A WILD AND VIOLENT SEA
In 2023, I had the opportunity to participate in a residency with Ideas Block LT in Vilnius, Lithuania. Working with a Russian artist, we created an exhibition exploring how authoritarianism is currently expressing itself in our two countries - in all of its complicated similarities, differences, and how it could look for the future. A major theme that we discovered fairly quickly through our discussions is how this authoritarian trend is perpetuated and justified in both Russia and the United States through a love of nostalgia, and more specifically, a mythos of a "Great Past" that never existed. Using the lens of nostalgia, we created an installation of a living room to showcase our artwork in; using items reminiscent of 1950's United States and 1960's Russia, we transformed the gallery into a warm and comforting space, inviting viewers to sit at a coffee table and flip through its books (Dick & Jame for the U.S. and old physics workbooks for Russia), while listening to crooners such as Frank Sinatra play on an old radio. It wasn't until the viewers began to look more closely at the art on the walls (including the books themselves), that the dangerous themes and expressions of authoritarianism began to unsettle their former nostalgic comfort.
One of the more challenging aspects of working with an artist from such a vastly different, yet in same ways, eerily similar, country than my own was pinpointing the ways that authoritarianism was expressing itself in each of our countries that was broad enough to find a commonality, without being so general that it became reductionist or over-simplified. After numerous fascinating and difficult conversations, we found five themes that could broadly apply to both the U. S. and Russia even if their specificities appeared vastly different. At this point, we began to work separately - each creating a series of pieces that showcased how these five themes were taking shape in our communities.
Regarding my work. It would be far too lengthy to detail each piece and its representation here, but there were numerous elements that I wove through multiple pieces in the series as foundational points that were being used to justify each of the five themes in one way or another. The nostalgia undergirding the reasoning behind authoritarian trends in the U.S. can be seen in the use of old, distressed, but gilt picture frames, as well as images from Norman Rockwell (a painter appropriated by the alt-right as indictive of "ideal" America who in reality was a fairly subversive artist questioning cultural norms of his time). The crosses made of burned matchsticks represent the current of Christian nationalist thinking that is being regularly (and not subtly) used to justify a degradation of civil rights, and often the foundations that our democracy is built on. Play money from a popular board game teaching children capitalism is a constant reminder of the excessive power that the extremely wealthy not only hold, but then wield in order to manipulate capitalist democracy for their own self-interest. In each piece, there are further references to not only its particular, broader theme, whether it's "violence," "erosion of democratic institutions," etc but also specific examples of how this theme is expressing itself in the U.S.
The title comes from a longer quote found in Shakespeare's "Macbeth":
But cruel are the times when we are traitors
And do not know ourselves; when we hold rumor
From what we fear, yet know not what we fear;
But float upon a wild and violent sea
Each way and move.