Art for a Time of Crisis

by Nancy Van Ness
- USA -

In a heap on the studio floor as though they had collapsed under some disaster, fallen birds present a scene of despair. I am drawn toward them. They are a very powerful artistic reinterpretation of the Japanese tradition of the thousand cranes that people traditionally make from beautiful origami paper as signs of hope (most recently that would be hope for peace).

A closer look reveals that the defeated origami cranes are made from newspaper accounts of war, violence, cruelty; indeed these birds have succumbed under the weight of the torment and anguish of needless human suffering all over the world. I found them when I visited another studio at the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts in Nebraska City, Nebraska, where I was briefly in residence.

The cranes first appeared in the sketch books of Julia Karll alongside handwritten notes on their pages, Look at this! A young Missouri artist who just finished her MFA in Textile Design at the University of Kansas, she is just launching her career and is currently in an artist’s residency at the Kimmel. Slender and quick, Julia has something of the sprite or pixie about her which belies the gravity of her interests. Long aware that she didn't need words to convey meaning, she instead asks herself how much she can convey in her work through the elements of form, space, size, color, line. Always interested in "what happened and why," Julia created her fallen cranes during her residency. She can’t help making art that reflects her anti-war and anti-violence beliefs. Her premise is that people in the US are unwilling to face the world in which they live, that they exist on unfounded hope, doing nothing. She says she finds it hard to have any hope at all when this world is in crisis and headed for more. Julia believes it is her job to hold up a mirror to anyone who might see what she sees. Look at this!

Another of her works is a long scroll of clear paper on which she copies stories from the newspapers, some of which turn into the cranes of despair. The scroll of wretchedness, destruction, and disaster goes on and on, relentlessly. Julia says that assuming the human race survives this time, she wants to have been the recorder of these horrors. She is making a statement for generations to come. And she wants to record that now a huge majority of Americans are opposed to the occupation of Iraq. Just a few years ago, those who opposed it were accused of being unpatriotic, even traitors. Today, a majority of US citizens are opposed, as well as a substantial majority of other countries which have always been opposed to the US invasion. She is making a record of these things. Look at this!

Julia employed hooking techniques to make rugs of these stories of horrors. In one show called Accumulation and Dissolution, she invited exhibition visitors to remove pieces of the work — to take the stories with them, literally. She has also created wall hangings from VHS tape, some of it from defense department training tapes. Laboriously unwinding the black tape, texturing it and then shaping it — sometimes plaiting it — she makes dark, monstrous things to show us. Julia explains that her work is an expression of her "reactions to world events, a product of time focusing on news reported violence" that it is a reflection of "how society receives information about war and violence through the media."

She records her own response to that information and seeks to connect to her audience, "to find one other person that feels the same way I do." She hopes to "evoke a visceral response initially with the beauty of the craft and secondly in the realization of the subversive content within the work."

In my case she succeeded entirely. I am fortunate to have seen and touched these objects; I am very moved by their beauty and by the horrors they represent. I want to dance with them and even experimented a little with one piece in her studio, moving with it, draping it over my body.

As a dancer, I have been reflecting for many years now on the role of artists during times of crisis. We are living in a time of chronic disaster, so much for so long, that many of my fellow US citizens are not even able to respond. Worse yet, the Bush regime, supported by the corporate media, is doing what it can to keep people from responding, from being fully present in this world. I am not alone in calling our short attention span and our blindness to what our country is doing by its right name: denial. As a nation, we are like an alcoholic’s friends and family who refuse to see that there is a terrible problem that is only growing worse. The elephant is indeed dead in the living room, but we act as though it were not; some of us genuinely can't see it.

Julia can see it. Furthermore, she refuses not to see it and so does what she can to show it to anyone else who might be willing to see it. She may not have much hope, but she certainly has courage.

Though much younger than I, she has shown me an excellent way for an artist to respond to the crises of our time. As a person, not qua artist, I have actively resisted the invasion and occupation of Iraq and the torture, crimes against humanity, and abrogation of constitutional rights perpetrated by the Bush regime. While at Camp Casey in Bush's Texas hometown in August of 2006, I protested the war with many others. Camp Casey was where Cindy Sheehan made her stand in the blazing heat. I danced as part of the memorial to our service personnel who have died — that sea of crosses, stars of David, and crescents that represent each life lost. I did not go there to dance, but I was asked to do so for one of the evening vigils. It was a moving experience for me. The seeds of what became Winter Soldier were definitely being sown there at that time.

An American born jazz musician who lives and works in Paris was also at Camp Casey and played at another one of the vigils. He drove me to the airport when it was time for us to leave. He just seemed to assume that of course we would make work that would somehow represent our experiences there. I was not so sure I would or what kind of work mine might be if I did.

