Susan Dessel's "OUR BACKYARD" censored by gallery

this too is our backyard

In the twenty-first century the entire world really has become our "backyard" and along with its beauty and energy, there is also much unnecessary misery and death everywhere in that yard. Provincial fears and mindless censorship cannot reconstruct fences around the familiar, confined spaces which now open onto a much larger world, nor can they make the misery and death go away.

Susan Dessel's sculpture, "OUR BACKYARD: A Cautionary Tale" has been censored by its current host, the Long Beach Island Foundation for Arts & Sciences [LBIF]. She had been invited to participate in its current Artist Residency and Retreat Exhibition, titled "ART CONCEIVED SINCE SEPTEMBER 11". Support from the Foundation for Contemporary Arts (NYC) made Dessel's participation in this exhibit possible. On the eve of the show's May 3rd opening LBIF Interim Executive Director Chris Seiz told the artist that he had been advised by some LBIF members that they found the piece “offensive” and were considering ending their support of foundation. In the hours prior to the opening Dessel's installation was walled off from the rest of the gallery. Visitors who now wish to see the concealed work must first step across signage warning that them that the piece may upset or offend.

The artist has released a statement:

"OUR BACKYARD: A Cautionary Tale" was an opportunity for me to re-imagine the world as I understand it: our shared backyard. Despite the expression of dispiriting conditions found in my work, underlying it is a robust sense of hope that it might encourage viewers to consider their own role in transforming the community - local and global - through their actions and inaction.
Dessel describes LIBF’s transformation of the piece as having turned the artist's fundamental intention on its head, since it now represents our containment and continual isolation from the outside world.

This profoundly moving large-scale work was first seen at a show Barry and I curated at Williamsburg's Dam, Stuhltrager Gallery in September, 2006. It was a site-specific installation which the artist described as a response to wide-spread images of violent death in many parts of the world. The work has been fundamentally altered with the decision to wall it in during the current show in New Jersey. Dessel sees the LIBF's restriction of her expression as an artist as raising the new and separate issue of the role we permit art in our society generally.

It 2006 was installed in the "backyard" of the gallery in Brooklyn. There were no warnings posted, and it managed to attract more positive attention from visitors and press (both old and new media) than any other work in the group show.

The picture at the top of this entry was taken only a few days ago. It is not an image of a sculpture. Nor were any of the other horrific news images we have seen in our lifetimes from New Orleans, Jonestown, Haiti, and Cambodia, from Lebanon, Israel and Palestine, from Sarajevo, Darfur, Argentina, Sudan and Rwanda, and of course from Afghanistan and Iraq. Dessel's "OUR BACKYARD" addresses our response to all of these tragedies and too many more, perhaps with the hope that if it helps us to engage in their reality with a shared humanity the world might do a little better going forward. I cannot begin to understand how people accustomed to viewing the horrors presented on what passes for ordinary entertainment on large and small screens today could possibly be upset or offended by twelve carefully-assembled shapes wrapped in sandbag tarp and lying on fresh sod.

I'd like to think we could do better, but the kind of censorship being exercised by a gallery in southern New Jersey this month is hardly unique even in the art world, and it's certainly of a piece with the bowdlerization which has been standard media practice in this country for decades. It's no wonder we continue to do so little to help prevent or ameliorate, and in fact contribute so much ourselves to creating, the catastrophes which litter our global backyard.

The Long Beach Island Foundation for Arts & Sciences is celebrating its sixtieth anniversary. I can't know the motives behind its censorship of Susan Dessel's art, but it's unfortunate that so many of us will have first come to know the LBIF not for patronage of arts or science but for institutional behavior not worthy of an amateur craft club in Colorado Springs, and at this juncture that analogy may do a disservice to the city popularly considered the most radically "conservative" in the nation.

The images which appear below show Dessel's installation before the curtained wall was in place, after it was installed, the sign at the entrance to the curtain baffle, and finally what it looked like inside the enclosure.





[Burma image from European Pressphoto Agency via NYTimes; remaining images courtesy of the artist]

thank you for your very important defense of Susan Dessel's artwork. i cant understand how any art organization could accept and then censor such a relevant and important artistic statement found in her work. We need to be jolted out of our complacency and Susan's work does just that.

I am a long-time family friend of Susan Dessel's. Her work contains a searing humanity, and connects our intimate landscape with that of the losses we experience as humans around the globe - whether Haiti, Ethiopia, or New Orleans. I have puzzled greatly over the apparent inability of my fellow American citizens to register the horror of the policies of current and past American administrations (the Iraq invasion, Iran-Contra anyone?), and the actions of regimes, juntas, and despots around the globe. I walk through my life, asking the question: Why is it so important who wins "Dancing with the Stars" or "American Idol" , while children starve for no good reason other than the greed of "1st world" nations? As a former presenter for the Hunger Project, I taught that it would take nothing more or less than the will of the people to bring an end to childhood mortality that kills 40,000 children EVERY DAY. Monsoons, cyclones, droughts, tidal waves, earthquakes, and tornados are all things we can't control, but the global response to these natural disasters is perfectly within our control. In shunting Ms. Dessel's precise mirroring of our blindness off to the side, behind the curtain, the LBIF merely becomes an organization that embodies the weak-willed Wizard of Oz, roaring loudly, with nothing to offer but the instruction - hide behind the curtain and forget what's really happening. Well, folks, WE are the wizard, if we choose to cover our eyes to the reality of overpowering control of some people over the masses on this planet, and all the words and curtains in the world cannot gainsay the truth of Susan's vision. We are all in this together. When will our words (we, the collective voice) contain the power of unity, of compassion, of recognition that it is we who hold the power to change the status quo? Hiding the truth behind a curtain is a shameful act. Admitting to our blindness is not.

