April 16, 2004

Heidi Hesse, Put Yourself On Flight 93

Out of a clear blue sky . . .

What's the matter, is the bride too beautiful? -- Yiddish proverb.

by Jerome du Bois

Yesterday's Phoenix New Times featured a studio visit by Kathleen Vanesian to installation artist and longtime German resident alien Heidi Hesse, who is pursuing a career based on images of the Statue of Liberty, and on her own vacillation about becoming a US citizen. (Yes, these days art careers are built on such flimsy foundations.) She has a new show called "Exporting Liberty" up at Tucson's MOCA, which you can check out here or on Hesse's own website. The reader may also find a genuflecting review by Margaret Regan here, which I refer to below. I have three serious bones to pick with this artist besides her indecisiveness (which is merely her shtick): the trivialization (with gumballs and games) of the complicated country that's blessed her for so long; the conspicuous absence of 9/11 -- no reference whatsoever; it's as if it never happened -- even while she steals the Homeland Security Alert colors for her thematic cheap shots; and, most egregiously and callously, she kicks dirt in the face of every American service member now dead as a result of the Iraqi War -- after metaphorically calling them chumps, all the while not bothering to name a single one.

I've written about Hesse before, and suggested that she bypass becoming a citizen, since we need people with backbone here. Now that I know more about her intentions and background -- she's been here twenty years! -- I renew my suggestion. Here's Vanesian on Heidi Hesse:

Hesse's artwork is all about getting inside of what makes America and her people tick. Granted, her obsession with the French-made, Roman-nosed symbol of The Land of the Free may seem odd for someone who has lived in this country for 20 years and is still a resident alien, though married to a homegrown American engineer. Occasionally still taunted about her German nationality ("I've been 'Heil, Hitler'ed' more times than I want to remember," notes Hesse), the artist began a serious love affair with the American symbol of inclusiveness when she began to think about applying for American citizenship in 1999 during graduate school at Ohio State University.

"The first time I flew over the Statue of Liberty, I had a very strange reaction," she recalls. "I cried. I had no idea I had a relationship with [it]. I began drawing her and visited [the statue] and Ellis Island during graduate school."

What's strange is that she considers her reaction strange. Seems normal to me. What's stranger is that this woman has been staring at that other woman -- whose upraised and illuminating arm never tires -- for many years, and still doesn't get her message. Even Hesse's America-bashing soul sister Vanesian gets it: "the American symbol of inclusiveness." That's right: You are welcome, Heidi Hesse:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

Perhaps none of this applies to Ms. Hesse, who has had a pretty cushy gig going on here in her not-yet-adopted land. The lamp lights even her work. And what is the source of that work?

She has copped the standard tired liberal line of America as a bully run by some war-hungry oligarchy, and of its people as a herd of sheep or a bunch of one-armed-bandit-jacking jokers. Check out her "sculpture" American Dream. Margaret Regan, in Tucson Weekly, helps us out here by laying down the party line:

Right inside the entranceway is a gumball machine. Pay a dollar, and you get a plastic gumball container filled with pro-America slogans. One of the plastic bubbles, you learn, contains a prize voucher--one lucky patron will win a "painting" of gumballs encased in mesh and hanging on a nearby wall. Success in America, Hesse suggests, is equal parts hard work and hucksterism. For every naïve immigrant in search of streets paved with gold, there's the Barnum sucker born every minute.

As if there were only two kinds of Americans, both idiots. Now, here's Having Your Cake And Eating It Too, another simplistic, one-trick tableau. I'll let Vanesian describe it:

an elaborately decorated Styrofoam wedding cake in the shape of the White House, presented on deliciously [!?] fake green Astroturf and flanked by hulking neo-classic columns.

You know, because we wuz robbed and Bush stole Election 2000. Well, you're probably right, but time didn't stand still either. We ate it, we had to eat it, but the country has been through worse, the day ain't over yet, and Bush's reckoning is unavoidable. Besides, some other things happened after the election, didn't they? I seem to remember . . .

