The faint echoes of ancient atrocities haunt the artwork of Millie Chen, whose alternately terrifying and disquieting wallpapers are on view in a solo exhibition in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.
Chen’s wallpapers, based on etchings by 17th century French artist Jacques Callot from the Albright-Knox collection, run the entire length of the subterranean hallway that connects the gallery’s 1962 building to Clifton Hall.
She has turned those etchings, which depict the depravity of war and grotesque forms of torture practiced in 17th century France, into two distinct pieces. The first, “The Miseries,” sets some of the more gruesome visual scenes from Callot’s violent etchings against a background the color of dried blood. The second, “Vengeance,” is a less visceral black-and-white enlargement of some of Callot’s scenes in which human bodies have been erased and only the eerie quiet of nature and the deadly instruments of torture and death remain.
Chen, as she has written in a statement for the show, is concerned with the historical residue of human violence. She’s interested in what happens as weeds grow over bloody battlefields and as human memory, a sieve designed to filter out trauma, allows us to forget and eventually repeat our gravest mistakes.
The greatest achievement of the show is not in the particular scenes Chen chose to emphasize or even in the soul-numbing sense of unease you get from looking at her empty landscapes, but in the choice of her medium. By selecting wallpaper, a repetitive form made up of identical patterns, she is emphasizing the very cycle of violence the work depicts. There is something beautifully doomed about Chen’s attempt to interrupt a vicious cycle by reproducing it.
Moreover, by imbuing the wallpaper with deeply political content, she is posing an important question: In order to avoid the violence that occurred at Treblinka or in Rwanda, is it necessary to surround ourselves with jarring reminders of that violence just as some people surround themselves with floral prints?
To accompany the wallpapers, the Albright-Knox also is showing Chen’s eight-minute video “Tour” in its new media gallery. “Tour” is a meditative work that explores the sites of major atrocities. These include the Treblinka extermination camp in Poland, the fields of Choeung Ek, Cambodia, the site of the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee and the Rwandan countryside, where much of the country’s 1994 genocide took place.
To a soundtrack of hummed lullabies, each one based in part on the folk melodies of the film’s four settings, Chen’s camera passes over the grass and weeds that have grown in each place. Time and nature, Chen suggests, have obscured the jarring and violent reality of what occurred in each place, but that violence is only barely hidden – a latent and restless force ready at any moment to emerge again from the weeds.
The soothing music at first seems directly at odds with Chen’s desire to bring us face to face with history, but after a while it comes to seem even more disturbing than a death metal track or a Górecki symphony might. That’s because it points up the way we lull ourselves into complacency and hum ourselves softly to sleep after the latest unthinkably violent act.
With this searing new body of work, Chen is rattling us awake.
What: Millie Chen’s “The Miseries & Vengeance Wallpapers” and “Tour”
When: “Wallpapers” on view through Sept. 28; “Tour” on view through May 18
Where: Albright-Knox Art Gallery, 1285 Elmwood Ave.
Tickets: $5 to $12
Info: 882-8700, albrightknox.org