An exhibition inspired by the vandalism of five paintings while on display has opened at the National Gallery, with the aim of exploring how trauma can manifest in people’s reaction to museum and gallery collections.
If you sting us, don’t we bleed? was set up by the gallery’s artist-in-residence, Ali Cherri, appointed in 2021, who discovered accounts of National Gallery paintings being vandalized while on display while researching its archives.
He said he was struck by the public’s emotional reaction to the attacks, noting that the damage was referred to in newspaper articles in terms similar to injuries, while some reports compared gallery curators to surgeons. Overall, he felt a need for healing and felt that people tended to personify artwork by suggesting that they could experience trauma and distress.
The research prompted him to take the exhibition title from Shakespeare’s The Merchant Of Venice, the gallery said.
He described the exhibition as comprising mixed media, sculptural installations that “recall aspects of each painting and imagine its life after vandalism”. He added: “By translating each damaged work into a series of objects, Cherri reminds us that we are never truly the same after experiencing violence.”
Cherri, who was born in Lebanon and lives in Beirut and Paris, uses sculpture, film and installation to pursue the meaning of the built environment and its stories. He often uses relics and archaeological sites as a starting point to explore the processes of excavation, relocation and museum classification of objects, animal artifacts, images and their stories.
He said: “Giving a contemporary artist access to one of the richest collections of paintings in the world is a way to maintain dialogue and open up to new kinds of engagement.”
The exhibition has been assembled in the Sainsbury’s Wing of the National Gallery in the form of five cases reminiscent of early museum exhibitions and cabinets of curiosities, surrounded by Renaissance paintings, many of which show wounds and suffering.
Cherri is the National Gallery’s second artist-in-residence since the launch of its modern and contemporary program, following the appointment of Rosalind Nashashibi in 2019.
If you sting us, don’t we bleed? will run from March 16 to June 22 in the Sainsbury’s Wing of the National Gallery.