Neither Hesse nor Vanesian mention 9/11, but Hesse trivializes some of our physical responses to it. Regan again:

Beyond her dollhouse-sized White House cake, Hesse plays an insider art joke with Tom Ridge's Homeland Security palette, conflating his simplistic color codes with minimalist paintings. Five "Candychrome" paintings hang along a wall, each acrylic on board saturated by a single Ridge color, re-named American Dream Green, Imperial Blue, Propaganda Red and so on.

Across the way, the giant Hummer -- or Gummer, as the gallery workers like to call it -- is filled with gumballs in the same Homeland colors.

Here they are:


The Ridge colors make an easy target -- the only kind Hesse can hit -- but notice how horizontalizing them undermines the true, actionable hierarchy behind the colors. The whole vertical setup is like a triggered thermometer. Hesse dismisses the fact that when the country moves from yellow to orange (I don't know what stupid names she had for those), thousands of people now stand on a wall for a double-shift; thousands more roll out at godawful hours for godawful things; jet engines roar and everyone's at risk; millions of muscles and minds flex in defense -- for you, Heidi Hesse, for your sorry ass. You are welcome.

As for the Hummer, how fun. Not long before I wrote these words (around noon), MSNBC's Carl Rochelle reported from Baghdad that at least a dozen Humvees are now missing, probably stolen, maybe being re-rigged by insurgents as stealth bombers on wheels. US uniforms are easily available. It's enough to make all those gumballs turn to ammonium nitrate in your mouth, eh, Heidi? Well, maybe not her; she's pretty callous. Regan again:

It's a stand-in not only for the military hardware chugging around Iraq, but for those gasoline-guzzling SUVs and civilian Hummers back home.

In a note, Hesse writes that she got the idea for this piece the day the United States invaded oil-rich Iraq. She was sitting in a Phoenix café, watching SUVs go by, "thinking about the people who were going to die to support the luxurious American ways."

For her, it's about oil and selfish Americans. For her, there are no Iraqis. There is no Iran, Syria, no wider geopolitical implications; just the stupid American sheep letting Cheney et al. backstab everyone et cetera ad nauseum.

Finally, let's look at the ominously-named Backroom Deal. (Don't they get tired of these clichés?) Here is an installation shot, and two details, one of the foosball table, one of the flags. Regan, one final time (and thank you for doing a lot of the work here):

The final piece of Exporting Liberty is the proverbial smoky back room where important political decisions are made. Hesse has set up a foosball game populated almost entirely by powerful white males, Condoleezza Rice notwithstanding. The idea is that they control the world, and you don't. Their decisions are not without consequence.

On an adjoining "memorial wall," small American flags, row on row, memorialize each and every American who has died in the war on Iraq. The day I was there, I counted 553. But Hesse is a realist. She's allowed plenty of space, and drilled plenty of extra pegholes, to accommodate more flags as needed.

It looks sensitive, doesn't it? But look closer. In this context, the flags represent fungible, hapless, anonymous victims of the foosballs players. Brainwashed fools. No, Ms. Hesse; listen up:

Every one was a volunteer, and every one has a name.

Here is a list of American combat casualties in this Iraqi War, as of April 14, 2004. And here is one name I'd like to highlight for a moment: Wisconsin National Guard Private Michelle Witmer. In the twenty years that you, Ms. Heidi Hesse, have pursued the paper-thin concepts behind your projects, waffling all the way, Ms. Witmer lived the entire arc of her life, and died standing up for all of us at the age of twenty. Yet your fan calls this wall a "memorial."

I have two suggestions for you, Ms. Hesse.

First, put the names on the flags -- and how they died, and when, and where. You can have interns do it -- you know, like an Ann Hamilton. Or, you can do it yourself -- you know, like an Ann Hamilton. (And drape an American flag over the foosball game.)

I want you to do it yourself, because I have a thought experiment for you. It's about your apparent two-decade indecisiveness about dual citizenship. You can ruminate while you write. It's simple:

Put yourself aboard Flight 93.

