Posts Tagged 'USA'

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

Martijn van Berkum, Rotterdam – – November 4th: two more weeks from today! There’s No Business Like Show Business and Some Like Hot. I can’t wait.

Mr. Brainwash, from Wooster Collective

Time is a loop

Martijn van Berkum, Rotterdam – – Within every moment unfolds another moment. Sometimes it seems like all events have always existed and are being stored in a giant collective archive of images. The advertisement underneath, of the Pakistan International Airline, was published in 1979, the same year Bin Laden took up arms against the USA. 

Sure, the prophetic value of the picture is baffling, but another thing that intrigues me – without taking in account the events that lead to the destruction of the twin towers – is the uncanny feeling of this illustration. It reminds me of the apocalyptic drawings of Hugh Ferris (underneath) which cast dark clouds over the pinnacles of Americas economic achievements. They seemed to predict the great financial crisis of the 1930’s. Another event in history that seems to repeat itself every now and then; I guess time really does go around in a loop…





George W. Bush Library

In order to commemorate his upcoming legacy, the George W. Bush Presidential Library will be build at the Southern Methodist University. The Chronicle Review invited it’s readers to propose an alternative for the library and draw it on the back of an envelope. The results, see video below, are at times hilarious.

Take the George W. Bush Underground Library for instance. It is a facility which provides cheerful functions such as a lounge where you can listen into any US phone call and the ‘we-do-not-torture’ torture movie theater.

I’d like to propose myself the George W. Bush Paranoia library, which would have sections such as ‘books we’d rather not like you to read’, the ‘why George W. Bush is always right books’ and of course the ‘books you are not allowed to read, because they might inspire you to think for yourself’ section cannot be missed.

Underneath are some of the highlights. You can visit the chronicle’s website to vote for the best design.


The power of image

Fear is a powerful tool in election campaigns in the USA. To take up the notion that you, as a candidate, are ready to act upon undefined threats seems a crucial criterion for American voters.


Lyndon B. Johnson was the first to use, or better, feed, this feeling of fear in order to imply that his opponent was less competent in this matter. He made the political advertisement above in 1964, called Daisy girl. The interesting part I think is the incredible visual strength of the video. The images are such a powerful tool to enhance this feeling of threat and fear and translate it into two completely abstracted opposites: all that’s good and benevolent in life, the girl, and all that is evil and malevolent, the bomb.

A Buffalo in Omaha and the Pleasures of Misinterpretation.

Janna Holmstedt, Omaha, NE – This is a short journey through the American Midwest and four examples of public art I think we might see more of in the future.

The character of First National Bank
Walking in downtown Omaha, Nebraska, you will at some point encounter a buffalo – slightly larger than life and cast in bronze. It looks lost and a bit scared among the skyscrapers trying to navigate in this modern urban landscape, but soon you realize it is not alone. Scattered remnants of a herd can be found further down the block. One of the buffalos is trying to escape as it is being consumed by the concrete in the corner of a house. I backtrack the trail northeast and to my surprise there is a group of pioneers with wagons, horses and cows making their way through the city. First I’m like a kid at Disneyland, exhilarated and amazed at the sight. As I discover more of the monumental installation though, I start to oscillate between laughter and disdain. Then it becomes eerie. Are they ghosts? Refugees? Reminders of the fact that this area was explored by the white man only 200 years ago?

The women and children in the trail stops to overlook the demolition taking place across the street. The former headquarters of the Union Pacific Railroad, built in 1924, are dismantled brick by brick to give room for Omaha’s third-tallest building, the WallStreet Tower – a steel and glass construction that will house 275 luxury condominiums.
Omaha used to be an importan railroad hub and the grand Union Station, a showpiece in art deco style, was built 1931 to celebrate this. But already 40 years later it closed, at the same time as the equally grand Burlington station right behind it. Suddenly the silent bronze installation strikes me as perfect for the site; the romanticism of it all, the scattered and nearly extinct animals it depicts, the brick conquering the prarie, then steel and glass conquering the brick as the Union Pacific Headquarters is being demolished in the middle of it all. I wish that too would be cast in bronze, frozen in time just as it is with the workers and machines poking around in the open wound.

But I included more in the reading than I should, the relations and historical facts activated by the sight wasn’t intended at all. A plaque tells me it was built to represent ”The Spirit of Nebraska’s Wilderness and the character of First National Bank”. To be a bit more precise, the goose and bison seen among the skyscrapers symbolizes: Great Strenght, Free Spirit, Intelligence, Adaptability and Loyalty.
Ironically, the giant Canada goose was thought to be extinct in the 1920s, but their return together with the bison is on the plaque called a ”conservation success story”. I guess that’s also a very precise description of bronze monuments.

In support of the arts
Another public sculpture that got my attention is to be found outside Qwest Center, a convention center and arena for entertainment opened in 2005. My fondness of it is again based on a fatal misunderstanding. Giant, shiny spheres are balancing on top of each other, reflecting the fence that surrond them as well as the support mecanism that makes the spheres stay in place. I appretiate the apparent combination of materials until I realize that the wooden stick with duct tape and foam wasn’t made of painted bronze as the rest of the sculpture. It is simply there to prevent the balls to fall apart. Disappointed I step back to get a full view of the entire piece. According to the artist it ”vividly symbolizes the arts and humanities that take place at Qwest Center”.

Misinterpretations of temporary appearances made me appretiate these installations. In fact my interpretation was the direct opposite of the intended one. The transitional, mishappened character set them free for a moment from the symbolic load they were designed to carry.

