Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum
Analia Segal, now living and working in New York City, grew up in Buenos Aires during the Dirty War waged by the ruling civic-military dictatorship, when thousands of citizens were disappeared—picked up at night, never to be seen again (a small number have been discovered in mass graves). Although Segal did not suffer directly, her experience of state terrorism formed her outlook and continues to influence her work, including the troubling sound sculptures and patterned abstractions in her recent exhibition. There is no explicit evidence of violence, but the implicit atmosphere is one of distinct unease—viewers stand in the midst of an uncertain, politically driven discomfort. The show’s title, “contra la pared” (“against the wall”), signals the sensation of being cornered.
Segal’s works are meant to undermine our confidence in political culture. The three videos in the show, Inland I, II, and III, are all based on fairy tales: Little Red Riding Hood, The Ugly Duckling, and The Three Little Pigs. Without a clear connection between these tales and Segal’s experience, we must be careful about politicizing her highly personal abstract imagery (she has said that political impulses were only a part of the installation). The imagery, appropriated from Internet sources, consists of red-on-white patterns. A vaginal slit, which opens and closes with mesmerizing effect, dominates the visual sequence of Inland II, while a soundtrack of gasps and moans in the piece based on Little Red Riding Hood gives the sense of female pleasure. Despite the erotic allusions, the videos strongly attest to enforced behavior: many of the spoken phrases are injunctions—simple commands taken from online language instruction programs—that start to sound frighteningly constraining as they are repeated. Though they are simple, nothing more than “Close the door,” we feel the speaker invading our privacy and limiting our freedom, simply through the force of speech.
Placed on three of the four walls in the gallery, the videos made for a striking installation, their vertical panels of abstract patterns creating a physical ambience that activated the tall space. Aleph II, a circular rug, occupied the center of the room. Its edges, filled with red, lozenge-shaped forms, enclose an irregularly shaped black center, with a column of black strings rising up to the ceiling. The work is somehow monolithic—a monument to unspoken violence disguised as a simple domestic decoration. Segal’s work raises the question of how abstraction can convey political content. Though we may make the connection through historical examples—the great Russian abstract artists working during the revolution—it is difficult join a radical outlook to pure abstraction. And in Segal’s case, we are also encouraged to read her work as a personal statement.
Blind Volumes (2017–18), the largest sculpture in the show, occupied an entire red wall, which contrasted sharply with the mostly white forms, meant to be seen as books, arranged in small groups as if on shelves. Looking a bit like grossly enlarged Braille text, Blind Volumes pays homage to Jorge Luis Borges, the blind Argentinian writer who leaned toward the political right for most of his life. Is this another implicit critique? Whatever Segal’s motivation, the image was wonderfully powerful. The volumes, many of them slightly mutilated or distorted by her hand, can be understood as a physical, symbolic misreading—done deliberately by Segal—of the primacy of the text, which we know is often forced into dishonesty (the better word is deceit) by writers intent on totalizing their political idealism.
“contra la pared” was a show about memory, specifically, Segal’s particular set of memories linked to an extremely difficult time. Yet she offered nothing direct beyond commands telling us to “Shut the door.” However difficult it may be to imagine a connection between those words and the complex inheritance of fear animating this show, we can make sense of her installation in two ways: as a vault safeguarding a sense of home and private memory, and as a place where politically motivated violence must not fade from consciousness. The work is indirect, but not because Segal is being deliberately obscure. In this case, direct narrative would delegitimize the memory of experience. Perhaps the implied privacies are an attempt to shore up a defense against the depredations of the time. Segal instinctively knows not to clutter her imagination. Obsessed as contemporary culture is with the interface between private and public memory, we need someone like Segal to elucidate the strange, but also richly imaginative place where they meet.