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National Gallery Presents: Ali Cherri :If you prick us, do we not bleed?

16 March – 12 June 2022 Sainsbury Wing, Rooms 57, 58, 59

An exhibition of new work that considers how histories of trauma can be explored through a response to museum and gallery collections opens at the National Gallery on Wednesday 16 March 2022.

If you prick us, do we not bleed? by the Gallery’s 2021 Artist in Residence Ali Cherri, introduces cabinets of curiosity into the heart of the Sainsbury Wing, containing assembled fragments that might look like relics from another collection. 

Dirk Bouts, Christ Crowned with Thorns (detail), about 1470 © The National Gallery, London

Starting with research in the Gallery’s archive, Cherri has uncovered accounts of five National Gallery paintings* that were vandalised while on display. He was struck by the public’s highly emotional response to these attacks, finding that newspaper articles would describe the damages as if they were wounds inflicted on a living being – even referring to the Gallery’s conservators as surgeons. 

He also noticed an overwhelming urge to ‘heal’, make good and hide the damage. This personification of artworks, and the suggestion that they can experience distress, is reflected in the exhibition’s title, taken from Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice

Ali Cherri in front of Van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Portrait at the National Gallery © Photo: The National Gallery, London  

In response, Cherri presents a series of mixed media, sculptural installations that recall aspects of each painting and that imagine its life following the vandalism. They bring into question what Cherri calls the ‘politics of visibility’; the decisions we make about how, and to what extent, we accept trauma within museums. By translating each damaged work into a series of objects, Cherri reminds us that we are never truly the same after experiencing violence.  

Assembled in five vitrines reminiscent of early museum displays and cabinets of curiosity, lined up in the Sainsbury Wing and surrounded by Renaissance paintings that often show wounds and suffering, Cherri’s installations resonate with sympathy.  

The 2021 National Gallery Artist in Residence is a collaboration with the Contemporary Art Society, generously supported by Anna Yang and Joseph Schull. Following the display at the National Gallery, the Contemporary Art Society will acquire a work from the Residency for the National Gallery’s project partner, the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum, Coventry.

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