In the stunning exhibition that just opened at the Museum of Contemporary Photography, the ambiguous title does not begin to prepare the viewer for the contents. A collaboration between the MoCP and the Goethe-Institut Chicago, the collection of powerful works on display is not large in number but enormous in implication.
Colonialism is outed in the powerful piece “The Song of the Germans” by Emeka Ogboh. Nigerian by birth, Ogboh lives in both Germany and Nigeria. In this ten-channel sound piece, the languages of the African Diaspora singing “Das Deutschlandlied” softly echo through the dimness of the silent room. In another sound piece, titled “Shan Pipe Band Learns the Star-Spangled Banner,” Pakistani artist Bani Abidi commissioned a brass band from Lahore to learn and perform the American national anthem as a commentary on the partnership of Pakistan and the United States as allies in the so called “War on Terror.”
American artist Taryn Simon’s “Professional Mourners” is comprised of thirty-one portraits of those who participated in the performance of her “An Occupation of Loss” in New York City and London in 2016. The subjects (including ten portraits of professional mourners who were denied entry to the United States), although they are hired to participate at funerals, seem to become caught up in the emotion, making their lamentations seem authentic.
Color images by Chicago photographer Cecil McDonald, Jr. are tender, showing music as the bond that cements his family. The photographs are warm and touching, allowing the viewer a private glimpse into a family united by its love of music. Also of note are German born André Lützen’s black-and-white prints of rap musicians in Marseilles and Dakar from his “Generation Boul Fale” series. Using various camera effects, they are beautifully composed and as fascinating as the music they portray.
By far the most affecting piece in the exhibition is American Tony Cokes’ “Evil.16 (Torture.Musik),” in which we experience literal torment by music as a variety of heavy metal songs, as well as seemingly harmless songs from Sesame Street and Barney are repetitively played at eardrum-shattering volume to extract information through torture from detainees in military prisons. Think for a moment of the potential effect of cross-cultural differences and the implications of auditory brutality in a language one doesn’t know, repeated for hours or sometimes days, combined with deprivations of all kinds. If you watch the video in the stairwell all the way through, there is no way you will not feel disgust, sorrow, anger and a host of other emotions—it left me literally in tears. How anyone can possibly sleep at night after visiting this anguish on another human being is beyond my comprehension. Cokes’ text is concise and painful to read, making this a brilliant and memorable piece of art. In combination, all the works in this show elaborate on the many ways music impacts the world and its citizens, for better or worse.
“Shift: Music, Meaning, Context,” Museum of Contemporary Photography, 600 South Michigan, on view through August 6.