THIS WEEK, of all weeks, it feels almost irresponsible to suggest that anyone attend an emotionally loaded art show. So if your emotional bandwidth is spent, if the last thing you need to hear about right now is interpersonal violence and trauma, do what you need to do. What I’m about to describe is disturbing, and there’s no rule that says just because a work of art addresses something serious and violent, we’re all required to look at it. In fact, it may be a good reason not to.
But if you’re still with me, and you’re ready to get uncomfortable with some art, let it be photographer and filmmaker Cat Del Buono’s video installation, Voices, at Blue Sky Gallery. Wall-mounted videos of women’s mouths screen in four neat rows, as their voices, all heard at once, build into an indistinguishable blur. But get close to any of the screens, and you’ll hear each woman speaking—perhaps clinically, perhaps with emotion in her voice, perhaps in a language you don’t understand—about the experience of surviving an abusive relationship. In that slow drone of secrets, some voices talk about growing up within abusive households (“My mom could never do anything right,” “People usually end up repeating what they know”), and others the societal impact (“It has a community ripple effect”), but it’s impossible not to listen in.
Taking on a sweeping problem like domestic violence in a work of art is a huge undertaking. It’s easy to do it in a way that doesn’t work, or is excessively didactic, or worse, exploitative. But Del Buono’s previous video pieces, though tempered with brevity and humor, are distinctly feminist-informed. In How to Not Get Raped, she acts out absurd, terrible advice given to women to prevent sexual assault (e.g., wearing jumpsuits and having short hair), culled from Cosmopolitan and college websites. Del Buono pushes the boundary between video and performance by using herself as her subject. But Voices’ power derives from the opposite: an external, large-scale focus.
“Not only were these women able to leave their abusive situations—which tragically doesn’t happen as often as one thinks—but they felt compelled to reach out to other women in similar circumstances and let them know they can leave and they can survive,” writes Del Buono in the show’s wall text. “This had a powerful effect on me.”
It shows. In shifting away from her own persona and toward capturing the voices of her subjects, Del Buono’s latest video work departs the self-referential to function as a sensitive, understated document of witness.