well as that the serifs of the A’s are connected through an improvised ligature. MA is attached and the same as AM. A typographical play on the (human) connection, whether gay or not, of the executed. I can also understand the ‘surface’ of Western commercial language as distance to the origins of the exhibition, but the work is perhaps only a conceptual pun that does not deal with the content of the show’s subject matter in a fundamentally human way. Then again, considering the text’s closing quote on display by Paul Virilio, perhaps leaving us out in the cold is Robinson’s intention.
Monument to Aesthetic Justice / Justification is listed as an “alteration to gallery light” and that’s precisely what it is. A fluorescent lamp has been lowered to hover about 4 feet above the ‘gallery grey’ of the concrete floor. I’m baffled initially. The lowered lamp is a bit mysterious without any direct relationship to the essay I can fathom. After scratching my head I am comfortable accepting it as exactly what it claims to be: an aesthetic justification. A clever one-liner that strikes me as out of place with the text’s content and even placement. I’m afraid it is just a bit too abstract.
The complexity of the subject matter and writing, the unique research into the subject matter and the unpeeling of layers of meaning and misrepresentation from all sides of the debate are not met in-kind by the design of the text itself. A pink insert contains black and white (pink) images that don’t give any sense of the YouTube source material the screen grabs originated form. This is not a fussy graphic design issue, it is about accessibility. Additionally, the pamphlet is densely packed with an unrelenting text that meanders and backtracks. Tactical concision may have been beneficial.
The supporting works in the exhibition, everything beyond the text, while not whimsical or conceited, are formally disconnected. They become visual art adornments that remain detached from the cerebral workings of the artist’s impressive writings. The text, Two Hundred and Twenty Eight Lashes, is an accomplished and considered undertaking. It is the conceptual underpinning to the show as it details an internal query into <“ready-made ethical positions, politics or meanings”. It was created with considerable compassion and ability and strikes me as a uniquely potent approach to the political subject matter. In a time when exhibition essays are commonplace, it is remarkable that Robinson has placed the central work of 228 Lashes as the text itself and done it so well.
126 Artist-run Gallery, Galway
August 5 – 27, 2011
Review by Jim Ricks