Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Seattle Public Art: "Lot's Tribe"

Seattle artist Michael Magrath's sculptures are made of salt. The life-size figures are modelled after Associated Press photos of suffering Iraqis, and they're intended to dissolve with the rain. I read about the sculpture set, called "Lot's Tribe," in Monday morning's Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

The sculpture pictured above is one of three. The other two are a boy squatting and a man holding his dead son. As art, they are beautiful pieces. The detailing is inhibited by the grainy quality of the salt in a way that makes the figures look wind-blasted and rugged. Almost like Pompeii's frozen figures. The rough material enhances the figures' beleaguered expressions.

When I visited the three sculptures in Seattle's Occidental Square near the UPS Waterfall Garden and the Elliot Bay Bookstore, people were walking around them, talking about them. People wondered how the sculptures would hold up in the first rain (expected soon) -- would they slowly melt, or would they, like Lot's wife in the bible, turn immediately to a pile of salt? I'm betting a small crowd will develop around the figures the next time it rains in Seattle.

Sculptures that disappear with rain are a brilliant conceit. The artist told the P-I's art critic:
"Lot's wife turned around to see something, and the sight froze her ... These people are in the midst of something that is changing their lives, but images from the war tend to wash over us. We see so many that we don't really see them anymore. In three dimensions, they last a little longer, but they won't last long."
But what does it mean to have a set of sculptures unveiled in time for the fifth anniversary of the September 11 attacks, depicting Iraqi (and probably Muslim) war casualties, titled after a Christian bible story?

Doesn't it conflate too many things? Iraq and Al Qaeda, 9/11 and the Iraq War, Christian and Muslim?

One of the most interesting things to me about P-I art critic Regina Hackett's coverage was that she didn't mention the bible. The story of Lot losing his wife to god's whimsy is a biblical one. Naming a piece of art showing suffering non-Christians after a bible story seems provocative or insensitive. But Hackett's article, by not invoking the bible, serves to secularize the story. My guess is that the sculptor is not a Christian, and that his intention was not to turn the Iraq War into a Christian versus Muslims issue, but the issues are there.

So what are we left with? A commentary on the fleetingness of war coverage and on the suffering of others while we mourn our own dead. That latter is a powerful statement, and one that is no less controversial than the religious one. It's something American liberals have been aching to point out to red state conservatives for five years: While New York lost 3,000 people, other parts of the world are racked with war and "sectarian violence" (to use a current news cliche), and they lose lives every day.

Implicit to liberals in that statement is that we have a responsibility to the world, that we're not the only important ones. Implicit to conservatives in that statement is that we deserved to be attacked. Liberals run the risk of being paternalsitic and conservatives run the risk of being self-absorbed.

I always say that any conversation about divisive issues is progress. I don't see that in America yet. I think we're still figuring out how to understand that idea that our island nation is penetrable. This set of sculptures is provocative, but I don't see anyone taking the bait.



Anonymous Sarah said...

I disagree with your reading of the biblical/religious issues in this project. As a thought exercise, let's consider what would happen if Magrath HADN'T referenced Lot's wife when he titled these pieces. It would have seemed peculiar to his audience (who, merely by living in the United States, are highly likely to have been exposed to the Lot myth regardless of their religious background). If he hadn't referenced Lot when referring to human figures made of salt, you probably would have objected that he was being overly PC in avoiding the biblical reference, possibly with a comparison to the Happy Holidays/Merry Christmas controversy thrown in. But the real problem is that Lot isn't strictly a "biblical" story. Islam and Christianity have common monotheistic roots, and the story of Lot does appear in the Qu'ran, although Lot's wife doesn't turn into salt in the Muslim version (she's labelled as "of those who stay behind").

Once you get past the religious nature of the story and look at the actual plot, the comparison to Lot's wife adds an extra and very poetic dimension to the project. Lot and his family were fleeing a place of sin and chaos and had been warned not to look back--to make a clean break with the past. Lot's wife looked back and was transmogrified as punishment, despite the fact that her reaction was very human. Even though Sodom and Gomorrah were horrible places, they had still been home to Lot and his family. That's part of the horror of urban warfare--the place you live in, a place where you presumably have some happy memories, has become a dangerous prison. In escaping you also have to leave your past behind. In this piece of artwork the Christian and Muslim interpretations of the story both apply--the salt comes from the Bible, and the subtext of "staying behind" from the Qu'ran--and create a beautifully layered commentary on modern war.

5:35 PM  

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