Who Decides Who Gets to Di(n)e?
I grew up listening to my father’s World War II stories. He told me something about his war experience, weekly if not daily, and after I left home, nearly every time I visited him. The stories have heightened my awareness of how intensely people are affected by warfare. This is the seed of my interest in our military budget and what transpires in other countries. This installation is about my experience as an American and some of my thoughts when the U.S. intervenes in yet another country, for yet another reason.
War making permeates our history. In guises, war operates as a thing covered up both in society and in each of us. It gets pushed out of the way of our thinking, that is unspoken, denied. Whether we are directly involved in it or not, war making operates in us in some way; either we ignore it, deny it, or acknowledge it. Every time I hear about another bombing my gut wrenches. I want to remind viewers that what people in other countries experience as a result of American policy is life shattering.
If we remembered every intervention, I think we would be appalled at the zeal of our military leaders and weapons manufacturers. History requires from us a great deal of forgetting as citizens of an aggressor nation. As time passes, aggressive modes of behavior that are required to maintain a warrior culture, slowly become more and more acceptable to all of us. Tolerance for our country’s provoking manner becomes increasingly the norm. We silently support it by making our tax payments, ignoring congressional weapons deals, or by buying war toys for our children. Some shareholders dream of the profit they’ll make on the stock market with their General Dynamics, Ratheon, Textron G.E. or other weapons manufacturer’s stock, while Others hear those dreams out loud deep in the night, as the sound of bomber engines and helicopters over their rooftops.
What do we carry inside of us when we are bombing? Do we think of those whom we bomb? Do we see them? Do we hear those who are trying to live under embargo, asking for medicines, pencils, and bicycles and other basic needs prohibited? Do we ever put ourselves in their shoes? If we hear these questions, do we listen?
I hope my work will remind people that they can choose to be opposed to military intervention even though the media produces an atmosphere that makes it almost unthinkable. John Storey quotes Herbert Marcuse The culture industry flattens out the what remains of the antagonism between culture and social reality through the obliteration of oppositional, alien, and transcendent elements in the higher culture.1
If there exists an attempt to obliterate and liquidate opposition to war through the vehicle of culture, then my work and that of artists of similar ilk, often attempts to recreate the possibility for politicized thinking.
Herbert Marcuse also claims, in his criticism of culture, that its function is about keeping ‘the unbearable bearable’. I am interested in making the unbearable present and visible again, in alerting ourselves to our disconnection from the “Other,” the stranger in a strange land. It is an attempt to re-sensitize viewers to the social conditioning that keeps us numb to the transgressions committed in our name.
Many objects in the installation were inspired by the stories I read or heard from people who were experiencing life under embargo or during war. Humble objects from daily living, things we touch everyday and take for granted, and the more ritualized moments in our lives are little ceremonies lost to those facing bombing or economic sanctions; the preparation of food, the washing of hands, the crawling into bed with hopes of rest. The rituals they gain are the tears shed, like the peeling of so many thousands of onions; a constant sense of disorientation, of never envisioning the meal that they can sit through quietly, looking for the scattered pieces of their lives. For us the calendar may be marked by the ceremonies of achievement we and our family members celebrate – the graduations, the birthdays, the weddings, the baby showers. For those experiencing the dismantling of their countries, time is marked by routine like the washing of hands (if there is soap); while lifetimes of dreams go down the drain.
I use repetition, texture, and color to seduce through beauty. I use recognizable symbols and attract those lured by the images of power. But, I think the substitution of charcoal and graphite for full color glossy imagery de-glorifies the power and technological advantage NATO governments have over smaller nations. The experience takes the viewer through a meditation on beauty, to modernism’s obsession with technology and into postmodernism demystification. Whereas, the grid arrangement of the bed sheets reflects rational design, the mixture of beauty and entropy represented by each table presents the viewer with the irrationality and surrealistic nightmare of the whole war argument.
My use of dining tables was first inspired by statements Malcolm X made in questioning the place of African-Americans: Ten men can be sitting at a table eating. I can come sit down at the table. They are dining. I got a plate in front of me but nothing is on it. Because all of us are sitting at the table, are all of us diners? The planned economic submission of foreign countries, not unlike the African American experience begs the DuChampian question Who Decides?
