Hanna Hannah: Frames of War

by Tom Leddy

Immanuel Kant’s discussion of aesthetics (in his Critique of Judgment) begins with something he calls “The Analytic of Beauty” in which he describes beauty as being detached from matters of morality and cognition.  Free beauty is exemplified by flowers and wall-paper, among other things (including, oddly, crustaceans).  Such beauties have the capacity to cause our cognitive faculties, the imagination and the understanding, to go into free play, giving rise to pleasure.  Beauty is not in the thing itself but in its capacity to cause this experience.  Flowers and wallpaper often have elaborate designs that encourage us to linger in contemplation.  This contemplation is a relaxing mental activity very unlike problem-solving and scientific thinking.  The freedom involves not having to apply concepts.

Untitled, (Lebanon), 2009

Untitled, (Lebanon), 2009, Casein on paper 72 x 36 inches. Courtesy of the Artist. Photo: rr jones

Decorative wallpaper, unlike flowers, is actually designed by an artist or craftsman.  But the main point is that it subordinates content to pleasing formal arrangement.  We enjoy good wallpaper design but think of it as something that should be in the background.  Kant insisted that, although objects of free beauty have a designed look, a look of purposiveness, we should not think about the actual purpose, since then we would no longer be engaging in free play.  A botanist, for example, has no advantage in appreciating flowers and should set aside his or her knowledge of plant reproduction if he or she wishes to appreciate its beauty.  Kant excluded the sensual pleasures of color from his account of beauty: color counted merely as adding charm.  But this seems wrong, since our appreciation of flowers and wallpaper includes the colors, and neither would be the same in black and white.  So Kant should have said that the free play is between imagination, understanding and sense.

Untitled (Iraqi and American soldiers in Ramadi, Iraq), 2009-2010

Untitled (Iraqi and American soldiers in Ramadi, Iraq), 2009-2010, Casein on paper, Courtesy of the Artist Photo: rr jones

Hanna Hannah is no doubt drawing on the fascination we have with the free beauties of flowers and wallpaper in her current show at the Institute for Contemporary Art.  This is doubled by the fact that most of her wallpaper images are of flowers (there are also a couple scenes of Venice and at least one bird).  However, when we look closer we find that in the center of most of her paintings there is another, smaller image embedded within the first.  This smaller image has little to do with Kant’s concept of free beauty since it usually portrays horror and destruction.  Also, although the wallpaper design has a distinctly Victorian look, the interior image is done in a kind of abstracted realist style based on a contemporary news photograph.

Untitled (Iraqi and American soldiers in Ramadi, Iraq), 2009-2010 (detail)

Untitled (Iraqi and American soldiers in Ramadi, Iraq), 2009-2010, (detail) Casein on paper, Courtesy of the Artist Photo: rr jones

Kant insists that aesthetic experience should be distinguished from moral experience.  For example, the pleasure we gain through the free play of imagination and understanding is different from that which we gain from perceiving a morally good act, or from the pain we may get from perceiving something that is morally wrong.  He thinks that to aesthetically appreciate a palace we need to set aside the suffering and class exploitation that may have gone into its production.  This does not prevent us from criticizing the ruler who constructed it for violating basic moral rules, for example, that you should never treat someone as a mere means to your own ends.  It is just that morality and aesthetics are separate.  Hannah (and she is hardly alone in this) wants to deconstruct that separation.  She is more interested in the juxtaposition of examples of free beauty and depictions of hellish scenes.

Amerli, Iraq, Site of Suicide Bomb II, 2010, detail from (embedment)

Amerli, Iraq, Site of Suicide Bomb II, 2010, detail from (embedment)

There is a danger in the strategy, of which I am sure Hannah is quite aware.  It is that framing abstracted and painful scenes in a field of free beauty will aestheticize the very images that she presumably wants us to ponder.  In short, there is a danger of beautifying war and destruction by placing these terrible and terrifying things within a beautiful frame.  If the media presentation of these events (the original context of the photographs she uses) numbs us and makes us indifferent, how can their prettification through being framed by lovely wallpaper improve matters?   I believe Hannah wants to us to think about how we increasingly distance ourselves from these worrying events, even though they have become parts of our everyday lives.  She wants us to be disturbed by the experience of toggling between images of free beauty and abstracted renderings of photographs of, for example, a suicide bombing in a marketplace.  One strategy she uses to counter our tendency to ignore the violent images around us is to draw us into her paintings, past the lovely foliage, to a small window onto a scene of carnage.  It is as if we are asked to look through a keyhole into another world.  What we see is not always easy to make out, a hand here, a child’s face there, something that looks like it might be a body part.  Most of what we see consists of ruins, for example of the bombed marketplace with people standing around after the disaster.

(embedment),  2011, installation view

(embedment), 2011, installation view

The most impressive part of the exhibit is a special installation in a room in which Hannah’s wallpaper covers all four walls, and four framed paintings are hung.  These paintings, unlike others in the show, feature three embedded framings:  one frame of light-colored wallpaper flowers, an inner frame of brighter colored flowers in a different design non-continuous with the first, and then an oval frame for the site of a bomb attack in Iraq, mostly in dull or gray colors.  The wall text says that the wallpaper in the room is meant to resemble camouflage fatigues, although I am not sure where that thought takes us.  In general, one cannot help but think that a lot in this work depends on background information.

Wall, 2011 (installation view)

Wall, 2011 (installation view)

We only know that we are looking at scenes of war, or of an earthquake in one instance and Chernobyl in another, because of the label.  A case in point is Wall, a work that consists of fifteen long hanging mulberry scrolls with calligraphy-like images of the aftermath of an attack on a crowded market in Amerli, Iraq.  The scrolls are very pretty, but so too are the figures, thus reducing the sense of conflict between the decorative and moral dimensions of the work.  However, the overall impact of the show is of one that skillfully raises interesting issues about the relations between the pleasures of beauty and the sufferings of war and disaster.  We can thank ICA for providing us with thought-provoking work like this.

Amerli, Iraq. July 9, 2007, 2010

Amerli, Iraq. July 9, 2007, 2010. Mixed media on mulberry paper 38 x 42 inches Courtesy of the Artist

There will be an artist talk on Thursday, Sept. 8, 7-9PM, admission $10 for ICA members and $15 for non-members. The show runs through Sept. 10.

Tom Leddy teaches in the Philosophy Department at San Jose State University – specializing in Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art.

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