With six days until the election, the hope is so strong that I can taste it. Soon the final, mad rush of campaigning and reporting will rise to its final crescendo, and then there will be the day of reckoning. After that, a party or two, but then the sober realization of just how much needs to be changed. Where to begin–with a long, dazed look backwards at what actually happened, or all around to assess just how bad the damage is? What will it mean to take a hard look at where we are and what habits are still in place?
Well, it might mean looking at how artists from around the world have depicted Bush’s America.
This bubble-head figure is from an exhibition by Phillip Toledano entitled “America – The Gift Shop.” Toledano asks, “If American foreign policy had a gift shop, what would it sell?” His answers involve an uncanny fusion of criminal government policies and commercial brick-a-brack. In a stroke, Toledano captures the enormous gap between day-to-day experience in the US and the terror perpetrated by the Bush administration in Iraq. Equally disturbing is his demonstration of how the crimes might be miniaturized or otherwise diminished by those whose lives are defined by retail consumption. I’ve seen many appropriations of the iconic image from Abu Ghraib, but this is the only one that really drained it of most of its moral force. What might be disregarded as merely clever artistry in fact does something much more difficult: it reminds us that human beings can get used to anything.
It is imperative that Americans not become accustomed even in part to the policies of the past seven years. The clock needs to be turned all the way back at the justice department, state department, treasury department–just to name the obvious–and elsewhere, even as the government and the society move forward to do better than that. Until that happens, the change that is needed will be too little, too late.
Bad habits die hard, and there always will be those at home and abroad trying to use them to their own interests. Too many people have made a lot of money or acquired a lot of power off of the War on Terror. All the more reason to turn to those artists and intellectuals who can reveal just how much went wrong and why one can’t assume that wrongs will be righted and habits changed as a matter of course.
America the Gift Shop is an exhibition at The Apartment, a design agency in New York City. Abu Ghraib Bubble-head; moulded resin, 7″, 2008. Regions destablized while-u-wait; neon, glass, 20″ x 30″, 2008. Thanks to Conscientious for finding this great work.
You say that presenting the iconic Abu Ghraib image as a plastic souvenir drains it of its meaning, reminding us that people can get used to anything. Well, OK, but I’d add another reading. If I ask where the artistic aha! experience is, I find it at the meeting of safe and blameless plastic mementos of family holidays (connections to each other and a treasured past, greetings from Niagara Falls!, “Made in China” on the bottom) and torturing captives at Saddam Hussein’s prison. You could achieve the same sense, if not the same impact, by exhibiting the digital point and shoot cameras used to take those images in Abu Ghraib: the tool of happy families, intersecting with torment.