FRAMINGHAM - In the darkness stands a crowd of agitated people. When you walk between them, at their center you find a man, naked except for a black bag over his head. He would easily be the tallest in the room if he stood up. But he is kneeling, with his hands pulled behind him and tied to a post. And he is shot full of arrows.
So it goes in Ana Maria Pacheco's haunting sculptural installation "Dark Night of the Soul" at the Danforth Museum. Though completed in 1999 and inspired by the figure of St. Sebastian, this wood passion play viscerally conjures up the specter of American torture committed in the name of the "war on terror," from Abu Ghraib to CIA waterboarding. Other artists have incisively addressed this subject; Jenny Holzer's screenprints of government documents currently at Mass MoCA and in Massachusetts College of Art and Design's "War Stories" exhibit come to mind. But few make you feel so caught up in the middle of it.
The 19 men, women, and children depicted in "Dark Night" were chainsawed, blowtorched, chopped, and chiseled from wood and then painted folk-art style. They have overlarge heads, some with nails for hair and mouths full of creepily realistic prosthetic teeth. They watch one another - and us as we walk among them - with onyx eyes that shine in the shadowy gallery.
The wounds of the bound, hooded man are bruised and bleeding. A crack runs down his wooden chest, from his neck to his groin. Who knows what his crime - if any - might be? But Pacheco's sympathy is certainly with him.
The figure references traditional iconography for the martyrdom of St. Sebastian, a third century Roman soldier whom, tradition has it, a Roman emperor ordered executed for his Christian faith. First they tried shooting him with arrows, a scene that became a favorite motif of Renaissance artists. But Sebastian supposedly survived and denounced the emperor, who then had him beaten to death.
Pacheco, born in Brazil in 1943 but based in London since 1973, also draws on themes from her native country's troubled history. She crafted "Dark Night" while an artist in residence at London's National Gallery, taking inspiration from a Renaissance painting of St. Sebastian in the museum's collection as well as a photo from Brazil called "Death squad victim" and a Robert Mapplethorpe shot of a hooded naked man. The title, which refers to a crisis of faith, comes from a spiritual treatise written by the 16th-century Spanish Roman Catholic mystic and reformer St. John of the Cross after escaping imprisonment by Catholic leaders.
The installation - which is supplemented here by 14 drawings and prints - brings to mind the torture and murder perpetrated by Brazilian military dictatorships in the 1960s and '70s. But it also speaks more broadly because such cruelty is a deep and ancient human tradition.
In "Dark Night," a larger-than-life man in a brown trench coat faces the victim with his shoulders hunched up and a queasy look on his face. A seated woman watches him, perhaps questioning his reaction, perhaps judging his inaction. Three tall men in black cloaks circle the victim. Their garb and expressions suggest they are the perpetrators, or at least their allies. One has his mouth open, as if thinking "What have I done?" A second hides his mouth under his cloak but stares hard, as if thinking it had to be done and he must be strong enough to witness it. A third man observes the other two with a calm that feels like threat: If they don't act properly, they too might end up like the bound, hooded man.
A naked boy stares at the victim in wonder, matter-of-factly drinking it in. A woman holding a little girl looks defeated. An older woman gazes calmly and sadly, as if she's seen this before. No one helps or comforts the victim.
"Dark Night of the Soul" asks what must be done to protect society versus what actions cross the line into evil. It speaks about the dark deeds of ruling powers, about paralyzing fear and guilt, about the moral compromises people make to get by.
Pacheco's technique references both European-style painted wood sculptures in Brazil's Roman Catholic churches and folk-art traditions brought to Brazil by slaves taken from West Africa. One can also trace connections to the subjects (war, torture) and the Expressionist styles of painters Leon Golub, Stanley Spencer, Max Beckmann, and Fernando Botero, whose recent "Abu Ghraib" paintings depict bound, tortured, and sexually humiliated prisoners.
Pacheco's installation is all the more visceral since you walk among her figures and they catch your eye, implicating you in the violence because you, like all the others, witness it and do nothing to stop it.