In a previous post Martijn calls for an ethically concerned and somewhat enlightened artist when dealing with the delicate matter of producing art for public space, since it involves the aspect of speaking on behalf of a community. In the cases I mention above the initiators do not speak on behalf of the community, they speak of themselves and their aspiration as corporations. And the comissioned artists are happy to employ their skills (why shouldn’t they?). This is private land and the installations and parks created are offered as gifts to the community. Corporations thus seems to continue the tradition of monumental art, or public art on the whole, when national and local governments are becomeing more aware of the difficulties involved in initiating public art projects without risking protests or complaints in terms of representation and democracy.
The solution in many cases seems to be to avoid dialogue and engagement. When local governments on the other hand do dare, they tend to argue in terms of ”creating a landmark” or ”putting the city on the map”. This way they manage to ignore the (important) questions of representation, democracy and the use of public space altogether. In a situation when the overall purpose of public art is to promote and attract, the alternative ways to ”speak back” through for example street art, then becomes either very subtle – almost private – or bombastic. But to criminalize the phenomena (as in Stockholm, described in this post) is nothing but grave arrogance.

But let’s continue the journey northwest, to the Black Hills in South Dakota.

Making a statement, making money.
A monument impossible to misunderstand is Mount Rushmore with the four presidents carved in the mountain. My spontaneous reaction to the sight was ”America, fuck yeah!” (somehow the tune from the film Team America World Police has got stuck in my head). The monument fascinates first and foremost by the skill and labour invested in it. But yet again it is overloaded with symbolism. The artist Gutzon Borglum wanted to celebrate the birth of the United States of America and the nation’s first 150 years of history.

In an Indian souvenir shop in nearby Keystone I encounter another version of history: four Indian chiefs are potraited in front of Mount Rushmore. The caption reads: ”The original founding fathers”.
The mountain was known to the Lakota Sioux as the Six Grandfathers. The United States seized the area from the tribe in 1877. Nevertheless, Mount Rushmore is now a huge economical success, attracting tourists from all over the world and listed as a National memorial.

Finally, a tribute.
About two-three hours drive south there’s a less well known site. Actually, Mount Rushmore wasn’t my main goal when I traveled all across Nebraska. It was Carhenge, a replica of Stonehenge, but instead of stones, American vintage cars have been used. I must confess I love this place. Conceptually minded as I am, I regard it as a great contemporary American monument.
Again I’m running the risk of reading more into the place than intended by the creator. Jim Reinders started to build in 1987 and got help from his family and relatives. Originally a result of Reinders’ fascination with Stonehenge and a memorial to his father who had a farm on the land, Carhenge is now owned and preserved by a local group. Carhenge attracts more visitors and attention each year. It seems Reinders and his family by their private initiative unintetionally have put the little town of Alliance on the map

This was four examples of public art that has affected me recently. Skilled or not, clever or stupid, funded by private, corporate or state interests, this is what we will se more of in the future I think, when art is increasingly legitimized as landmarks, attractions or trademarks.
It also means we will see more of (sometimes illegal) counter statements, interventions, actions and volontary misinterpratations. Skilled or not, clever or stupid, they are an attemp at dialouge. An effort to set the apparently static order in motion. As if to say: ”This is not a closed case”.

The Art Space Race

Trial and Error, San Francisco – When walking in downtown San Francisco we pass Frey Norris Gallery. The current exhibition is entitled ”American Debut” and shows paintings by Zhong Biao. The subtitle reads: ”First ever American solo exhibition for internationally recognized Chinese artist”. We look at the large scale, skilled paintings and discuss the ever increasing interest for contemporary Chinese art in the West (for example the exhibition ”Made in China” that opened in March at Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark).

Then the conversation inevitably touches the subject that next year one million new artists will graduate i China. One million! The number has been mentioned in different contexts (by Chinese art students in Sweden for instance) and even if it includes crafts and design, the amount is still bewildering.

In ”The unparallelled invasion” by Jack London, China starts to conquer the world in 1970 ”with all the certainty and terrifying slow momentum of a glacier”. The mere size of the population made it possible to devour any country and any army. In the rather rasist short story, Europe and the US meet the threat from the east in a joint effort by bombing China with all the diseases that western laboratories have been able to manufacture. Jack London, who published the story in 1914, much cherished the new technology but he had a gross view of how it could be used.

We have a more positive view of China’s ”invasion” though, and have a proposal for a degree project for next years one million new Chinese artists – whicht would also coincide with the Olympic Games 2008:
Each student will make an art piece that measures 12.8 meters. The host country could then encircle the entire globe in what would be the longest Chinese monument so far, and thus underline the motto for the next Olympic Games:

Or why not reach for the moon in an Art Space Race?
In 1967 it was decided that space belongs to mankind (”The Outer Space Treaty”) and should not be used for commercial or military purposes. But since then we have distanced ourselves from that position. Commercials encourages us to name stars after our loved ones and nations leer at the possible resources on the moon. America decleares in the ”US Space Com Vision for 2020” their goal to be “dominating the space dimension of military operations to protect US interests and investment” and “integrating Space Forces into warfighting capabilities across the full spectrum of conflict”.
It is about 4000 years since the tower of Babel was ruined but since then we have developed more advanced technique. It is no more than 384 000 kilometers to the moon. If divided among the Chinese graduates of 2008, that makes less than 390 meters per student. The Chinese space program intend to land a mooncar on the moon in 2012, lets say that one million artists are examinated in the same rate untill then, that would make a total of six million new artists devoted to the Art Space Race – and only 64 meter of art per student to reach the moon!

Since outer space cannot be claimed as national territory, the Chinese atists would not be subject to Chinese law (or reached by Google censorship for that matter). Maybe in a near future the Olympic Games could be located on the moon (as above envisioned by NASA) – on truly neutral ground?

Thanks to artist Anders Widoff who first informed us of the one million new Chinse artists.
Paintings by Zhong Biao from
More about ”American Debut”:

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