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Sight Gag: Immigration Reform?


Credit: Friends of Irony

Sight Gags” is our weekly nod to the ironic and carnivalesque in a vibrant democratic public culture.  We typically will not comment beyond offering an identifying label, leaving the images to “speak” for themselves as much as possible.  Of course, we invite you to comment … and to send us images that you think capture the carnival of contemporary democratic public culture.


Taking a Look at the Public Eye

Chicago’s latest public artwork of note is titled Eye.  The artist, TonyTasset, apparently likes to say what he means.

Tony Tasset, Eye, Chicago

The thirty foot high eyeball has been placed in Pritzker Park and is getting a good deal of attention.  (The full installation is entitled Eye and Cardinal, but I haven’t heard a thing about the bird.)  One reason will be that it invites comparison with The Bean, a large, reflective object in Millennium Park otherwise known as Cloud Gate, by Anish Kapoor.  Both sculptures are examples of the role of spectatorship in the self-understanding of the modern city.

Imagine a large sculpture of a human ear.  Or nose, or lips.  Or perhaps a giant foot.  Not likely, although the urban environment certainly requires walking, and civic life is very much about talking and listening, and about smelling (sometimes to our dismay).  I can’t say that some artist won’t sell some city manager on the idea of branching out, but these figures still would not challenge the role of seeing as an organizing principle of modern society.  What artworks such as the Bean and Eye do is deflect our attention from the objects of sight to the process itself, which is a social process: we see ourselves reflected amidst those strangers milling casually around us, and we see the organ of sight itself as a public monument—as a monument to being together in public.

Nor are these works unique.  Think of all the observation decks, sightseeing buses, and other modes of spectatorship that are fixtures of urban tourism.  Note other artists who highlight urban optics, such as the Eye Walkers (my label) created by Medaman-Medaman.  These are but a very few of the many ways that urban culture is a distinctive kind of visual culture.  And one feature of that culture is that it generates diverse forms of interaction between the artworks and their audience.

Tassett Eye reflected in sunglasses

Where to begin?  We see Eye doubled as it is reflected in this guy’s sunglasses, and so one optical instrument is reflected in another, and the artwork is doubled by an optical trick to more accurately reflect the operation of binocular vision, which allows the artificial eyes to assume the place of his real eyes while what is transparent to him is reflective to us, which is what the artwork does for all of us (can you see your eyeball, and how often do you think about public spectatorship?), and those eyes could be staring at him, transfixing the urban space, but they actually are only a reflection where they are joined with other spectators, strangers who are simply part of the scene, non-threatening in part because all are accustomed to practices of mutual but non-hostile surveillance, and all this and more is there but way too serious against the allusion to crazy eyeball glasses, and so silliness is part of the photographer’s achievement here, which reflects in turn the comic element in the artwork and so in the civic attitude itself, and all of this is wrapped up in the good vibe of this guy’s happy smile as he’s just digging this giant eyeball in the middle of the city.

And to appreciate what is at stake, all you have to do is look at those teeth.

Photographs by M.T. Sullivan/flickr and Nancy Stone/Chicago Tribune.


The Flags of Our Fathers

Fenway Flags2010-07-06 at 1.22.42 PM

I was at Yankee Stadium recently and as has been customary every since World War II, such sporting events begin with a standing salute to the “Star Spangled Banner—America’s national anthem.  During the seventh inning stretch, when one  expected to hear “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” an announcer  implored all of the fans to stand facing in the direction of the American flag, to take their hats off, and to honor the singing of “God Bless America.”  This latest paean to American exceptionalism became a practice in New York after the tragic events of  9/11 and although it resulted in a law suit initiated by the NYCLU, it continues to the present day unabated. That said, such a flag fetish is not unique to New York, as we see in the  photograph of a red, white, and blue shrouded “Green Monster” in Boston’s Fenway Park on the Fourth of July.

There is of course nothing wrong in celebrating America’s heritage with displays of the flag, especially on the anniversary of our national “birth,” but notice here how the elongated flag (one of three U.S. flags in the photograph) is completely out of scale with its surroundings—both in size and dimension—as if to imply that there is nothing that can’t be covered by its reach.  Such hubris is accented by the military fly over and honor guard which frame the image across the diagonal from upper left to lower right. Though barely conspicuous in comparison to the magnitude of the flag, the martial presence in the image nevertheless emphasizes the normalization of a war culture in American life, even as the flag serves to articulate commitments to nationalism and militarism as if naturally and necessarily connected.

The relationship between nationalism and militarism is naturalized in no less subtle terms in this photograph of a young girl reaching for the flag that cloaked the coffin of her father, an Army Specialist recently killed in Afghanistan.

Flagsof Fathers.2010-07-06 at 1.20.35 PM

The child is absolutely beautiful; her skin soft and unblemished, her hair neatly combed into a pony tail, she exudes childlike purity and innocence. The expression on her face teeters between wonder and desire as receives the flag being handed to her from a member of the military honor guard. At some later date she might question with tears and anger why her father had to die in a war of occupation before she got to know him, but here her rapt attention is focused on the symbolic remnant that stands in simultaneously for his absence (as her biological father) and presence (as her national father), and she accepts it with open arms.  That she is dressed  in red, white, and blue only serves to accentuate the connection between the military hand offering her the flag and her own significance as a metaphorical representation of the nation.

The implication of these two images is no different than many more images regularly put on display in newspapers and website slide shows, and more is the pity, for the flag should be a symbol of patriotism—love of one’s country— and not an unguarded cipher for normalizing a military culture.

Photo Credits:  Elsa/Getty Images; Kelly Presnell/AP/Arizona Daily Star.

Cross-posted at BAGnewsNotes.