If killing and murder is to be censored, humanity should begin by censoring it in our hearts...not get pissed off when attention is brought to it in our art.

People are afraid of the reality they themselves produce. Having to wall off the installation, which we had previously seen in Brooklyn, has the effect of making fear just that more powerful. We should all be ashamed.

There is little that can be added to the response given--this is outrageous and syptomatic of these toxic times. Equally outrageous is the decision to screen off and the labelling of the Dessel artwork---this should be given press exposure. It's a worrisome portrait of the dimunition of not just artiustic but civil rights. The gallery should be put out of business.

Thanks for laying out the absurdity of censorship in such a cogent manner. Of course the image of actual dead people makes the censorship of Dessel's images even more ludicrous. Well think of it this way, soldiers coming home to be buried after dying in Iraq are "walled off" by this government. I guess they too might be disturbing or offensive.

So, its okay for the world to see the photos of the injustices and savagery in the world on a daily basis, but not okay for this same horrific world to be depicted in sculpture. This is a terrible injustice and bias by a small group of small minded people who have made this decision. The world is not always a pretty place and Ms. Dessels' bold statement should not be segregated because it does not wonderful to be reminded of how we now live.

Are the board members narrow-minded clones of the former mayor and presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani? Art should make the viewer feel and/or think. Susan Dessel's work does both, evoking a powerful emotional and intellectual response that we as citizens of the global community should be free to react to and discuss. How disturbing and sad that the LBI Foundation board's reaction is one of censorship rather than dialogue.

...thanks for posting this!

What is offensive is the gallery's attempt to censor Dessel's powerful reminder of what is going on in "our backyards".

Susan Dessel's work neither upsets or offends. It elucidates. It illuminates. It educates. It radiates the ethos and the pathos of our tiny little time filled with tiny little minds. The reaction it has elicited is entirely predictable, suitably banal, and in keeping with the general march toward complete "dominionism" by those "world builders" who are actually the self-same world destroyers that we have incessantly fought off throughout our short history. Whether it's censoring sexuality or atrocity, it sees both as the same. It confuses what is obscene and what is truth-telling, it can not distinguish between art and garbage, nor can it identify life or anti-life. The fascism in amerika and its imperialist strongholds is coming fast and furious. It's here. Thanks for exposing it, as we need to expose it everywhere it exists. It's a cancer and need excision. Beauteous, powerful, transparent ART from Susan Dessel.

Its disturbing to see that these images that, years ago were front page are now, not only censored by corporate news agencies but by institutions that used to foster artistic expression.

How ironic that the gallery has added to the piece by Susan Dessel in such a way. Does the wall represent the isolation of Americans from reality? So many people have fenced yards and security systems and are increasingly isolated by fear and ignorance of the world. One can only hope that the censoring brings more attention to this thought provoking work.

Susan's very strong piece speaks to us about the world in which we now live. She has the courage and vision to see this for us. Thank you for defending her.
Rebecca and John Crow, Tucson, Arizona

The LBIF has a "feedback" form on its website. I just submitted the following, and suggest other people write in and let them know how you feel.

I am very disappointed in the decision by LBIF to wall off and isolate Susan Dessel's sculpture in your show, "Art Conceived After September 11." What kind of work were you expecting in response to the events of September 11? All rainbows and butterflies? A "We Are the World" singalong?

Viewers who don't want to encounter any upsetting images would not choose to attend an exhibition of work specifically labeled as "conceived after September 11" and don't need to have their delicate sensibilities protected from an artist's interpretation of world events, especially after you invited the artist to participate and to address exactly this subject. And Dessel's piece is much less graphic or upsetting than what you can see on network television at any moment.

And it appears that you have removed all reference to this exhibition from your website. Terrorism isn't pretty. If you can't stand the heat, don't curate a show about artists' reactions to terrorism.

Your logo includes the words Enlighten. Educate. Stimulate. Foster. Which of these excellent verbs are you demonstrating in this case?

Oriane Stender
Brooklyn, NY

Censorship began in the Nixon Administration to a level unforeseen
in American History. Censorship is at work in the current economic
recession. There are many living in America who have become censors
in their own right. Rush Limbaugh is a good example. 9/11 was about censorship within the US top Security organizations. The NSA.and the
FBI are about censorship. We are speaking of human rights, in our own nation the jails contain over 2 million people. 11 million people are on food stamps. Twenty million homes are empty. When art is censored we are censored. When we go to war on a lie, it is censorship of our Constitution and Bill of Rights. I say put it on the White House Lawn. Take it to every nation as a symbol of where we are going if we do nottouch the human heart, and soul.

Since world war one over 62 million people on planet earth have died from War or it's deadly consequences. In China and Russia another
50 million in the great purges. The inherit danger of any censorship is a warning that we want to control your minds, your ideas and thoughts. You need to be like us.

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Published on May 11, 2008 10:00 PM.

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