Saturday, April 5, 2008

911/I am Bush the President

My artwork has always been political in nature. In middle school, while other kids were drawing lollipop trees and birds that look like squiggles, my sketchbook was filled with realistic depictions of Reagan, the Ayatollah, and George Bush Senior. When I make art I'm motivated by issues, and by exploring them creatively I achieve a deeper understanding of their extent and source. This helps me to feel informed about my beliefs. Trying to concisely convey powerful political themes in artwork is tricky, and when you choose to make overtly political images, you put yourself into a difficult category. The intent of your actions must be considered and addressed in regards to the reaction you want from your audience, who can be assumed to hold one of two mindsets: agree and disagree. People with like minds will see the work and like it, because it's something to which they can relate. Good work might empower them to continue their own efforts along the same line, but since they already agree with you, they're an easy sell. People with opposing opinions will probably scoff or argue if they even care at all. They likely have no time or interest in art, and will see it as a harmless waste of time. The ultimate challenge for a political artist should be to attempt to change the views of those who need changing, subtly yet substantially, subliminally and subconsciously. Whether or not this is possible remains to be seen.

Every year in New York City, around the 8th or 9th of September, two beams of light appear as a memorial to the historic events of 2001. In 2007, when I noticed them out my window, I had an idea.
The following day I went to the local toystore and purchased half a dozen bags of toy soldiers, plastic, of varying colors and sizes.

I've worked with toy soldiers before, and so have hundreds of other artists. I've seen people make everything from oil cans to dollar bills using these same toys, and there's a reason: we're at war. It makes sense to react to it. The challenge for me is finding new, exciting ways to transform the men into something new, and to choose imagery that will be powerful. I like to make simple metaphoric analogies by juxtapositioning deliberate images. I also use puns as ways to double my message when possible. The most simple solution is also the most poignant, easily solvable yet perfect and unforgettable.

Toy soldiers represent so many real things and I don't use them lightly. I think it's amazing that they're given to kids to stick in their mouths and melt with matches and eventually lose in the yard, all the while pretending to fight a war like their fathers and granddads did. These days, it's impossible to believe that any children would want plastic soldiers that don't even talk or move, with no cool guns or vehicles. A bag of these would constitute the worst Christmas ever. After the first Gameboy came out, you'd assume that these kinds of things would have stopped being produced, yet still they keep coming from China. My guess is that enough artists are using them to make their import economically viable. Once Bush leaves office maybe they'll disappear.

When I was little, I played with legos. When I look at toy figures, I see miniatures, not playthings. When I think about war, I am frustrated. When I make art, I address my frustrations. Governments take soldiers and use them to make things. As an artist, I want to do this too. I feel that, by mimicking actions that you can't understand, you can learn a lot about the people that actually do them. Empathy can lead to solutions while apathy strengthens divisions.

Widespread sentiment in our recent past has placed blame for all the world's problems on the President and his policies. This is easy to believe, as he exudes the opposite of intelligence, and can't relate to a common person any more than a snail can relate to a bee. As an artist, the last 8 years have been ripe with motivation to address concerns globally and at home, as our policy has spiraled into unthinkable terrain. His tenure has led to an entire genre of anti-Bush artwork; it's ubiquitous. We all knew his rule would be bad, but this is downright ridiculous. It's like the plug was pulled from our country's drain, emptying it completely and rapidly. It's difficult not to address these issues through art.

My idea was to make a shrubbery completely from army men. It seems like a basic metaphor, but one with simple grace. It's a very succinct analogy with multiple layers of connotative value. Most importantly, it could be a powerful, instant image. The goal was to transform the soldiers into a Bush. Five groups of 3 soldiers formed the first sprouts; they were the covert special forces.

I used copper wire for every connection, wrapping and binding arms, legs, heads, and rifles. Eventually, the branches grew longer, splitting and spreading at random to become platoons and squadrons, battalions and brigades. The configuration came to resemble the tree outside my window in winter.

At this point, the reserves arrived, wearing green camouflage instead of the desert issue beige. They were bound with brass wire, which is the color of gold.

A single private was stationed atop each branch. The first buds of spring emerged.

Seven days later, the bush had become green and vibrant.

The leaves each bear a pattern in the shape of the word CHINA, who's economy is blossoming as ours shrivels up.

Set atop my window ledge, the analogy concludes. A tree of war fills the gap in the skyline where the towers once rose. When I first finished this sculpture I set it on the table in the kitchen of my apartment, and in the low-light everyone thought it was a real plant, like a bonsai tree. The illusion was a success. If I can fool viewers whose minds need changing into believing that a political sculpture is a harmless houseplant, the initial stage for success is complete. I've developed a tool to infiltrate psyches. The viewer gets sucked into an interesting object, and comes to respect something that holds a message. What that message might be depends on them. A sculpture like this is not a judgement, just a metaphor.

This was a good start, but not enough. I needed to give the work context. I wanted to convey a message. What, after all, is the point of getting into the head of someone you disagree with if you can't make your point? Trying to discuss heated issues with someone who has an opposing view can be difficult, becoming loud and vicious. By quietly entering the mind of a viewer, an artist with a message can secretly plant a seed that might one day sprout into a new line of thinking.
I chose to build a vessel from toy cars, the ultimate recipients of the oil underground, the underlying enablers of our thirst for petroleum.

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