Artist Philip Toledano has launched America: The Gift Shop, an online installation that “reflects the current foreign policy in the fun-house mirror of American commerce. We buy souvenirs at the end of a trip, to remind ourselves of the experience. What do we have to remind us of the events of the last eight years?”
I was a little nervous when first clicking on this one: it’s really easy to screw this stuff up, to let art surrender its power to simple ideology or sloganeering. It’s especially easy when your subject isn’t something with a lot of room for nuance. If this was a piece on how “personal circumstance affects the political”, I wouldn’t be hesitant, because that’s a topic with some weight behind it, one that demands a subtle approach.
Subtlety is necessary because pointing out just how things have gone wrong outside America’s borders since 2001 has been done by many many people, and it’s a double-edged sword: the problems are big, and thus easy to refer to in a slogan, but the sheer quantity of them means the clarity of the message can get lost in the explanation. And that’s just the political aspect of it. Trying to turn that kind of criticism into art? It’s a tall order.
That’s why I really like Toledano’s approach, which highlights his strange souvenir-based approach without sliding into lazy criticism of commercial culture. No blustery text about the ‘blind consumerism’ of America and its tenuous connection to foreign policy: he simply says “my palette is the vernacular of retail. The more familiar it is, the better host it becomes for the idea.”
In other words, this isn’t a critique of the foreign policy itself, but a comment on how the most famous aspects of that policy (Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, Shock & Awe) were digested and normalized by the public until they resembled familiar figures on a store shelf somewhere. Works for me–I know my repeated exposure to the hooded & wired Abu Ghraib figure has certainly dulled whatever my initial reaction was to it, and now that deadening process has been mapped out through visual art, getting me to think about the original image all over again.
And here’s another election-period piece of art/comedy for you, just ’cause: A New Electoral Map by Chris Harris and Stephanie Chen.