Do some research, read some books and articles about those who didn't have your twenty years to make up their minds, to vote on something crucial -- they had twenty minutes. If your artwork, to quote Vanesian again, is truly

all about getting inside of what makes America and her people tick,

then the tragic success of Flight 93, as NZ Bear called it, would be an excellent place to begin.

Still, I somehow feel that this deal will never be sweet enough for you -- you can't even see the beautiful bride -- and you will never realize that everybody counts, that every citizen and non-citizen here, in your quasi-adopted land, counts, from every soldier's name on every gravestone, to those who went back up into the Towers, to everyone who had to jump on that horrible day, and to all who had to vote to take a desolate Pennsylvania hillside into their shuddering embrace.

For liberty.

UPDATE 4/22/06: On April 16, 2006, I posted this followup.

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April 10, 2004

Cuban Art Series #5: Angel Delgado's Transgression

[I apologize for the scatological nature of this posting, but . . . he did it, not me!]

by Jerome du Bois

Fourteen years ago Cuban artist Angel Delgado, in the middle of an exhibition called "The Sculpted Object" in Havana, took off his jeans, squatted over a copy of Granma, the Cuban Communist Party official newspaper, and dropped his cargo. He got six months in prison for this (a) act of "public scandal" (the cops) or (b) act of "transgressive aesthetics" (the art critics). And not a single Cuban artist or intellectual raised his or her voice in protest -- neither at the act, nor the jail sentence, nor anything else.

I'm going to let Orlando Hernández tell the story briefly, and I'll comment on Sr. Delgado's infantilism; and then I will show that Sr. Delgado has, for over a decade, (a) made a career out of art he learned about in prison, from prisoners, while at the same time (b) passing over in silence the plight of all Cuban prisoners other than himself.

The Defecator: Prisoner #1242900
(. . . and they all moved away from him on the bench.)

From Art Cuba: The New Generation, edited by Holly Block; from an essay by Orlando Hernández:

When Angel Delgado landed in jail in early 1990, he discovered that the prisoners had developed a kind of artwork closely linked to their living conditions. These handicrafts were made of unconventional materials: soap and smallish pieces of cloth. Angel began sculpting soap and painting religious images on fabric. He could then trade these pieces for clean sheets, condensed mil, or cigars, which -- along with freedom -- were the most coveted things in prison. But Angel had already worked with unconventional media and materials. In fact, that was precisely why he ended up in jail: he had defecated on a newspaper during the exhibition El ojeto esculturado (The Sculpted Object, Centro de Desarollo de las Artes Visuales, Havana, 1990.) His act was intended to be merely provocative, even artistic (excrement seen as the human sculpture), but the Ministry of Culture and the police saw it differently. [This is how Sr. Delgado described it years later: "I realized an intervention that was not meant in the political sense one wanted to ascribe to it, but rather artistically: namely, to make a 'sculptured object' in a biological manner by defecating on a copy of the newspaper 'Granma'."] They stressed the importance of the newspaper -- an issue of Granma, the official organ of the Cuban Communist Party -- and Angel was declared guilty of "public scandal," sentenced to six months in jail, and incarcerated like a common criminal under the number 1242900. No one took up Delgado's case while he was a prisoner. Everyone just continued with their normal activities. Not only governmental agencies and institutions -- as would be expected -- but also intellectuals and artists. Later they could all wash their hands and consciences with those sculpted soaps and then dry them on the painted towels. It was an ugly beginning for Cuban art in the '90s, wouldn't you say?

I would. The artists kept their mouths shut, like mesmerized toads, in Sr. Manuel Vazquez Portal's memorable phrase. But, even before that, Delgado's stunt itself was an ugly, infantile, and unworthy act for an adult artist. It may even have been calculated for p.r. While people were standing up in classrooms and on street corners, in cafes and in clandestine newpapers, and angrily saying "The Revolution is a Lie!" and getting slammed for years, Sr. Delgado squats like a toad to deliver the angry message of a two-year-old -- and gets a six-month sentence.