Since then, I have participated in many protests with other like minded persons: kneeling in an orange jumpsuit on the sidewalk in front of Macy's in December with holiday shoppers on one side and the NYPD on the other; standing in the cold rain on Union Square with huge “No Torture” signs; marching with others from Times Square to Union Square chanting "No more torture, no more war, Bush and Cheney out the door." However I have not yet made any art that begins to reflect my experience the way Julia's does hers.

I am contemplating a piece for which I have applied for funding. It will be based on the traditional biblical story of Judith, the heroine — a woman of faith and courage who saves her people when the elders and army fail. I want to use her story as a vehicle for exploring what faith and courage might look like today. Surely the events in her life will focus on seeing the truth, as Julia Karll does, no matter how ugly. And, as Judith did, it will require taking action.

I see the story as a classic allegory: Holophernes is the agent of the greedy and arrogant Nebuchadnezzar. Both men are motivated by those human defects which are driven by their fear of not getting what they want, of losing what they have, all the while resenting others and their place in the world. As an imperfect human being, I have my own experience with those same enemies within. However for me, the crisis is within so the key to a better world is to engage successfully with my internal enemies first. The Judith I see does just that and lives to dance with joy and usher in an era of peace in her land.

Maybe having seen the truth that Julia shows, I will be able to complete this dance work. I need to find some hope for a better world.

Last year, Julia Karll showed her work in Auburn, NY, St. Louis and at multiple locations in Kansas. This year, Julia will exhibit at the Kimmel Gallery, located in the Public Library in Nebraska City. She will also be part of the PlatteForum show from August 1st-30th, purposefully coinciding with the Democratic National Convention in Denver. While there, she will teach a course for adults in June called "Creating Content with Craft." In January 2009, she will have a show in Portland, Oregon as part of the New Iconoclasts exhibit at the Hoffman Gallery. – Ed.

About the Author
Nancy Van Ness, founder and Director of the American Creative Dance group in New York City, is a 61 year old modern dancer who has taken up tango in recent years. Always serious about dance, she went to Buenos Aires to study with one of the greatest maestros of that form. Having spent decades in a unitard in small black box theaters making "high art," she is now sometimes seen in slinky dresses dancing tango con alma y pasión in tango salons and at international dance concerts.

As an unexpected result of her tango dancing, she was cast as the female lead in Tango Passion, a romantic comedy set in a tango salon. Tango Passion is now being featured at film festivals, most recently at the 2007 Boston International Film Festival. Van Ness says, “It is a romantic comedy about people my age instead of young lovers. I took on the role partly to confront stereotypes about who is lovable, who is attractive, who is even visible in our culture.” Filled with many surprises, it is about a couple whose relationship has definitely not lost the spice of life.

Van Ness was, however, shocked to find that the medium works in ways she hadn’t understood before. The exhibit "Dangerous Beauty" at the Chelsea Art Museum elucidated what was troubling her about having played the role of the luscious Claudia in the film.

Van Ness created an innovative, avant garde system of dance and musical accompaniment for her company, American Creative Dance. The troupe’s dance work requires performers to be creators; they do not perform dance classics. All dancers use their own bodies to make art, they do not have an impersonal instrument such as the musician, the painter, or the writer does. But using one’s body as a tool involves risk. Dancers in this troupe create their work in plain view under the audience's eyes. For further information please visit American Creative Dance.
Nancy Van Ness lives in New York City.

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6 comments on “Art for a Time of Crisis
  1. RoseAnne says:

    Dear Nancy,
    Thank you for featuring Julia’s work and for showing just how vital artwork is as a form of protest. I couldn’t help but think of Kurt Joss’ anti-war ballet, “The Green Table,” which chillingly portrays not only the tragedies of war, but also the decisions made by the brutish politicians who are often far removed from the realities of the wars they create.

  2. Elisa says:

    I too believe our country is in denial. And artistic expression is vital for lifting the veil so we can see. Keep dancing and writing. For every person you impact, there is more hope.

  3. betsys says:

    i’m sorry nancy for disagreeing with you although you did write a very well thought out article. i’m so sick of “artists” that have no real talent and no creativity using the war and some of the horrors of our current time as a scapegoat for their own lack of creativity. i do not personally care for miss karll’s work. i could do that. in fact my own daughter is at home copying “bad news about the war” for her middle school current events class. i mean come on. anyone can do what she’s doing, many many many people have (some call themselves artists, many do not). and some of the quotes from her offend me and let me see how highly miss karll thinks of herself.
    “Julia says that assuming the human race survives this time, she wants to have been the recorder of these horrors.”
    aren’t newspapers themselves recorders? isn’t the internet and tv their own recorders? who needs to read it written down again on a big long scroll. i mean seriously. again, my twelve year old daughter is doing that and i know for a fact she has no idea who miss karll is. so i’m going to say my twelve year old is the recorder of these horrors.
    “She records her own response to that information and seeks to connect to her audience, “to find one other person that feels the same way I do.” She hopes to “evoke a visceral response initially with the beauty of the craft and secondly in the realization of the subversive content within the work.”
    oh come on, who doesn’t feel this way? “to find the ONE OTHER PERSON That feels the same way”. that’s ridiculous. there are thousands, millions of people that do. maybe if the artist would have done this work straight after 9/11 i could maybe MAYBE take more stock in her work and the quotes you have put on here.
    sorry to write so much about this, i have just had a big conversation about this with my father and how much these new uncreative artists put so much stock in what i would say is “scapegoat art”.
    again your article is well written i just wanted to share my difference of opinion.

