Empty Cabinets

Speak, memory: Simon Norfolk's landscapes reveal their troubling secrets
Simon Norfolk

A regiment of dead sunflowers towers mutely, narrow stalks splintered into strands, shriveled heads bent downward in defeat. Above, a swirling sky listens attentively to this unkempt stretch of Ukrainian soil, but the landscape is silent, bearing its 70-year-old burden. More than six million peasants starved to death here during the Soviet famine of 1932-1933, Joseph Stalin's murderous attempt to end independent farming.

Whether a menacing staircase at Auschwitz or a wintry Armenian telegraph pole standing like a snowcapped crucifix, each of Simon Norfolk's black-and-white landscape photographs stirs a memory of a 20th-century atrocity. The 39-year-old British photographer's "Silent Witness: Genocide in the Landscape," on display at pARTs Photographic Arts from March 16 through May 5, traverses 100 years and three continents, marching backward through time past eight sites: Rwanda, Cambodia, Vietnam, Auschwitz, Dresden, the Ukraine, Armenia, and Namibia.

Norfolk's career took off in the early 1990s, when he was working as a photojournalist for the lefty publication Living Marxism and became fascinated with fascism and far-right politics. That interest led him to genocide, and to the public's ignorance and denial of lesser-known human-rights atrocities. By the mid-Nineties he'd embraced landscape as an apt metaphor: "My [work] is about memory more than genocide," says the artist. The evaporation of physical evidence tends to lead to the evaporation of belief: "Why do we remember Auschwitz but not Armenia?"

The images in the upcoming show are from Norfolk's 1998 book, For Most of It I Have No Words: Genocide-Landscape-Memory; the show replaces his current pARTs exhibit, a series of new images of war-tattered Afghanistan. Hoping to get a sneak preview of Norfolk's talk at the gallery this Sunday afternoon, we reached him by phone in England.

City Pages: How do landscape and remembrance play off of one another in your book?

Simon Norfolk: Like empty cabinets. How would you document nothingness? What would you put in a book on genocide? In a museum? These images are beautiful because they've been emptied, not because they are empty.

CP: What's the aim behind chronologically reversing the order of the events?

Norfolk: It's like Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, the novel that inspired Apocalypse Now. Those men journey up a river in hopes of discovery. The river becomes this sort of fading curve that descends into barbarism; the text becomes more and more frantic. My prints sort of go in three steps: photojournalism; evidence; the abstract empty. The transition is a fading curve. It's much more effective than simply, "Isn't that just awful," over and over.

CP: Your passion requires you to travel around in a lot of regions that are politically unstable or where there's a strong anti-Western bias. Have you ever experienced any resentment?

Norfolk: When I was in eastern Turkey, running around trying to take pictures of churches and remnants of where the Armenians were [persecuted], I got caught at a roadblock. These armed guards, in a big fuss, wanted to know, "What's with all the fucking cameras?' They thought I was trying to document their war against the Kurds, when in actuality I was searching for genocide material on the same land, but 90 years previously. I ended up spending five hours in a Turkish prison. They had these cattle prods. Not a nice place to be.

Even the Turkish embassy in London kicked up a huge stink [about this exhibit]. The government still denies what happened with the Armenians. Denying--look, I mean, even in America today. There are museums on the Holocaust but not one museum or memorial dedicated to the Native American holocaust that occurred on its own soil.

CP: Was there a single inspiration for your book?

Norfolk: I studied a lot of extremists [for Living Marxism]--fascist groups. People like David Irving--a guy who denies the Holocaust. I wanted to negate what they were working at. Basically, my work is a political desire to piss people off. Piss off my enemies.

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