Abraham Lincoln: War Veteran Projection
Union Square, New York City
On view: November 8 – December 9, 2012
Every night from 6:00-10:00 pm
Krzysztof Wodiczko believes in the power of art to heal, transform, and enlighten. For this artist, cultural practices provide the means to embolden voices muted through marginalization and alienation. To coincide with Veteran’s Day, fourteen soldiers and family members recuperate their stories and reconcile troubled pasts in testimonies projected onto Henry Kirke Brown’s statue of Abraham Lincoln, which has stood silent vigil in Union Square’s north end since 1870. Through digital proxy the veterans assume Lincoln’s authority as a statesman and orator to gain standing as viable public citizens.
Absent from this city’s public spaces since his work in the late 1980s with the homeless community of the Tompkins-Square-Park neighborhood, Wodiczko has been fusing art, activism, and therapy into a practice of agonistic democracy in such projects as Alien Staff (1992-1993), Hiroshima Projection (1999-2000), and Guests for the 53rd Venice Biennale in 2009. He works from the premise that conflict is part of life and should not be shunted aside. He also affirms that society’s cast-offs – the homeless, migrants, victims of domestic abuse, and war veterans – have a great deal to offer if only relieved of the stigma of worthlessness and given an opportunity to perform as valued participants.
The Occupy Movement has taught us the advantages and disadvantages of horizontalism – a complete rejection of top down authority – but society still adheres to heroes and gods. A fall from grace can result in a loss of faith with deflated expectations. Standards are high for soldiers in this country as General Petraeus’s recent resignation shows: when we let our colleagues and our families down, we forfeit our standing in society. Failure to respond adequately in crisis is a more significant bugbear to the military than behavior off the battleground. Failure, along with fear, haunts forever.
Trauma precipitates a continual re-enactment of guilt, humiliation, and shame – a degradation of the human spirit. Narrative, as a means to work through trauma, is a kind of social mea culpa that allows for a confession of complicity either as victim or perpetrator (and sometimes both). It frees the individual from permanent victim status and opens a path to social reintegration. Accountability is distinguished from culpability, alienation is shown as unjust, and self-respect is re-established. Such could be the underlying condition of these veterans’ plea for attention: “My life matters,” they imply; “I mean to do right as a human being.”
We choose our projects based on our experiences, stories, and lives – in the case of trauma, there is a knot of gritty bile buried deep within that has its own raison d’être and mechanisms. What then of the artist? Where is he in this project? Does he not have a profound personal loss as contemporary as that of these veterans? There is often a hesitation in speaking of traumatic events – a fear that they will be diminished in the telling – and yet, isn’t it important to detach the precipitating conflict from the inner recesses of the self and to remove its power over our own?
The key is then to safeguard these veterans’ stories (indeed all stories of agony) against another kind of loss, that of public dismissal. The timing of this event in the aftermath of hurricane Sandy has robbed Union Square Park of its pedestrian traffic. The market space is now a parking lot for utility trucks and pathways through the park are restricted. An audience of fortuitous passersby is not assured. All the more reason – in the crosswalk between our own means and the needs of others, in the aftermath of catastrophe, when the vagaries of chance are so pronounced – to make a pilgrimage to this modest Union Square monument.
Unlike Lincoln, these speakers offer neither oratory nor poetry, but Lincoln was also known for his humility; through these confessions we hear a will to persevere and make a difference. The voices animate the statue as an awakening to a spirit of resilience. In Krzysztof Wodiczko’s Abraham Lincoln: War Veteran Projection, participation is an act of survival, resuscitating lives from silent vigil! Whether as art or free speech, this public performance commands respect.
Kathleen MacQueen, November 11, 2012