I Don’t Know Their Names
April 2nd – May 10th, 2014: Linfield Gallery, Linfield College, McMinnville, OR
I Don’t Know Their Names is a durational performance in which the names of 100,000 Iraqi civilians who have died in the Iraq War are painted on the walls in white semi-translucent paint. This subtle memorial acts as a nearly invisible testament to the humanity of those who lost their lives in the Iraq War conflict.
The project utilizes the space of the Linfield Art Gallery as an architectural structure, taking advantage of its natural lighting and physical configuration. Daylight enters through ceiling and travels slowly across the gallery over the course of the day, illuminating various swathes of the wall. When visitors enter the space, they are first met with confusion—the gallery appears to contain nothing. However, as sunlight glides along the wall, it refracts against the reflective paint, revealing the hidden text to astute viewers. Instead of containing nothing, the gallery instead begins to embody the enormous physical presence of emptiness, an emptiness filled with names of loss and ephemerality.
This study in minimalist gestures and endurance asks viewers to respond with a gesture of their own—in attempting to read the nearly invisible text, they must endure a similar performative act in standing still as the daylight shifts around them, or change their perspective by moving through the space. The artist’s process of painting the names in white, and the viewer’s attempt to read these names mirrors the arduous process of healing. In attempting to overcome tragedy and endure loss, the artist gradually attains a comfort born of repetition while the viewer moves through cycles of acknowledgment and recovery. The names in white are both revealed and laid to rest.
I Don’t Know Their Names answers a common refrain in conflicts— that as casualties escalate, the personal stories of each tragedy are lost in the dehumanizing scale of modern warfare. Faces and stories denigrate to names; names denigrate to numbers. War memorials often name the soldiers whose lives are lost in combat, but rarely is equal attention given to the civilians of conflict. Those people are trapped on the “Other” side of a great divide—a cultural, historical, linguistic, racial and geographical divide that makes dehumanization all too easy. Thus I Don’t Know Their Names responds as a faint whisper to an unasked question— What are the names behind the numbers? And who were they? The unrelenting response is that they were human—their names take on a power and presence of their own.
But the names are listed in Arabic. This flowing script may be the native language of all of the civilians whose names are memorialized, but it is not a language that many visitors to the gallery will understand. The artist’s performance renders fully visible what is invisible only if the viewer responds with a similar effort of endurance. Viewers are left to consider their complacency in rendering the visible invisible and to contemplate the challenge before them.