An Abstract Expression of Horror

On February 16, 2006 Australia’s Special Broadcasting Services (SBS) program Dateline aired previously unpublished video and photos taken by US troops at Abu Ghraib prison in 2003. The damning pictures show Iraqi prisoners bound, naked, wounded, some covered in blood or excrement – undergoing abuse at the hands of their American jailers.

Caution: this essay contains violent imagery not suitable for the faint-hearted or for children.

Dateline executive producer Mike Carey said SBS obtained hundreds of images from Abu Ghraib, and that many of the pictures depicted “homicide, torture and sexual humiliation” too appalling to be broadcast on television. The station will not say how they acquired the images, but the Pentagon, despite trying to prevent the publication of the photos in America, verified their authenticity.

Philip Kennicott, staff writer for the Washington Post, wrote an article titled Painted in Blood: an Abstract Expression of Horror, in which he made a remarkable observation about one of the photos snapped by a US soldier. The photo appears…

“to be a toilet floor covered with blood and litter, framed by a small glimpse of tiled walls. It suggests a bathroom turned into a holding cell, or perhaps a scene from a hospital or triage center, or a torture chamber.”

After acknowledging that few American media outlets have published the new photographs, Kennicott went on to describe the aforementioned snapshot;

“The blood on the floor instantly suggests the splatter and drip paintings of the abstract expressionists. Newspapers have often turned to blood as a substitute for violence, showing photographs of the gore that lingers on streets long after the bodies — too graphic to show, have been cleared away. Here, in a photo that contains no particular information, no names, no certainty even about whether it shows what it seems to show, is the blood image in a new form. This is no substitute, no polite euphemism for what can’t be shown.

Blood as a substitute for death deflects horror; this blood demands answers. Comparing blood to paint, violence to art, is dangerous, even repellent. But in one sense, the blood on this floor is exactly like the paint drippings of Jackson Pollock, who captured the visible traces of action, the visual memory of gestures. In Pollock’s painting, the gestures fixed on canvas were often graceful, melodic even, with paint obeying the law of gravity with a gentle quiescence. If this is blood, we can only imagine what the gestures were.”

An abstract expression of horror. Photo taken by US military employee in 2003 at Abu Ghraib prison.

No doubt Pollock would be appalled by the new school of “Action Painting” founded at Abu Ghraib prison, and while Pollock had to suffer being called “Jack the Dripper” by a hostile press – that was the only torment he was subjected to.

Today’s anonymous American “Dripper” working at the infamous Iraqi prison, left us a magnum opus installation piece composed of found objects, human body fluids and blood, materials not unfamiliar to postmodern conceptual artists.

However this tour de force work is no mere vacuous creation devoid of meaning or social impact… no, it’s a grand tribute to colonial arrogance and the denigration of the human spirit. Unfortunately the artist will most likely not want to take credit for the work, but I would urge this modern master to step forward into the limelight.

Such genius cannot go unrewarded.


UPDATE: Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse photos can be found on Wikimedia Commons.

On Feb. 16th, Salon.com became the first US media outlet to publish the new Abu Ghraib photos. According to Salon, over 1,000 photos, videos and supporting documents were made available to them by a source who “who spent time at Abu Ghraib as a uniformed member of the military and is familiar” with the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command. Salon insists that “America and the world, has the right to know what was done in our name.” They also reminde us that “no high-ranking officer or official has yet been charged in the abuse scandal that blackened America’s reputation across the world.”

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