11 November 2010

Basic Gestures: tortured positions

Untitled (Abu Ghraib)

Shawn Michelle Smith
Private First Class Lynndie England became the most salient figure in the 2004 US media coverage of the Abu Ghraib prison torture scandal.  Few can forget the images of the woman holding the leash, or pointing to men’s genitalia and signalling ‘thumbs up’.  As the Abu Ghraib photographs circulated globally on the World Wide Web, the infamous ‘hooded man’ became the international icon of the anonymous Arab victim, and England, a white female soldier, became the international icon of the American torturer.  In many ways, England became a symbol of the war gone wrong. 

     Many were shocked to discover torture enacted by U.S. soldiers, and many more were shocked to see that torture perpetrated by a young white woman soldier.  England became a symbol of the perversion not only of American democratic ideals and military procedures, but also of an ideal of white American femininity.  If women soldiers have always unsettled ideals of gender norms, women soldiers as torturers did so doubly.  England figured as the negative and inverted image of that other gendered symbol of the war, the heavily scripted hero, Jessica Lynch.

     Now years after the revelation of torture at Abu Ghraib, the legality of American military procedures continues to be debated.  England has served a term in prison, but the orchestrators of the torture policy have not been prosecuted.  Today England figures as both torturer and scapegoat, as one of the few punished for a much more pervasive administrative and military strategy.

     In this triptych I reproduce the now iconic gestures of England, but reduce them to their minimal forms.  In doing so I hope to highlight the fundamental disconnect between these familiar, cocky, even seemingly innocuous expressions, and torture.  Choosing white silhouettes, I hope to evoke the ways in which England, and the acts of torture she has come to represent, continue to haunt American culture.  Ultimately I hope to trouble the disjuncture between ideas about American innocence and righteousness and the illegal provocations the nation has normalised. 

Shawn Michelle Smith is Associate professor of Visual and Critical Studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.  

Smith, Shawn Michelle.  'Basic Gestures: tortured positions'  On Site review, no. 22 Fall 2009
©Shawn Michelle Smith and On Site review

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