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Extraordinary rendition refers to the act of secretly transporting alleged criminals and terrorists into countries that allow the torturing of prisoners. That way, officials can claim ignorance as interrogations are carried out by non-nationals, thereby subverting the standards set by the United Nations and the Geneva Conventions.
By definition, this action is illegal, and that is the very point of using a tactic like this—supposedly, more information can be obtained than is legally possible. There is much speculation surrounding the practice of extraordinary rendition and its use by our government. Since this is just an art review, let’s leave it at that—it’s a concept to be pondered.
In Rendition, Tim Guthrie’s show at Sierra Arts Gallery, there are 4 feet by 6 feet rendered portraits on paper. They are, in fact, literally extraordinary. The level of detail in the hair, skin and accessories portrayed is out of the ordinary. The renditions are close to a photographic level of completion, and their scale is huge. But in a phone interview, the artist says, “The execution of the portraits mean nothing, and it isn’t about the PATRIOT Act. It’s about our perception of torture.”
In his artist’s statement, Guthrie writes, “the exhibit aims to encourage discourse about the practice of extraordinary rendition.”
Gagged, blindfolded and bound, some disoriented with black goggles, some with headphones, and one rendered silent with a stick tied in his mouth, the four men subjected to Guthrie’s renditions communicate a sense of punishment—but any question of guilt has been avoided. We simply see men being restricted.
The models for the works were not real prisoners of war but rather some of Guthrie’s artist acquaintances. Guthrie, a native of Nebraska, is currently an art professor at Creighton University in Omaha but has been traveling to artists’ residencies around the world, and he lived in the Reno area for about six years. He taught at Western Nevada College.
The huge grayscale portraits are unsettling, but the cameras mounted above them are even more so. Red velvet ropes guard each prisoner, and a computer screen plays the live footage of viewers’ reactions to the art at the back of the gallery. The visual record is also “digitally downloaded into a database for future examination and analysis” according to his artist’s statement.
The back wall of the gallery displays a digital projection loop of about two minutes of simulated waterboarding. The footage of people being dunked under water is slowed down greatly and conveys the danger of submersion.
“He’s working on four to eight exhibitions at a time,” says Jill Berryman, executive director of Sierra Arts. “This show is an introduction to the show that will be in Kansas City, which will be twice as large. Sierra Arts was promised that we’d be the first to show this work.”
In November, the works move to that midwestern city.
On the subject of Guthrie’s reluctance to talk much about his own artwork, Berryman says, “Maybe he needs someone to voice the opposition to engage in conversation.”
Guthrie’s opening reception did have one onlooker who was pretty vocal and questioned the artist’s stated facts. “He does his homework,” Berryman says in defense of Guthrie.
About the digital video stored “for future examination and analysis,” the artist explains little. He’s got his audience on film now, and when asked if he’s been vague on purpose, the artist’s answer was a pointed “Oh, yeah.”