Color, Trauma and Living Memory at The Museum of the City of New York

Mitchell Hartman, Disinfectant II, July 6, 2020. Courtesy of the photographer.

New York Responds

The Museum of the City of New York

December 18, 2020 through April 11, 2021

By NANCY OLIVERI, December 2020

Cognitive psychologist Ulric Neisser developed the concept of flashbulb memories to describe the vivid recollection of shocking emotional events, “usually of historic importance which have left a particularly searing scar on the cerebral tissue of the brain”. Photographers mimic this process on a daily basis, originally through chemical development and now through the mysterious organization of pixels. The results are usually an abstract and equally inaccurate representation of events or an agreed upon fictional account. How do you honor, record and preserve the images, artifacts and abstracts from a slow-motion catastrophic pandemic? How do you record the simultaneous rebellion against racial injustice during a quarantine? How can an exhibition represent that wounded collective psyche of New Yorkers in real time and who gets to be the narrator? And finally, why would anyone want to re-experience the trauma while mortality rates are exceeding the record of 911 and the Vietnam War?

Gudrun Georges, [Delivery worker], March 20, 2020. Courtesy of the photographer.

New York Responds is an important exhibition because the psychological isolation of the pandemic has made the most horrific suffering invisible and silent due to medical privacy and Covid-19 restrictions. We rarely see the suffering, other than in the NYC subway perhaps, so we don’t witness the toll of isolation on mental illness or the suffering, poverty, hunger and trauma because it occurs mostly off camera. Denial is protective defense mechanism. Sometimes we can close our eyes and it’s gone.

Upon entering the New York Responds exhibition, which is lit with precision, there is a panoramic montage view of the city starting with John Sheehy’s stark, monumental photo of a praying man outside of the closed St. Patrick’s Cathedral. This is followed by Russ Rowland’s deceptively simple photograph which features a graffiti scrawled message on the now familiar hunter green plywood façade surrounding every NYC construction site and now boarded businesses, with a solitary figure walking by. The photo asks ‘What is Essential?’ 

The next image is Bryan Smith’s The Statue of Liberty. It is a photograph that depicts the brilliantly oxidized copper patina, originally intended as a tribute to the abolition of slavery it now standing guard compositionally over the temporary morgue refrigerator trucks in an industrial landscape during a pandemic which has disproportionately, through neglect or strategic policy harmed African Americans, Native Americans, immigrants. We never see inside of the trucks. We don’t need to. We have all seen this horror movie. We think they contain corpses of our neighbors, teachers and local grocers but we can’t be certain.

Kristin Slaby, Moment of Silence, June 7, 2020. Courtesy of the photographer.

Then there is Erica Lanser’s smaller photo of health care workers watching the march commemorating Breonna Taylor’s birthday. They are prayerful, wearing the soothing Mediterranean Blue or shades of Indigo scrubs now associated with heroism. The color makes it easier for the brain to register red blood against blue than the traditional white uniforms. Across the room there is raw photograph of a bicycle protest featuring the American flag. This protest suggests a more sinister atmosphere, a more acidic, saturated version than of our 60’s photo memories. This is evident in Anna Jast’s Last Justice Ride XII of a crowd in motion with orange vests where the words Black Lives Matter are taped to an American Flag. This image is a darker frenzy, maybe bordering on bold incoherence. Some of the larger images here are grainy and distorted which adds to the emotional dissonance and primacy of the message over the standards or decorum of the medium.

Making the invisible visible, Lillian Espinoza’s photograph presents nurses of Mt. Sinai Hospital facilitating face time communication between an elderly mother and daughter. It’s unassuming, but futuristic with the soothing pastel colors that induce pure love and gratitude for their professional care of us, for our mothers.

Cindy Trinh, [The Queer Liberation March for Black Lives and Against Police Brutality], June 29, 2020. Courtesy of the photographer.

Like free associated memories, the exhibition space is an installation where the viewer can wander on a non-linear path. Since we are all survivors now, it’s a relief to avoid the curatorial imposition of order or hierarchical structure of images. The contrasting scale of large format images form a familiar NYC background while the small images project a powerful intimate presence. The layout is respectful and consistent with the clinical practice of allowing a survivor to say what they wish at their own pace without directing the memories and details towards a familiar sanitized narrative. It’s a holding space. As a photographer who is included in the exhibition in The New Normal display, I’m biased towards photography as the most powerful medium for our collective history. But the inclusion of masks and memorabilia adds contrasting texture and creates a distance from these ridiculously familiar objects. Taken out of context they are conceptually stunning in diversity. 

The exhibition provides catharsis and validation which resilience requires. It achieves what I think the goal of art is: to conjure up and make manifest the alchemical psychic energy that connects us all on an unconscious level allows us to commune in that collective space. Stylistically, it’s harder to comment on since it’s in real time. Is it relational or is it a collection of sentimental artifacts or fetish objects? Is it radical curating or is it a remarkable crowd sourced collective memoir? Unlike previous periods of art history, our outcome is unknown in the way we know that the zeitgeist of the Pre-World War II created film noir. We only know that in retrospect. Here, we aren’t sure if we’re at the end in the middle of just the beginning of our narrative. This is just part one and we’re present. WM


Nancy Oliveri

Nancy Oliveri is an accomplished photographer based in New York City. 

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