DETROIT — The Sick Man of Europe, a project by artist Dor Guez, demonstrates the fundamental tension between individual and society. For issues to be big enough to garner notice, they must operate on the societal level — war, gun violence, political grandstanding, environmental catastrophe — but ultimately these struggles hold significance because of their impact on us as individuals. War would not be the tragedy that it is if it did not deprive people of their singular lives, or injure them in physical and physic ways so as to make them unrecognizable. One supposes that those who make decisions on the societal level must distance themselves a great deal from the human impact of their political imperatives.
The Sick Man of Europe — whose title is a phrase coined by Czar Nicholas II to describe the Ottoman Empire and its economic and cultural “weakness” in comparison to Europe, but has subsequently been assigned to nearly every country within the continent at one time or another — derives its power from breaking down the larger structures of war, country, and cultural identity into the emblematic and digestible personal narratives of real, individual citizens from the countries that once comprised the Ottoman Empire. Guez filters society through the lenses of five people. The first chapter, “The Painter,” about a painter-turned-soldier and Jewish Tunisian who immigrated to Israel, debuted at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, in February. The second, “The Architect,” is marking the project’s American debut at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, organized by guest curator Chelsea Haines as part of the DEPE (Department of Education and Public Engagement) Space residency and exhibition series.