So he did his six months, and then out he comes with two new artforms learned in prison from prisoners, which he then proceeds to flog for the next decade or so. Here are four examples of the handkerchiefs, and four examples of the soapcarvings. Each of these pieces sells for $600-$900, about two- to four-years' pay for a Cuban doctor. (Courtesy of the New Orleans dealer Jonathan Ferrara.)

I have tried to find out whether Sr. Delgado has raised his voice, or used his now-considerable resources, for the cause of those who, without knowing it, enriched him by providing him with a nice new faux-outsider art niche. As far as I have been able to determine, he hasn't.

In his novel A Stained White Radiance, James Lee Burke provides us with a memorable phrase about a crooked preacher so slick "he could steal the stink off shit without getting the smell on his hands."

You aren't that good, Angel.

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April 07, 2004

Over His Dead Body: Kathleen Vanesian, Neo-Colonialist

by Jerome du Bois

In last week's Phoenix New Times, Kathleen Vanesian reviewed an exhibition by the recently late Cuban artist Pedro Alvarez at the ASU Art Museum. The tone of her piece echoes Marilyn Zeitlin's in the exhibition handout in their unreserved enthusiasm for Alvarez's mediocre paintings and collages.

Ms. Vanesian spends fully half of her column on Alvarez's background and suicide, and the other half on the artist's work. I won't dwell on either; I will touch on each one only briefly. There's a single sentence -- a phrase, to be precise -- that's my real target, and it reveals a stinky dark flower petaled with hypocrisy and exploitation. But first things first:

. . . five days after his show opened at ASUAM on February 7, 37-year old Alvarez, a native of Havana, Cuba, who had been temporarily living and painting in Spain, jumped from the fifth-story window of his room at the Twin Palms Hotel on Apache Boulevard in Tempe.

I noticed that none of the printed news reports carried the poor guy's picture, and neither does Ms. Vanesian's review, so I will post one, even though it's blurred and inadvertently sepia-toned. Ms. Vanesian nailed it, though: "like a young Elvis Costello with a buzz cut." So here you go, Pedro . . . another one done too soon:

Pedro Alvarez, 1967 - 2004.

As for his art, three examples appear below. I'll only comment on the first, African Abstract. Busy as it looks, most of the work is done by the first layer, appropriated comic-book panels, row after row; and by colored markers. That fellow in the lower left corner, for example, is almost all outlines and crosshatching. Oil colors fill in some of the bodies, just as in a coloring book. It is a crude illustration, not a serious artwork. Not to mention the piece defeats meaning.

In an earlier description of Alvarez's work, back in 1998, Marilyn Zeitlin writes:

Alvarez makes these paintings with a surface that snags the eye. It is never slick. Instead, he problematizes the illustration style, underming it to keep the work from being about facility. He does not want to amuse us too easily, nor to win our praise.

Or he isn't very talented, and it shows.

African Abstract (2002), collage and oil on canvas, polyptych: 6 paintings, 46 x 29 inches each.

On the Pan-American Highway (2000), collage and oil on canvas, 38 x 77 inches.

Andy Jean Michelle (2003), oil on canvas. (Not in exhibition.)

Now let's zero in on that one revealing statement:

Alvarez had lived through the very real privations Cubans suffered in the 1990s after the Soviet Union collapsed and withdrew financial support from the island nation -- deprivation unconscionably compounded by the U.S.'s continuing embargo. The painter's humorous take on serious issues engendered by Latin America's centuries-old colonization by foreign intruders . . .

and she goes on a while, but you see the phrase I've emphasized. First, I don't debate about the embargo; that's a tar baby. Second, Castro is never mentioned as a culprit or an oppressor. Why not? Third, Russia is never called on to pony up anything. Why not?

