Sunday, July 31, 2011

No Cause for Celebration

Collaborations is the new exhibition at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, CT.  You guessed it, it's a whole museum full of works by collaborating artists.  But that's not really the point herein.

Among the works on view is All the Holidays At Once by MTAA.  It's an interesting premise; they are mixing up the holidays and the notion of artistic collaboration by asking the town's residents to lend them holiday decorations which they have arranged on the grass behind the building.  Donations include snowmen and Santas, pumpkins, skeletons, giant spiders, eggs, rabbits, and turkeys.  On the surface it's a nice bit of celebrating and lore and good times.  But it goes wrong really quickly.

The problem I have is the plastic.  It's all plastic propped and hanging everywhere.  Plastic!  I don't care what you're celebrating, plastic (and its source, petroleum) causes an enormous amount of damage to the planet's ecosystems.  On that point alone, the piece fails; what is being celebrated by the continued destruction of the planet and its life forms?

Let's take Christmas, the most represented holiday in the piece, and start by asking is it really in keeping with Jesus' teachings to abuse the earth in this manner, with our selfish and harmful use of resources?  By extension wouldn't loving your neighbor include simple things like refraining from poisoning his water?  And plastic is among the most common pollutant in the earth's waterways, just to make the point.  I'll admit, it's a little hypocritical for me to make this complaint as I do wear synthetic clothing and drink from a reusable plastic bottle.  But I try to limit my plastic habits in other ways as much as possible while recognizing it's a material we can't completely be rid of by now.  Still, does no one see the hypocrisy in plastic ornamentation?

All the Holidays at Once also includes nylon flags honoring Martin Luther King Day, Kwanzaa, Halloween, El Dia de los Muertos, Valentine's Day, Easter, Chanukah, and Earth Day.  A nylon flag honoring Earth Day?  My common sense chokes on the irony. 

Exacerbating the natural environment problem inherent in the piece is that the arrangement mimics Spiral Jetty, a work that was debated at the time of its creation as destructive to its environment and continues to raise questions about ongoing effects to the area.  In that regard, at least that's an appropriate reference.

In the figurative sense, the plastic bothers me still further.  As an observer of my own culture, I am concerned with the thing we call plastic values.  Not in the malleable, adaptable sense; I am talking about the synthetic and artificial.  We're caught up in a life that revolves around false notions of beauty, youth, productivity and worth.  Watch tv on any given day and we are driven by the pursuit, not of the new, but of the more.  We must always have the better phone, with its plastic casing and carcinogenic metals because without them we can't use the apps that don't add any value to our lives.

Which is much like celebrating a great deal of the holidays when you think about it.  Christmas is the ugliest, most hate filled, greed infected time of year despite the constant hitting over the head of good will and joy.  Those who do not participate in the celebration, whether for religious or moral objections, are labeled ill-willed, bad tempered, Scrooge and chastised for having different priorities.  Had Jesus been a real guy, I would fathom a guess he would be dismayed by this.  

Dr. King had a dream of all children being equal but we live in a world that still seeks to punish those who aren't like the loudest voices in the front of the line.  You are still lesser if you are black or brown, a woman, poor...  But we need to celebrate all the accomplishments we have made in equality even as we take those hard earned gains away.

New laws that will restrict voting access, women's rights, wage standards all stand before one state or other right now and the rhetoric continues to be America, land of the free.  We are seeing the beginning effects of global climate crisis and the argument is whether businesses should be restricted by environmental regulation -- because if business has to be mindful of the resources it depends on then how will it make as much profit as possible selling us things we don't need?  Thanksgiving is a "real" American holiday but we celebrate myth and ignorance, thinking the Pilgrims were passive friends to the Natives and not actively engaged in isolating and even killing Natives in their native land.  How many of your friends know why Memorial Day and Veterans Day are different?  How do we thank those who served our country?  By taking a day off to go shopping.  Plastic values. 

People decorate their homes and yards with garbage to celebrate holidays they don't understand.  They clutter their spaces to avoid the emotional garbage that clutters their lives.  The emphasis is on the conformity to superficial representations rather than genuine sentiments of thanks, love, or self-reflection.

Maybe All the Holidays at Once is good for exposing this arrogant stupidity and the hypocrisy that follows.  Maybe it's good for showing us the wrong ideas in our traditions but, as a celebration of cultural life forces, it's a sad disgrace.