The dining tables also function like sacrificial altars, a distanced homage to David Smith’s totems with their altar references. I find that the way Rosalind Kraus describes the work of David Smith the pivotal violence of warfare is staged as the more private violation of rape describes some of the metaphors that have emerged in my work as well.
I chose bed sheets as my canvas in order to represent the sky and the nightmare of night bombing; to contrast that experience with the place we associate with comfort, safety and rest. Although it was unintentional, it became clear that the belly-down position of the war planes exposes how well their body structure correlates to human sexual anatomy; even the airforce has used that parallel in their advertisements to inspire boys to join the U.S. Airforce. The metaphor moreover articulates the stereotypical male gender position of domination and underscores the antithetical nature of the proposition of war for male and female. In other words, it is fully recognized that men make war, not women.
As David Bailey, a scholar who uses semiotics and Poststructuralist theories in his cultural critique notes, when the exotic Other poses a threat to white male society, there is a fascination with the physical, textural and sexual physique . . . on the part of the dominant group. Women, like the target territory (geographic or economic), are seen as objects to be desired and controlled. In addition, the domestic scene of dining table symbolizes traditional female territory. In other words, the mechanisms of war (rein)force the us/them dichotomy found in male/Other relationships. Each bed sheet placed overhead emphasizes a superior relationship to the oppressed “Other” – be it female or the media-constructed monster enemy, the rebel, the extremist, the hard-liner, the barbarian, the flood of immigrants, etc.
Another layer in the hierarchy of male values over female is exemplified by the boy-obsession with vehicles of destruction, and with the male-structured weapons-based economy. The ‘female’ domestic needs on a national level suffer at the hand of fulfilling the boy-dreams. Ironically, those issues, such as education and health, define a significant part of our national security,
If the function of myth is to actively promote the values and interests of the dominant group in society, as Roland Barthes would have it, then, this work seeks to counter the national myth that military intervention or embargo is necessary, or even, acceptable. Seemingly passive activities such as: attending air shows, visiting aerospace museums, paying taxes in support of the military budget, and even voting-function to build and sustain our national myths for us. Barthes states Myth does not deny things, on the contrary, its function is to talk about them simply, it purifies them, it makes them innocent, it gives them a natural and eternal justification, it gives them a clarity which is not that of an explanation but that of a statement of fact. . . . very near to finding that it is natural and goes without saying . . . In passing from history to nature, myth acts economically; it abolishes the complexity of human acts . . . it organizes a world which is without contradictions because it is without depth. . .”2 I hope the sum of fragmented symbols in the installation can create a momentary hold on cultural amnesia that occurs in myth building. My work is a reaction to our society’s denial of the aggressive role our nation plays in initiating economic downfall of so many nations.
I have been asked what is my identity in regards to this piece. I am a citizen betrayed. My country speaks of democracy yet provokes the circumstances and uses force to open markets for the purposes of exploitation. Spending close to two billion dollars per day on the military does not reflect the quality of life I seek. My national security comes from how we treat other nations; not how much force is exerted over them. I hope I function as a demystifyer and an agency for change.
Plans to complete this work include completing several more drawings, for a total of approximately twelve sheets. Though the bed sheets will be lined up in a grid format, the dining tables will be placed to reflect a more chaotic state of affairs.
In my introductory paragraph, I noted how my father’s stories sparked my interest in the phenomena of war. I think, my experience as a young woman during the Vietnam protest era combined with my female tendency to empathize with victims of suffering has contributed a great deal to this passion. It is a strong feminist stance. In contrast to artworks by other feminist artists, such a s Judy Chicago, Janine Antoni, or Mary Kelly, this work deals with subject matter outside of the traditional female domain. Yet, despite the typically male subject matter of my work, the critical stance that it takes keeps it from being assimilated into an art sensibility that tips its hat to hegemonic politics. It is above all a human stance.
1. Herbert Marcuse in Cultural Theory and Popular Culture, p. 103
2. Roland Barthes in Cultural Theory and Popular Culture, p. 82