Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Jumping The Gun: Responding to Challenging Artworks (featuring Terrorist Balloons!)

Terrorist Balloons, Vlad Nanca (2005)
print on balloon, dimensions variable

I originally came across images from Romanian artist Vlad Nanca's 2005 installation Terrorist Balloons on ILOVEBADTHINGS, a blog/art project dedicated to showcasing violent/disturbing/sexual/ "dark" artworks (fair warning: some of the artworks pictured are NSFW) and I followed the link back to his site. Nanca writes,

"The Terrorist Balloon is my answer the question of terrorism. It's something little that needs to be inflated and played with in order to have some fun. When inflated it needs to be treated carefully so it doesn't pop."

I knew I wanted to write about this work, but I hesitated because I wasn't sure how I felt about it. I am an artist who makes work that is sometimes thought of as "controversial" so my default stance is to grant other artists the benefit of the doubt. While contemporary audiences are extremely sophisticated, they are also used to getting their culture with reference points built right in. That's one of the pleasures of pop culture, the comforting way it refers to itself. But, no matter how subversive the content might be, the overall effect is conservative: You always know where (and who) you are in relation to what you are seeing. So the thing that makes it comforting is also what keeps it from challenging the status quo. But that is not the case with artwork that has a conceptual element. One of its functions is to confound your expectations and destabilize you a bit, which is why that kind of artwork often makes people angry. And when you add racial, ethnic and/or religious content to the mix then it gets even more difficult to engage with conceptual art. In other words, it is easy to jump the gun and condemn artworks that engage with complex issues in a way that opens them up, instead of shutting them down. Which brings me back to Nanca's Terrorist Balloons.

This installation consists of balloons that have been printed with the image of eyes and a mouth peeking out from openings in the black latex. They recall criminals in ski masks and, when clustered together, women in hijab. The ambiguity of this work is fascinating from an art perspective, but potentially troubling from a political one. On one hand, I love that Nanca has taken an innocuous children's object and imbued it with vague menace. And there are no overt racial/ethnic markers attributed to the faces hidden in the image... although the everyday conflation of "terrorist" with "Arab/Muslim" often acts as a shorthand, which takes the place of more overt depictions. Arguably, that collapse is activated by the blackness of the balloons, especially when they are displayed together. The now-iconic Western image of groups of Arabs/ Muslims with covered faces (male insurgents and female hijabis) is a reference here. And, when displayed deflated the Terrorist Balloons recall hijab even more strongly.

The cluster of inflated balloons reminds me of another work by Palestinian-American artist Mary Tuma, Homes for the Disembodied, which is interesting to consider as a contrast.

Homes For the Disembodied, Mary Tuma 2000, remade 2003
50 meters of continuous fabric, fallen trees, thread, stones, wire.
approximately 10' x 25' x 7' (dimensions variable)

Like Nanca, Tuma used benign materials to suggest unsettling groups of faceless figures. And, like Terrorist Balloons, there is no indication in Homes For the Disembodied that the long, empty, semi-transparent black garments represent specifically Middle Eastern subjects. She writes, in her artists' statement,

" I am interested in the sorting of images from the past, images that are like shadows or ghosts, something not quite whole and no longer real but still of great influence and power. In most of these works there is evidence of loss—an allusion to the passing of time; a vacant space within a form once occupied; an identity that merges fully with it's environment... There is an intangible "place" where the body becomes an emotional landscape. Though I cannot define this, it is a goal of the work to describe that place."

While this description applies to the entire range of her work, Tuma's ethnic background provides an inevitable context for her thoughts about absence, bodies and place. Like many contemporary trans-national artists of Palestinian descent Tuma has created work that does not directly reference her ethnic heritage or Palestine/Israel. However, Tuma has created a category on her site for works that are intentionally designed to engage Palestine, and images of Homes For the Disembodied are archived there, so it is reasonable to assume that this context is integral to the work. Tuma has displayed Homes For the Disembodied at New York's Bridge Gallery (where I saw it in person) for the Made in Palestine show, which toured the United States. While Nanca's Terrorist Balloons have appeared at Bucharest's DSBA Gallery, for their Errorism Show, and more recently in London for Pictures On Walls (POW) Open Day.

Terrorist Balloons, London, POW Open Day (2008)

While the parallels between these works are provocative to consider--both made from simple materials, both evoking intangible presences, both designed to float above your sight-line, etc--the differences in their underlying politics make them distinct. Nanca writes that this work is an answer to the "question of terrorism", but never says exactly what that question is for him. In the absence of another explanation, it may be that the "question of terrorism" that Nanca is portraying here is the notion that Arabs/Muslims may seem benign and even ridiculous, but unless handled carefully might explode.
For me, Terrorist Balloons is a European image of the invisible threat of contemporary terrorism, with its Arab and Muslim boogeymen around every corner. While Tuma's Homes For the Disembodied is a ghostly evocation of Arab/Muslim/ Palestinian bodies that aren't charged with explosive potential, but instead are all that is left in its aftermath.


(And that is not rhetorical, I am really asking. You don't need to be an artist or an art scholar to have a valuable opinion here).


  1. *ahem*

    Non-artist/psuedo-scholar/rogue wordsmith taking a crack at it.

    "Homes for the Disembodied" gave me the strong and immediate impression of a funeral procession. It invokes that same feeling of spectatorial grief. That whole, "Oh, no! Who died?" I get when I see a hearst and limos in my neighborhood. (And in this case the answer is "So many.") I didn't understand what I was looking at right away, but I "knew" - in the rawest of senses - that it was profoundly sad, and in all likelihood tragic. I teared up and everything....buuuuuut to be fair, that's just kinda what I do when something moves and/or touches me. High art...those Alpo commercials with the shelter pooches...all that manipulative emo nonsense.

    Anyway. That is what I thought.

    But I very often miss the point.

  2. Hm. I think "rogue wordsmith" may be another way to say "artist", but I getcha. Yes, I think the Tuma piece is incredibly sad. I saw it in person, and it was almost more abstract up close, if that makes sense. The garments are very, very long and the exaggerated scale almost makes you dizzy. Its funny, the "Made in Palestine" show it was in featured work from at least a dozen other artists and even though they all shared the same sad topic--Palestine--some were too literal to really move me. The reason this worked for me is because of what you described, that "Oh no" feeling.

    As for Nanca's Terrorist Balloons, I am still not sure what to think about it. Is it possible to admire something and also find it kind of insulting?

  3. Up way too late now to be bright-eyed or bushy-tailed for tomorrow. But - yes, you can admire a thing that is, in fact, insulting. The balloons, in light of certain realities, are disrespectfully glib.

    But hey...like I said before. Just a rogue wordsmith.

  4. Joseph: great post. Yes, I think that it's possible to admire something you simultaneously find insulting. In fact, I would say that's one of the features of art that makes it valuable and necessary to human expression. My forte is literature, not visual art, but off the top of my head: anything by Naipal; Heart of Darkness; A Passage to India; Huckleberry Finn; The Plague and The Stranger (though I do think Camus is hopelessly overrated)...