Today, an eflux email about a new work by Otto Berchem commissioned by the H+F Collection caught my attention. For those of my faithful and faithless readers not in the know, eflux sends out emails about exhibits and calls for submissions from all over the art world. Most of the time I delete these emails after a cursory scan because I am bored by much of what passes as art and find the self-congratulatory, intellectual posturing increasingly grating.
I paid attention because of the photo of the piece. A large, rectangular section of a wall is painted grey-black. The only thing on this section is a sentence of raised metallic text. The text is five or so feet up from the floor. I’m guessing by relating it to a nearby door that I assume is about six feet tall. There is more painted space above the letters than below. My guestimate is that the letters are between seven and nine inches tall. The text is in all caps. From the photograph, I cannot tell if the metallic surface of the letters is reflective. I want it to be reflective, which I will explain in a moment.
The metallic metal sentence reads, “FORGIVE ME FOR WHAT I HAVE NOT DONE.” The curator glosses the piece, explaining that it inspired by a tattoo seen on a prisoner in a Puerto Rican jail, which makes me wonder how and why the artist saw this tattoo. The tattoo said, “Perdoname madre por lo que he hecho (Mother forgive me for what I have done).” We also are told that the sentence focuses us on the future, on “actions that have not (yet) been committed.”
I am going to quibble a bit with this. The sentence does not necessarily focus our attention on potential future wrongdoing. It just as easily calls to mind our sins of omission, the things we chose not to do that can be just as harmful as the things we did do. In the Episcopal tradition, the confession of sin includes this little gem, “by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.” (Book of Common Prayer, 1979). The metallic text is more powerful when we read it more completely. When it offers up for our assessment not only possible futures but also present realities.
In more nuanced readings of this piece, the “you” flips. I want the metal to be reflective not only only so viewers see themselves implicated by the statement, which is a meaning the curatorial statement emphasizes, but also to show how the artist is culpable for what he has not done (or will not do) in relation to others, specifically the viewers of this piece. In one reading, it is the viewer caught in the metallic shine. In the next reading, we notice how the artist fails to capture us. It seems purposefully poetic to capture the viewer’s reflection in letters measuring less than a foot placed on the wall at a slightly awkward height for a “mirror.” It is a willful distortion. This statement cannot capture the complexity of our failures- past, present or future. It lacks the depth of our remorse. It only begins to assuage our and his guilt. It leaves things undone, which makes its meaning richer.
Otto Berchem, I forgive you for what you have not done. I forgive for what you will do not. Forgive me for what I have not done and will not do in this little bit of writing about your piece. Take care and keep on keeping on.