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The Quiet Rooms of Casa Italiana

Here’s yet another instance of some really important cultural things being totally free and right under our noses. The Silent Strength of Liu Xia is an exhibition at the Italian Academy of the work of house-arrested dissident Chinese photographer Liu Xia, wife of Nobel-winning poet Liu Xiaobo. Conor Skelding stepped inside.

I’d never been inside Casa Italiana before, and the entryway was about as nice as I’d expected. A bored Public Safety officer pointed both to my right and left when I asked where the exhibit was. The exhibit occupies two rooms immediately to the right and left of the entrance, each about 300 sq ft.

There are 26 photos, the vast majority of which feature a cast of infant dolls with grotesque facial expressions. One infant’s face appears constipated; another gasps in horror; a third laughs raucously in a chillingly adult manner; a fourth is frustrated and confused. Their assorted reactions suggest different emotions when placed in varying settings, with varying companion.

The photos are chilling. Freakish dolls either directly confront the incomprehensible (a doll with a lightbulb for a head; an open book; infants lying still, facedown) or are dwarfed by the gigantic (open air; the sea; a wall of books; a man). In one photograph, four infants are lined up, each covered in a plastic bag. That the artist has seen horror (she married her husband, effectively by mail, as he languished in a labor reeducation camp; she herself is currently under house arrest), is apparent in her work.

The exhibition rooms are pensive and quiet. Trucks in low gear, southbound on Amsterdam can be heard, but only faintly. After spending a few minutes alone considering the photographs, I felt a little bit more at peace. Bottom line: There is no reason not to stop in for five or ten minutes,  take a breather, and look at some relevant art. I promise that minute for minute it will heal you more than late-season episodes of The Office.

The Silent Strength of Liu Xia runs through March 1. The exhibit is open on weekdays from 9:30 am to 4:30 pm, and on Saturday from 12 pm to 6 pm.

Photograph by Liu Xia, courtesy of The New Republic

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