Georges Braque used the metaphor of "two mountain climbers roped together" to describe his collaboration with Picasso in the early years of the last century as the two ventured into the uncharted territory of analytic cubism. I like this image of brute, self-effacing interdependence, of going places together that can't be reached alone. It's an apt image to describe the collaboration Twin Cites artist Monica Haller initiated with war veteran Riley Sharbanno and graphic designer Matthew Rezac. "Roped together," they embarked on an elaborate book project designed as a model for, and an invitation to, action in response to war. Nearly three years ago when Haller's college friend Riley gave her over a thousand digital pictures he'd shot while on tour as a nurse at Abu Ghraib prison, he didn't know that he'd started an artistic odyssey that would carry his images and words into the arena of contemporary art and far beyond.
This fall Twin Cities audiences got their first glimpse of the project at the MCAD/Jerome Artists exhibition, when two copies of the book were displayed in mockup, one of which was just purchased by the International Center of Photography in New York. Nearly two inches thick, the book opens with scenes of the Iraqi landscape that Riley shot through the dusty windshield of a military Humvee or while sitting alongside the barrel of an enormous machine gun. We see pictures of American soldiers arm-in-arm with Iraqi interpreters, Riley and his buddies horsing around, a lizard running across the dry earth, palm trees, tanks, and murals painted on prison walls. Deep in the core of the book are grisly shots of an operating room with American military personnel franticly attending to the bloody bodies of detainees and prisoners injured in bomb attacks on the prison. Short statements appear throughout the book as Riley narrates his story and shares his struggle to understand the meaning of his own photos.
Haller saw the pictures not simply as passive records of past events but as containers for repressed memories and as tools for grappling with both the past and present. Her goal was to offer art as both a vehicle for Riley's use and as a frame for presenting her own protest to the war.
The book is scheduled to be published late this winter by Onestare Press. Through workshops with veterans organizations, Haller will present Riley's story as a template for other veterans and their families who have photos and stories to share. With broader distribution, the book will challenge all of its viewers and readers to grapple with their own unstable archive of images, thoughts, and feelings about the war.
Patricia Briggs is an associate professor at Minneapolis College of Art and Design and was named City Pages' Best Art Critic in 2008. Her writing appears in Artforum International, History of Photography, and online at mnartists.org.
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