The truth is the kind of person that Ms. Vanesian typifies -- priveleged by virtue of a purchased cultural mantel, flying to the Bienal (which she and her husband Richard did), eating lobster, buying art with cash -- all those fat wallets now exploiting the gigantic loophole in the embargo laws and Castro's voracious appetite for dollars dollars dollars -- these people couldn't flourish without the embargo. And neither can the artists. The main reason is found in a historical fact: when Cuban artists left the island in the 1980s, they shrank from big fish to little fish to tiny obscure fish to, God help them, teachers. It's a big art world out there. Those who stayed on the island began to flourish, to develop cachet, and when the dollar went legit the whole scene took off, and now this crew and its government blessing justifies the adjective "burgeoning." Ramos, Toirac, Tonel, Kcho -- you know who I'm talking about. They couldn't have it better, now.

When Ms. Vanesian tosses in this standard limousine liberal line, with not a single sentence of exposition or justification, she expects her readership to just nod, gulp, and swallow it. But she cannot mean what she writes, because the embargo tightens the market to the advantage of her, her Creative Class friends, Marilyn Zeitlin, Ted Decker, the Weithorns, and the Cuban artists themselves. It is a shield. Everybody's behaving. Have another mojito.

Meanwhile, the prisons fill, the people die. Did you think my title referred to Pedro Alvarez's dead body? Maybe. Or maybe I'm talking about Lorenzo Copello Castillo, or Bárbaro Sevilla García, or Jorge Luis Martínez Isaac -- all three summarily executed for the nonviolent hijacking of a ferryboat. Maybe I'm talking about each unharmful, gentle soul, misplaced inside a jail, who killed himself or was murdered and nobody knows or will know as he rolls away unrevenged.

Or maybe I mean this woman's nearly dead body:

Economist Martha Beatriz Roque, 58, political prisoner, who has already served a sentence of 3 ½ years for being part of an study group in Cuba that published a document titled “The Fatherland Belongs to All,” was sentenced again to 20 years in the latest massive crack down. She is the only woman among 75 pro-democracy activists, independent librarians and journalists, tried and sentenced in summary processes in Castro’s Cuba last April, taking advantage of the international distraction with the war in Iraq.

Held in solitary confinement in the infamous women prison “Black Mantle” in Matanzas province, she shares her small cell with rats and cockroaches. There is no window or running water. A hole on the floor serves as a toilet. She is not allowed any reading material.

Martha Beatriz has not received the medical assistance she needs for her rheumatic and ulcer conditions since last April. In addition, she presently has an uncontrollable arterial hypertension and the left side of her body is numb. She has lost about 40 pounds in less than three months. Due to an international outcry mainly from Europe and other countries (but, not the U.S.), she was transferred to the Military Hospital Carlos J. Finlay.

On August 2, 2003, her niece, Maria de los Angeles Falcon was able to visit her at the hospital. Although she was unable to see or speak with the doctors, according to the information provided by Martha Beatriz, her diabetes had been confirmed, and the doctors were treating the condition with medication.

She added that she is being given an anti-coagulant. Since her arms are purple and badly bruised, they have begun injecting her in the abdomen. Her blood pressure is now very low (90/60 and 90/40). She is confined to Bed # 17 in a single room, where two women prison guards remain with her 24 hours a day. The room has all its windows covered.

Have another mojito, Kathleen, with plenty of mint.

Pedro Alvarez's abrupt departure is an interruption in the legitimization of Cuban art by the Arizona State University Art Museum. This review was another argument for such legitimization. But I very much doubt any of the collection, now or in the future, can be cleansed of the suffering and death that went on in the background while the new generations of Cuban artists -- ironic, self-referential, hip -- took their place as what Jasper Johns once called all artists: "The elite of the servant class."

Serving neo-colonialists from around the world.

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April 06, 2004

Toirac the Tame and the Tiempos nuevos Series

Sit down, you're rockin' the boat. -- Frank Loesser.

by Jerome du Bois

I bought Holly Block's Art Cuba: The New Generation as background and research for the continuing series on Cuban Art (see sidebar). I'm not going to review it here; I'm just going to tell the story of a particular series of paintings prominently featured in the book: Jose Angel Toirac's "subversive" Tiempos neuvos group. They include Obsession (below), Opium, wherein Quién Tu Sabes shakes hands with the Pope, Marlboro, with the Maximum Leader on a horse, and Eternity, with the Cuban Head of State speechifying. Though famous, and widely reproduced -- and though the artist has been offered $200,000 for them -- these paintings have never been exhibited, they probably never will be, and they never need to be. They are far too valuable as pure propaganda for the major players involved -- Toirac, Cuban artists, Fidel Castro, and the Cuban-art trafficking nexus, all of them talking to each other's pockets. And laughing at the rest of us, just like this:

Obsession, (1996) by Jose Angel Toirac. Oil on canvas. 36 x 24 inches.