  4. Nancy Vining Van Ness says:

    Many thanks for thoughtful response to this article and I am not at all offended that you disagree. I appreciate your taking the time to do so at such length.
    I do not know if Julia has seen this comment or not, but if she has she may well feel as though she is in good company. Many of the Western world’s most innovative artists have also been called the equivalent of “new uncreative artists.” The Impressionists, who are now great favorites with many people throughout the world, were considered ridiculous by the art critics of their time. They were rejected by the annual Salon in Paris where serious art was displayed, so they made their own Salon of the Rejected.
    I used to hear people say of Jackson Pollack, whose work was honored with a huge retrospective exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1998-1999, that anyone, even a child, could do what he did.
    Goya and Picasso were both artists who chose war and atrocities as subjects and elicited strong negative reactions both to their content and to their artistic choices.
    Though I welcome anyone’s honest opinions, I stand by the artistic merit of Julia Karll’s work and do not hesitate to state that she is very creative, having made beautiful objects from unlikely materials, in the grand tradition of Western art since the 19th Century and of world art throughout history. Some of her work will be on display in Denver at the PlattForum exhibit in August.

  5. betsys says:

    sorry nancy, again i must disagree. yes there are many artists out there that have been history making innovators, but if we put EVERY uncreative artist in this category then we are doing the world of art a major disservice. i love jackson pollack. i love marcel duchamp. i do not love julia karll. i love other present day artists that are innovators. miss karll is not one of those. her work is the same work that has been done for YEARS from other artists that are “protesting” the war on iraq.
    this is innovative AND creative AND thoughtful:
    and so is this one:
    and this one? it seems pretty familiar to another piece that miss karll has done:
    you know, the piece with the gloves. except this piece was done before 2006.
    and this piece? a CREATIVE use of the cranes, not just piling in some big pile on the floor, which i’m sure thousands of other artists have done in this time, just not deemed it worthy enough to actually put out there:
    that is crane use that is INNOVATIVE and again CREATIVE!
    and her videotape sculpture that is described as, “expression of her ‘reactions to world events, a product of time focusing on news reported violence’ that it is a reflection of ‘how society receives information about war and violence through the media.'”
    how come she used just SOME defense department training tapes? i mean if we are to take this piece seriously shouldn’t all of the tape be used from some sort of military activity? not just “some” of it, the rest of the VHS tapes was most likely picked up anywhere and everywhere she could get them. if those videotape pieces should be taken seriously at ALL as protest art, then it should have been made of all military/iraqi reportage tapes. otherwise it’s just a big VHS tape blob that has virtually no reference the the war.
    i’m sorry, i completely agree that there are many artists that have been labeled as “new uncreative artists” that many people find very creative and innovative but please don’t put miss karll on that pedestal. it gives other innovative artists a bad wrap, a feeling that virtually ANYONE could be classified in the innovative grouping.
    to miss karll, in my opinion you need to start using your brain more and not take the easy way out.

  6. Nancy Vining Van Ness says:

    It was my great privilege to study with American Baudelaire scholar William T. Bandy. Baudelaire was not only a poet, but an art critic and not bad himself with a pen or a brush. One thing Professor Bandy repeated regularly, using some of the world’s most famous critics like Boileau and Sainte Beuve as examples, was that a critic’s mistakes are rejections and rejections are mistakes. He emphasized that the work of the critic is to make art of any medium intelligible to others.
    I took that much to heart and try to remember it for myself today. That was decades ago and I have continued all my life to study the arts as well as to make art myself. I have preferences, often strong ones, but when confronted by work I don’t like, I remember “mistakes are rejections and rejections are mistakes.” Though I may not be able to understand some work myself much less make it intelligible to anyone else, though I just don’t like it, I try to remember that art is where human beings live. I try to remember that someone else would be able to do what I cannot. I can and sometimes do ask for help from someone who knows more than I or who is more sensitive to work I don’t understand or appreciate. I never choose to write publicly about work that does not move me and that I cannot place in the best traditions with which I am familiar.
    Though wary of any kind of “official” approbation of art, since some of the worst failures of art criticism have been from official places, I can still assess the opinions of others. I don’t form my opinions based on the decisions of curators and awards committees, but neither do I have to revile their decisions when my own informed taste and judgment agree with theirs.
    My own choices have allowed me not to have to discourage any artist and to support many, publicly and privately. I do not regret continuing to follow the lead of Professor Bandy, who was himself the mentor of many, many scholars, critics, collectors, and intellectuals over a long career.

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