Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

Playing After Paris: Violence, Resilience, and Reconciliation in the Work of Chase Westfall

Still from Chase Westfall's video Control, showing drummer Julian Dorio.

Secluded in a small, pitch-black viewing room in the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, a troubled musician suddenly breaks into a virtuosic drum solo. Both terrifying and impressive, the performance unleashes a combination of sounds that is just shy of chaos. After a few minutes of what seems to be exhausting physical activity, the drummer stops — a welcome reprieve. Soon, however, the silence is interrupted once more by the sound of the drums only this time, the solo is much more subdued — a contrastingly gentle end to an otherwise bombastic beginning.

The performer is Julian Dorio: professional rock drummer, founding member of the band The Whigs, and survivor of the November 2015 terrorist attack at the Bataclan theater in Paris. And the drum kit? The very same he played on the night 90 innocent lives were taken.

Theodor Adorno once said, “There can be no poetry after Auschwitz.” After experiencing the irrevocable effects of violence, many artists find themselves coming to this same devastating conclusion. How do we confront the aftermath of violence? How can we reclaim the sites of trauma? And, where do we go from here? These are just a few of the many questions Chase Westfall’s video art piece Control — featuring Julian Dorio — artfully engages. While Westfall’s work typically functions as an open forum and is often inconclusive, with this piece he is certainly taking a novel approach to contemporary anti-violence work by focusing on the resilience of the survivor, the witness of the object, and negotiating the role of art in a post-traumatic context.

Westfall’s choice of title should not be overlooked. What appears to the viewer to be a cacophony of audio-visual chaos is actually a structured illusion. While one may experience the sound as flexible, disordered, even out of time, in reality it is operating within the constructs of temporal restrictions, predetermined notation, and even intuitive parameters (i.e. what “just sounds good”). The ability of music to embody the tension between order and chaos makes it an apt medium for communicating some of Westfall’s big ideas.

Drums, dating back as far as 6,000 B.C., often served dualistic purposes, used in both ritualistic and military contexts. Drums receive or are a vessel for violence, much like a punching bag, but a drummer—no matter how sensitive—cannot escape the fact that violence is necessary in order to play them. Violence is a crucial component in Westfall’s work. The drum kit—quite literally—takes a beating.  Still, Dorio’s performance, despite what it may initially sound like, is actually a demonstration of control. There is something effortless—or maybe reckless?—about the way the subject liberates the sound with each striking action. As a performer, he seems to acknowledge the necessity of physical aggression and function within the limitations of his craft simultaneously.

It is important to remember that Dorio is not only the musical subject of Westfall’s piece, but also a survivor of the terrorist attack it addresses. The artist has not only created a thought-provoking work through documentation but has empowered his subject as a person in the process. When considered from a more personal perspective, as viewers we realize we are seeing this not as if in a mosh pit at a rock concert, but rather as guests at a private jam session, suggested by Westfall’s use of a small stage and his use of intimate camera angles. When considered this way, the emptiness of the space becomes much more pronounced; perhaps the deliberate absence of the crowd pays homage to the many that lost their lives. These artistic choices invite us to move from the position of fan to friend, as we watch Dorio process the events of that night.

Given the historical context of this piece, it is appropriately serious. In no way does Westfall seem to be promoting a romanticized rock star version of the hero’s journey. Rather, he has documented the moment when Dorio personally began to regain control. Nothing could be harder or more important to this process than getting back on the drum set. And not just any drum set, the drum set. Westfall does not belabor this point in his videography, but he does include a few close-ups of places where the instrument was damaged by the spray of bullets. Though the inclusion of Dorio as the human element is a central feature of Control, the anthropomorphic quality that the drum kit itself takes on cannot be ignored; it functions as a vocalizing object. The symbiotic relationship between the drummer and the drum allows Dorio to express the ineffable. Drum and drummer act as witnesses, sharing a physical and aural testimony of terror. Through the act of playing, Dorio is able to confront the past in a specific, tangible way that allows him to regain control of what was violated in a profound way. The musical composition seems to follow this, as if the drum set is giving a firsthand account of what happened that night at the Bataclan.

Via myriad thoughtful creative decisions, Westfall has managed to create a work that acknowledges the destructive aspects of violence and yet invites us to consider paradoxical generative implications. This remarkable balance is achieved through his conscious decisions to utilize the vocabulary of violence to inspire change in those left behind. It is not an anti-violence work in the traditional sense; the shock factor just isn’t there. However, it is perhaps all the more powerful because of its attention to the lone survivor, urging us to remember the living as well as the dead.

Chase Westfall: Control, Codec Gallery at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, Salt Lake City, through August 9.


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