A so-called subversive reading of this painting would be that Castro, the paranoid, is obsessed with plots against his life. But it's far more likely that the artist is celebrating, along with Castro, yet another thwarted assassination attempt, many of which Castro seeds himself, just to see who they attract. Just look at the man himself: a picture of health, young and handsome, supremely confident and serene, eyes cast modestly down, with an almost indulgent smile: Oh, my childish people. Not to mention those others.

In Martin Cruz Smith's novel Havana Bay, Arkady Renko searches the office of a former Russian spy in Cuba, "where the computer monitor told a tale that was sad but true:"

American attempts on the life of the Cuban Head of State have included the use of exploding cigars, exploding sea shells, poison pens, poison pills, poison diving suits, poison sugar, poison cigars, midget submarines, snipers, bounties. They have employed Cubans, Cuban-Americans, Venezuelans, Chileans, Angolans, American gangsters. Cuban Security has investigated 600 plots against the President's life. The CIA has tried to introduce hallucinogenic sprays into television studios where the President was broadcasting and depilatory powders to make his beard fall out.

They -- Toirac, Castro -- they're laughing at us.

This painting is the frontispiece for Chapter One in Block's book, filling page 12, facing Gerardo Mosquera's essay "New Cuban Art Y2K." Opium and Marlboro have full pages of their own, later in the book, pages 140 and 141. (Marlboro is innocuous and mannerist. As for Opium, the stale Marx reference has never taken hold in Cuba, whose people embrace as many religions as they do drums. They are psychospiritually polyrhythmic. Even Castro could never fight that dynamic.) But nowhere in the five essays does the reader learn that these are, in effect, forbidden paintings -- I learned this elsewhere -- so to prominently display them in this book is to mislead the reader into thinking that Cuban artists can be edgy and political and critical. When Tonel discusses Toirac, these are the paintings he refers to, but he never mentions that they have always been, effectively, in a closet -- taken out only for their propaganda photographs.

Justin Webster included Toirac two years ago in a Cuban art story for the Boston Globe Magazine:

The series for which Toirac is best known, New Times, daringly places Castro in well-known advertisements: as the Marlboro Man or as an orator set against an image promoting a perfume, Calvin Klein's Eternity. Censorship is an issue. [Sandra] Ramos, for example, says she cannot use Castro's image. Toirac has, but he has not yet let the works leave Cuba. How these are interpreted -- for or against the Castro regime -- is the key to whether Toirac has broken the unwritten rules. In speeches to visitors, he argues that the series is not anti-Castro, but the visitors often assume that he is obliged to say this, and he is naturally cautious about these works reaching a wider public. The striking mix of images from two such separate and antagonistic political cultures -- one, Castro, in a famous revolutionary pose, the other, a luxury goods ad from a thriving capitalist economy -- appeals strongly to US collectors.

One tour guide says Toirac turned down a $200,000 offer for the ad series from a US bidder. According to another, the enthusiasm of visitors can be so fierce that two competed to buy a canvas -- of Castro leading a demonstration -- that was splotched with red paint, despite Toirac's telling them the splotches had been put there by his young son. Later, by e-mail, I ask why he has turned down the offers.

"Because of the characteristics of this series, I have to be patient and wait for the right moment to exhibit it," he writes. "I've decided not to sell it for various reasons. The main one is I haven't received a convincing offer.

"It's not about money, it's about placing it in an important collection, of artistic prestige, so that the day it's exhibited it will be valued as art and not political propaganda."

