After the Dust Settles

photo by Spencer McAvoy

photo by Spencer Mcavoy

Alison Ruttan catalogs the aftermath of man-made disasters, the moments after the dust has settled but the fresh debris remain. Her sculptures take the form of small-scale clay replicas based on pictures of buildings damaged in conflict, and are modeled on press photographs of Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Libya. “One of the problems with war,” said Ruttan, speaking at the Hyde Park Art Center last Tuesday, “is that it’s very interesting. And after we’ve forgotten how damaging war is, we start to get interested in it again.”

The combination of morbid fascination, awe, and numbness we feel towards images of war is the subject of “A Bad Idea Seems Good Again,” the latest installation in Ruttan’s long-term project, which she calls “an investigation into human nature and human behavior.”

Although ceramics are a relatively new medium for her, Ruttan achieves a wide variety of effects with a simple set of materials and processes. She usually builds the models whole before destroying them using “a combination of sharp blows to the building” with various tools, and, occasionally, a BB gun. Most of the pieces are glazed, or glazed and spray-painted, the rough edges of the broken clay smoothed out, evoking the sagging, melting effect of a partially destroyed structure. In the unpainted pieces, the edges of the rubble and the damaged buildings are harsh, razor sharp. If you had been there, your ears would still be ringing from the blast.

In an earlier project, Ruttan was struck by Jane Goodall’s account of a civil war between two groups of chimpanzees. Soon afterward, one group systematically hunted down and killed every member of the other. For Ruttan, this incident raises the question of whether war and violence are somehow engrained into our biology, and she finds the excessive brutality and bloodshed of civil conflict particularly troubling. “Is this something we will just never be able to find a better solution for?” she asked.

Ruttan also seemed to be concerned that the highly mediated way most Americans experience war today may have accelerated the already lamentable cycle of violence. We have been involved in Iraq and Afghanistan longer than in any other conflict in the last hundred years, she pointed out. “Most Americans don’t even know anybody who has fought in either of these wars,” she said.

Given the nature of her work, Ruttan’s project is not to reveal, and not quite to remind. “You’ve probably already seen these images,” she says again and again. “Many of the pictures I used are straight from the pages of the New York Times.” The pieces are small, “anti-monumental,” she calls them, and influenced by the unobtrusive but evocative level of detail in Han Dynasty funerary models. The viewer is forced to get close to them, to lean in and peek into the half-shattered little boxes of the apartments. Everything–the high-rise, modular apartment buildings, the various attitudes of ruin–is too familiar. You’ve seen this before. In fact, you see it almost every day.

The pieces are titled simply–“Aleppo (upper left blast),” “Aleppo (roof and midsection blast)”–and the labels seem almost hidden on nearby walls or pillars. You experience the intimacy of the small-scale replicas before you know exactly where or when they’re from, with an attitude of anonymity and distance. Afterwards, when you find the titles, they only make explicit what Ruttan’s work has already told you: modern warfare is not a monolithic, faceless force. Even widespread destruction occurs in thousands of little wounds.

By emphasizing specificity over comprehensiveness, intimacy over documentation, Ruttan means to complicate “the distance one feels to images of wars as mediated through television and other media.” This distance, the detachment of the modern consumer of mass media, is Ruttan’s primary target. “I want to fight against that numbness,” she said. “ And I see these pieces as a way of showing that I am watching, and I’m trying to understand.”

Hyde Park Art Center, 5020 S. Cornell Ave. Through May 19. Monday-Thursday, 10am-8pm; Friday-Saturday, 10am-5pm; Sunday, noon-5pm. Free. (773)324-5520.