SOAPBOX GALLERY | SEPTEMBER 16 - SEPTEMBER 30, 2011
Brooklyn artist Lori Sikorski recently staged an interactive exhibition that looks at our current military involvement in the Middle East, initially begun as a response to the destruction of the World Trade Center, a local event, but which passed quickly into long-term, distant hostilities. She set up a small installation in Soapbox’s tiny storefront gallery in which participants, specifically visiting the gallery or just passing by, dressed up in real military clothing and had their picture (a digital Polaroid) taken by the artist. Once the image was printed, Sikorski attached a column of paper to it and had her visitors fill out, in their own writing, the statement, “If I were called to serve, …” During the course of the two-week exhibition, she collected more than 60 images and opinions, occupying a broad spectrum of feeling—from active opposition to the war in Afghanistan to an equally fierce determination to serve. Given the intensity of current events, and the polar distance between differing attitudes about war, one might well have expected a cocky jingoism and a determined attempt at a pacifist stance.
This is in fact what happened; because of the local nature of the project, which took place in a gentrified neighborhood on Dean Street not so far from Flatbush Avenue, the beliefs of both the privileged and the poor were on display, along with iconic images of individuals in Kevlar helmets, desert goggles, camouflage jackets and pants, and boots (the items were purchased by Sikorski from an army-navy store). One cannot overestimate the warlike stances of most of the visitors, hidden by a costume that was all too real for comfort. The photos were complex in their effect and implications—viewers of the images inevitably had to decide whether this was a kind of adult dress-up, in which the actors were playing out a fantasy, or if the costume-wearing constituted a moment of reality, in which the participant actively identified with his or her counterpart fighting in actual combat. As might be imagined, the responses reflected differences across class and racial lines: privileged whites tended to be against the aggression of war, while blacks from the lower income bracket tended to take pride in fighting for their country. Of course, the sampling was random, and no projections of large numbers were made, but the small group of pictures hung on the wall of the gallery was strangely moving—as if it embodied a genuinely accurate microcosm of social viewpoints.
Meanwhile, however, the real war continues; it is fought by the poor, a great injustice, although no one I know of recommends a democratic draft (the middle class and well-to-do take their entitlement lightly). Sikorski is an artist whose concerns have often been social and political; she hopes to reproduce the project in other places throughout America. Her idea is simple and close to the truth, although the circumstances of the dress-up have a dramatic, performative flair. The strength of the exhibition is located in the gap between the imaginative reality of the costume and the fact that actual war is being waged in identical uniforms; the written responses are moving no matter which side of the argument they speak for. The show quietly turns into a meditation about the nature of war generally, our reaction to it as concerned and, hopefully, patriotic citizens of the United States.
Some of the quotations expressed dismay, some of them pride in fighting. Emotions run high, as in the following quotation: “If I were called to serve, I would sit on the White House steps and scream…for all the lives that have been lost, and ask why.” Another speech demonstrates a mixed opinion, but one in service to the military: “If I were called to serve, I don’t know how I would tell my parents—my Father narrowly missed Vietnam and my Mother is completely against our current war—but I would go. I would think of everyone I know who went—and I would go.” Here the war has come closer to home—the speaker recalls the service of people she knows—and it influences her to serve. Another comment emphasizes the selflessness of military service: “Though I may not agree with the cause or purpose, I would do my part to keep those I serve with and my family at home safe. I would serve so others would not have to.” Finally, simple fear seems to generate the next comment: “If I were called to serve, I would start running in the opposite direction, and when I hit the water, I would start swimming away from the base as fast as possible.”
As witnessed in these speeches, the range of motives are variable and, at the same time, affecting. They underscore the strange place our military actions harbor in the public mind of America, which does and does not forget the deaths that occur. It might be worth reminding those who support our military efforts that we are visiting terrible damage and death in the region, often upon civilians who do not share the absolutism of the Taliban. Sadly, this kind of insight is often lost to angry rhetoric, so that the tragedy of the dead takes on a hardened edge: no one wants to tell the disturbing truths of our involvement, which are imperial and linked to geopolitical concerns (oil, of course, being a large factor). Sikorski manages to raise many of these issues in her straightforward but intelligent project. The wide range of thought encountered in these texts shows that, once again, much like Vietnam, the American populace remains passionately divided in its political beliefs.
Jonathan Goodman is a teacher and author specializing in Asian art, about which he has been writing for more than twenty years.