Toirac says he's using Castro against a backdrop of advertisements to make a universal statement about mass communication and its false objectivity. Like many of his contemporaries, he fears a simplistic interpretation of his work. Though generally seen by visitors as subtly satirizing the Cuban government, New Times can also be read as a succinct expression of the way Cubans, and especially their artists, are waiting for change, caught between two rival systems, of which they are equally wary.

What was that? he [Toirac] has not yet let the works leave Cuba.

Let? Riiight. I don't think Toirac decides the destiny of these works. They have too much light on them, and too much cachet. Castro can afford to be magnanimous, allowing the photographs to carry the message, but keeping the objects themselves confined. Toirac gets it both ways, too, and stays safe as milk. Cuban art boosters like Marilyn Zeitlin of Arizona State University can tell nervous collectors that there are cracks in the regime, they won't be supporting a dictator, see what the artists can do?

Zeitlin discusses another of Toirac's work in the popular exhibition she co-curated, Contemporary Art from Cuba: Irony and Survival on the Utopian Island (1998):

He follows this logic in Silencio, silencio. . .escuchemos (139 martíres del MININT)(Silence, silence. . . let’s listen[139 Martyrs of the Ministry of the Interior]). Toirac has worked from Martíres de MININT, a two-volume set of books commemorating a group of officers who died in the line of duty. Forgotten by those who make heroes, they now have their memorial, thanks to Toirac. These are not guerrilla heroes. These are the forgotten or inconsequential. But if they are heroes, Toirac will treat them as such. He has made a series of badges modeled on one genuine one. Each hangs from a ribbon. Each badge has a tiny bell attached to it, the kind of bell used in santería ritual to evoke the orishas. The background from which they hang is painted with Toirac’s hands with text that says, "Silencio, silencio, escuchamos." (Silence, silence, let’s listen.) This quotation from the theme song of a television series about the feats of the MININT.

How sweet. Let's not forget that MININT is like the SS, the Internal Police, of Cuba: MININT "remains the regime's first line of defense against internal subversion and opposition."

What could be more sycophantic than hailing these goons, except painting backdrops for Castro speeches, which KCHO now does?

You want subversive? Let's literally take a page from Felix Gonzales-Torres. In Death By Gun (1990 - ) he created a single large sheet (4 x 3 feet) of photolithographed newsprint in unlimited edition of, say, 464 Americans killed nationwide by guns in one week of a year. Each victim was represented by a frontal head photo and a written description directly underneath. (He ran the edition several times, so the numbers and faces vary.) It was free, in a stack on the floor of the exhibition space.

Now, Toirac, why don't you compile a similar photo gallery of the librarians, journalists (Cuban and international), and other political dissidents now languishing in Castro's prisons while you drink your mojitos and fold the dollars handed you by the other sycophants of the art nexus?

To get you started: twenty-nine journalists right here. Here's the first of at least ten Google pages on "imprisoned journalists cuba." Here's another list, from Amnesty International. And more here, at cubafacts.com. Don't forget the librarians. Cubanet is essential, of course . . . There's at least seventy-five total, so . . .

Oh, but no, no, no -- because think what would happen if you made up such a giant wanted/lost poster and distributed it all over town: crackdown. End of party. No more living in the green world. No more mojitos, no fist-sized roll of Benjamins held with a fat rubber band. Better just stay a sellout like most other Cuban artists, and let the fools who rock the boat suffer.

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April 01, 2004

The Falling Dog

by Jerome du Bois

Way long ago Donald Barthelme wrote a short story about pseudo-artistic inspiration called "The Falling Dog." It reminds me of a lot of contemporary artists. Since it's been decades since I've been near an art school, I wonder if any art teacher refers to it? It opens this way:

Yes, a dog jumped on me out of a high window. I think it was the third floor, or the fourth floor. Or the third floor. Well, it knocked me down. I had my chin on the concrete. Well, he didn't bark before he jumped. It was a silent dog. I was stretched out on the concrete with the dog on my back. The dog was looking at me, his muzzle curled around my ear, his breath was bad, I said "Get off."

