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Monuments For The USA

at CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts

The CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts' "Monuments For the USA" is a surprisingly humorous and moving collection of artist proposals addressing the country's contemporary political and social landscape. It is a show of ideas, with photos, drawings, and sculptures taking a back seat to the artists' incisive and thoughtfully written texts. In truth they are a collection of anti-monuments often satirical, sometimes ridiculous and refreshingly un-didactic.

A handwritten diatribe against our government's goings-on introduces Chris Johanson & Kal Spelletich's proposal for a "nice store" that uses progressive consumerism to "treat people like people that have individualistic needs." "Negative Monument to Surveillance, Infiltration and the Quest for Neutralizing Through Violence and Psychological Warfare by the U.S. Government Against Its Own Citizens, 2005", is a surveillance camera whose jerky movements amused opening night attendees, and "Nice Store Monument, 2005", a wood model of the proposed store in Johanson's characteristic faux-naive style, are tongue-in-cheek while being totally sincere.

Monuments to president's dogs, short-term memory, and anonymous local pioneers of internet pornography poke fun at lowbrow American culture. These proposals are modest compared to the spectacle of "US" emblazoned in enormous gold letters on the lawn of the Washington Mall. The monument's gleaming surface and sexy curves look damn good in Yoshua Okon's video animation, making your trashy American heart go pitter patter while it criticizes the current administration's inflated ego and "us vs. them" political doctrine. Threat of such a monstrosity could be used against the group Torolab and their proposal for emptying the waters of the Hoover Dam into the streets of Las Vegas. If you destroy our beloved Luxor Hotel and Liberace Museum we'll make Washington, DC the country's new capital of kitsch.

Even more fantastical than the flooding of Las Vegas, Rigo 23's "Moonlanding Park, 2005" would make a monument out of the moon, using Star Wars technology to cause the satellite to fall to Earth over Nacogdoches, Texas. Paul Chan suggests archiving democratic ideals in the heavens by renaming the constellations of Orion and Andromeda, to "Distributive Justice" and "No taxation without direct representation." Not satisfied with spreading freedom and democracy to Iraq and Afghanistan will the neocons seek to indoctrinate the stars?

While completely freed from practical constraints a few of these proposals could actually be realized. Alexandra Mir's marble sculpted ears, one on the East Coast and one on the West Coast, would remind us to listen to our neighbors. We could look at our own reflection in Do-Ho Suh's huge billboard sized mirror moving across the country on the flatbed of an 18-wheeler. If Claes Oldenburg could get his outdoor sculptures of giant safety pins and spoons built what is stopping the construction of Thomas Demand's oversized soap bar and dish?

Thomas Demand is particularly candid in his artist's statement. Although his initial thoughts were for a monument critical of the U.S., the artist came to realize that, "I like the States very much. And I did not want to end up criticizing it with an opinion which isn't much more profound than anything you'd read in the New York Times..." I don't think he is the only artist in the show that came to this conclusion and it is why the show is so good.

Instead of raking the country over the coals the artists took an even-tempered approach. Above all the tone was wistful. In spite of the Abu Ghraib prison scandel, rising fuel costs, and an economy slowly grinding to a halt, artists and others are refusing to be cynical. Watching events unfold in the Middle East has given us all time to reflect on what a privilege it is to live in a democracy, and that despite all that pre-election swearing the U.S. is just a lot more fun to live in than Canada. Viva Las Vegas!

exhibit runs: April 7-May 14, 2005
CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, Logan Galleries
California College of the Arts