December 10, 2015
by Erasmia Gorla, Flavia Lagnado, and Ximena Vial; Students of English W3775 Narrating Rape: Gender, Testimony & Violence
The first installation of Patricia Cronin’s Shrine for Girls appeared in the 56th International Art Exhibition, All the World’s Futures, organized by la Biennale di Venezia. The Exhibition, devoted to addressing “the disquiet of our time,” displayed the works of artists from 53 different countries, each of which aimed to represent, in curator Okwui Enwezor’s words, “the ruptures that surround and abound around every corner of the global landscape today.”
At the panel event organized by Columbia IRWGS on December 1, Cronin described how she first conceived of the idea for her project. The space she had acquired for her exhibit, la Chiesa di San Gallo, didn’t allow her to hang anything on the walls and required her, instead, to use the three existing altars to display her work. Simultaneously, three recent events highlighted by the media filled her mind: the rape and murder of two Indian girls, the kidnapping of 276 Chibok schoolgirls by Boko Haram, and the exploitation of “fallen women” in the Magdalene asylums—institutions that operated in the 18th-20th centuries but were more recently brought to public consciousness by the 2013 film, Philomena. She decided to turn the altars into three shrines dedicated to each of these groups of women—shrines for girls.
In the small, deconsecrated church in Venice, Patricia Cronin placed a pile of clothing on each of the three shrines found within, one to represent each of the events that were so embedded in her mind. Next to each pile was a small photograph, indistinguishable from a distance, more specifically depicting their respective group of women. At the IRWGS panel, Cronin stressed her decision to put the brightly colored saris on the one altar that could be seen from the street, recognizing how eye-catching they could be to a passer-by. And there is certainly something profoundly haunting and visually arresting about the huge piles of clothing. As the visitor walks through the door and approaches each altar, they encounter a photograph: by the saris, the two girls raped and murdered in India; the emblematic group photo of the Nigerian girls beside the pile of hijabs; and the women from the Magdalene asylums next to the aprons they wore. Cronin compels the public to make connections between the clothing on the shrine and the girls in the images: these are the clothes they are wearing. In parallel the violence and objectification of the girls, their bodies disappear, rendered invisible, and we are left with a shapeless and indistinguishable mass of fabric. Cronin’s work emphasizes a gradual process of understanding—it starts from the moment the visitor catches a glimpse of the beautifully colored saris, followed by a shocking confrontation with the photographs that reveal what the exhibit is truly about.
At the panel, Cronin highlighted the strong emotional responses visitors had to her piece, mentioning a group of Indian women that was so moved that they later returned with a black mourning sari to donate to the exhibit. This contribution to the shrine added a new and valuable participatory element to the piece; a group of women who were previously passive audiences to the exhibit became artmakers themselves, enhancing the artwork with an artifact from their own lives. In this act, the group of women expressed solidarity with the girls enshrined and with the artist. Cronin stressed the personal, intimate connection that she, an American artist, felt with this group of Indian tourists in Italy. This dynamic reflects Cronin’s stated goal to forge larger-scale ties across international communities, which is depicted in her art piece. Cronin brings three events—coming from three different regions, invoking three different religious traditions, and affecting women who wear three different types of clothing—together under one roof.
The atmosphere and siting of the piece does promote a pronounced sense of thoughtfulness and introspection; the church is a literal interpretation of the “reverential conditions” identified by Susan Sontag in Regarding the Pain of Others as important to enable careful and critical consideration of the work. The visitor is surrounded by the shrines everywhere she looks, likely finding it impossible to turn away, which suggests an insistence on looking and bearing witness. The piles of clothing themselves are large and prominent, occupying a place of importance and attention by virtue of being placed on top of the altars. The church setting, however, has another effect: it complicates Cronin’s global mission for her piece by siting it within a fundamentally Christian milieu, both in terms of location and iconography. Additionally, the church setting and use of the altars contribute to the martyrdom of the girls. In designating them as martyrs, Cronin aligns these women with a tradition of celebrating suffering with the goal of promoting some greater world good. Such a generalized depiction of suffering can create or perpetuate the idea that the “disquiet” facing women and girls is irrevocable and unchangeable, and that the best we can do is honor the lives who have suffered because of it.
Cronin’s work does follow in the tradition of politically engaged art; her project includes the promotion of three human rights organizations that work toward repairing and eradicating the kinds of abuses illustrated by her exhibit. However, we must question the extent to which Cronin’s piece really does compel us to act and produce change, or how much it teaches us about the events it depicts. A photo of two girls hanging from a tree with the backdrop of a pile of vibrant, crumpled saris is certainly arresting; it makes us stop and stare and it makes us feel bad. Cronin’s piece is beautiful and tragic and moving. But to use this picture of the girls without their consent and without a narrative description of who they were, where they came from, or what happened to them feels sensationalizing and exploitative. It feels like an instrumentalization of their suffering for shock factor, an element that Cronin herself identifies as instrumental to her piece. Rather than compel us to consider the individual narratives and realities of the women represented, Cronin’s exhibit forces us into a global and generalizing framework that risks not doing justice to those whom the piece enshrines.