He did. He walked away looking back over his shoulder. "Christ," I said. Crumbs of concrete had been driven into my chin. "For God's sake," I said. The dog was four or five metres down the sidewalk, standing still. Looking back at me over his shoulder.

gay dogs falling
sense in which you would say of a thing,
it's a dog, as you would say, it's a lemon
rain of dogs like rain of frogs
or shower of objects dropped to confuse enemy radar

Well, it was a standoff. I was on the concrete. He was standing there. Neither of us spoke. I wondered what he was like (the dog's life). I was curious about the dog. Then I understood why I was curious.

wrapped or bandaged, vulnerability but also
anti-hairy materials
vaudeville (the slide for life)

Well, what have we here? Well, the victim here is a Welsh sculptor, creator of the 2,000-object series THE YAWNING MAN, who was

in that unhappiest of states, between images,

but now, because the dog fell, or jumped, on him from the third, or fourth, floor window . . .

Well, I understood then that this was my new image, The Falling Dog. My old image, The Yawning Man, was played out. I had done upward of two thousand Yawning Men in every known material, and I was tired of it. Images fray, tatter, empty themselves. I had seven good years with that image, the Yawning Man, but --

But now I had the Falling Dog, what happiness.

Barthelme was probably poking gentle fun at Ernest Trova and his Falling Man series, which was realized in eleventy-two ways; but even Trova went on to a more edgy, neo-Constructivist style. But the question that strikes me like a falling dog is, Why is the falling dog an image and not just a bizarre everyday incident? Something that must take its place behind more important images and ideas? These days . . .

I'm talking about a thickheadedness, an inability to distinguish between qualities, which borders on the sociopathic. (And he wrote the story thirty-four years ago.)

My wife has a couplet:

People are so easily impressed.
People love mediocrity best.

What's scary is how often, and how sincerely, some artists apply this to themselves. If they get an idea -- an original idea -- even a dumbass original idea -- they set themselves back on their own heels.

Whoa! Did I think of scratching up all the fluff from a newly-laid carpet with my own ten fingernails, and fashioning it into a monkey with static and hairspray? Yep, that's me, Tonico Lemos Auad, a finalist for this year's Beck's Futures Prize from London's Institute for Contemporary Arts. (Auad also needle-pricks bruised portraits on banana bunches.)

Yes, he thought of these things -- but he didn't think twice. That would have helped us all.

Yes, I know what day today is, but you can look this up. While you're there, you may also read about

Susan Philipsz [sic] from Glasgow, whose recent work had her singing Radiohead's a cappella Airbag at hourly intervals over the PA system of Tesco in Bethnal Green, east London.

These people must be "between images" a lot. They're fascinated by some perpetual vertical blanking interval, a stuck-needle aphasia, and a need so strong to fill a niche so narrow . . . to paraphrase Professor Kissassinger, the reason the art-world infighting is so fierce is because the stakes are so small.

Imagine I'm pointing to a closed room with an LED sign over the door. As I change the names, love 'em or hate 'em you can easily imagine the kind of art inside the room: Yayoi Kusama, Jenny Saville, Paul McCarthy, Noble & Webster, Chuck Close, Damian Loeb, even (yuck) Christian Holstad, and you fill in the rest. You may be impressed or disgusted, but you will not be amazed.

But there are very few artists who you can't see coming, and those are the ones to watch out for. Every one's uneven, but I would nominate as examples Darren Almond, Mark Wallinger, Mike Kelley, Marina Abramovic, Maurizio Cattelan, Sergei Bukaev Afrika . . . Very few. Jasper Johns and Marcel Duchamp. And Goya.

What we want from art should be what we want from life. To stop us in our tracks for a good reason. To astonish us, but toward the future.

To hell with these tiny-minded wankers, no matter how many prizes they win. Look up. Look around. And watch your head.

Posted by Jerome at 09:00 PM | TrackBack


by The Tears of Things

After yesterday in Fallujah, there is no April Fools Day.

Posted by Jerome at 09:58 AM | TrackBack