Monday, October 20, 2008

Old Glory, New Perspectives

Pledging Allegiance to Poultry

Building on Tyler Green's "The flag in contemporary art" theme on MAN last week, I figured I'd post something on TMITF that not only fits the criteria, but is also an amazing and provocative piece of art that should come out from hiding at LACMA -- especially in an election year! My choice is Edward Kienholz's The U.S. Bird, or Home from the Summit.

The year was 1960 and Dwight D. Eisenhower was concluding his second, and final, term as president of the U.S. Preparing for what he had hoped would be the final accolade of his presidency, Eisenhower received word that on May 1st, the U.S.S.R. had shot down an American U-2 spy plane that had allegedly violated Soviet airspace. This was not the news he had hoped for weeks prior to the convening of an important meeting of the post-war Big Four -- the United States, Great Britain, France and the Soviet Union. After several days of down playing the incident as an unfortunate crash of a U.S piloted "weather" surveillance plane, Eisenhower was later pressured to concede that the aircraft was, indeed, engaged in activities of a more clandestine nature. As the summit began on May 16th in Paris, a furious Nikita Khrushchev denounced Eisenhower and the U.S. for engaging in such behavior toward the Soviet Union and stormed out of the summit. Consequently, the main issues of the summit, which included the division of Berlin and nuclear arms control, became stalled and were never fully resolved.

Fast forward, 48 years later, and you can definitely see how such a piece could continue to resonate with viewers given the U.S's current reputation on the world stage. This work contains several symbolic narratives which allude to the failed Paris summit. The stuffed duck, possibly picked off by a skilled hunter, gives off the appearance of being tarred in red, white and blue paint, its lifeless body crammed into a coffin-like box. Kienholz is clearly making a bold political statement regarding the lame duck presidency and failed foreign policies of Eisenhower. He insinuates that the president came home from the Paris summit just as a dead U.S. soldier would come home from a conflict region -- in a pine box, draped in an American flag.

Another interesting point as to why Kienholz may have chosen to use a duck, rather than another animal, is because the comparison between a duck and a U-2 spy plane, in this case, is striking. Ducks are capable of flying at extremely high altitudes and, as a result, are very difficult to shoot down once in full flight. That is why, more often that none, hunters who stumble upon a flock of ducks will startle them in hopes of getting a clear shot just before they approach an altitude where a shotgun slug could no longer reach them. While the tone of the work may seem to be more on the serious side, there is also a thin veil of humor embedded within. In my opinion, the composition of a duck in a box also implies the act of gift giving. In this gesture, Kienholz is presenting us with a literal depiction of "flipping off" the viewer. Yes, sometimes giving someone the bird is patriotic!

Edward Kienholz
The U.S. Duck, or Home from the Summit, 1960
Mixed media/assemblage/collage, Construction,
26 7/16 x 21 1/4 x 6 in. (67.15 x 53.98 x 15.24 cm)
Michael and Dorothy Blankfort Bequest
© Edward Kienholz and Nancy Reddin Kienholz.
Photograph © 2002 Museum Associates/LACMA.