Michele Pred has been running with scissors ever since 9/11. With assemblages built from sharp and combustible objects — gleaned from the confiscation bins at San Francisco International Airport — she’s brought us face to face with the contradictions and absurdities that lay at the heart of the security state we have become.
Confiscated, which is also the title of her current show, applies not only to the seized items, but also to the less tangible (but far more serious) losses we’ve suffered since that fateful day. Packing a punch far greater than its small size and modest space might warrant, Confiscated highlights the difference between remembrance and reflection. The first revives memories of horror, tragedy and loss. It tears open old wounds while pretending to heal them. It’s what the mainstream media have excelled at these past few weeks. Reflection, the job of art, is about understanding, which is always in short supply. While Pred’s exhibitions over past decade have used the artifacts of airport security’s now-familiar drill as a launching pad, the issues she raises far transcend the mundane inconveniences we endure to board a plane. They are snapshots of our evolving national character.
Looking at its centerpiece Fear Culture 2 — a wall of 234 red, white and blue petri dishes filled with pocket knives, razor blades and other potential in-flight weapons – I felt like a specimen pinned to the wall. The taxonomic rigor of the assembled collection, which includes vintage pieces that one could easily imagine fetching tidy sums on eBay, is, by itself, impressive. The miniature blades; the penknives small enough to fit comfortably into watch pockets; the cuticle scissors; the fold-up corkscrews; the allen wrenches; the bolts; the double-edge razor blades which you’d be challenged to handle without cutting yourself – it’s difficult to imagine why we’ve made such a stinking fuss about these things. But here they are, enshrined and museum-ready.
Pred’s art takes no ideological position, at least not overtly. But one suggestion is clear enough: by banning these items from airplanes, and by burdening the nation with the expense and inconvenience of ferreting them out, the terrorists have, in some measure, defeated us with millions of little cuts – most of them self-inflicted. Looking at this group of would-be weapons also reminds us of what we all know from spy lore: that a pen or a pencil shoved into an eardrum can kill far more efficiently than the objects now banned. So, probably, can the bare hands of any Navy Seal. Latch onto the mocking reality of that proposition and it’s not long before you are reminded of all the other lies, distortions, manipulations that have been promulgated for the past 10 years. Like agit-prop artists from Hanna Hoch to Kara Walker, Pred knows how to detonate an emotional chain reaction. She also, as an assemblage artist, knows how to harness the power of repetition a la Warhol.
In a pair of similarly conceived pictures, Pred remakes the color scheme of the American flag with multi-colored razor blades, substituting black for blue. Her employment of the sullied flag may seem a bit mawkish. But remember: In the weeks and months after 9/11, we were all Americans. It wasn’t just wingnuts flying flags from pickups, it was Volvo-driving, liberal-leaning NPR listeners, too. Pred deploys this once-unifying symbol most potently in an anamorphic print titled Homeland Security Advisory. In it, the words “Imminent Threat” appear and disappear, depending on where you stand. It’s the perfect visual metaphor for the elusive threats we face from an enemy we can’t see. Travelers, a ceiling-suspended umbrella from which pairs of scissors hang from strands of fishing line, calls to mind another flawed defense scheme: “Star Wars,” Ronald Reagan’s plan for a space-based, global missile defense shield. Bull’s Eye, a group of confiscated items arrayed in concentric circles on a low pedestal, feels like a spinning gyre of cultural-consumer anthropology that’s been slowed to a stop.
Pred got the idea for using confiscated objects while working as a limo driver; it came to her when passengers began complaining about how they were treated by security personnel. After signing a letter releasing SFO from any liability, the airport allowed her to haul off a trove of confiscated items. A copy of that letter, along with the airport’s confiscation log from July 3, 2002 and a list of TSA-banned items are posted in the show. So is an iPad with videos of people recounting tales of airport security hassles which you can add to if you so desire.
Before Confiscated opened, some people wondered if the show might be exploitative. It’s a legitimate concern since the works are for sale. The real exploitation, however, occurred in the run up to war, when America’s leaders convinced Congress and our allies that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and intended to use them against us. Real exploitation is Dick Cheney releasing a book of his memoirs on the eve of 9/11. Confiscated, when compared to those events, feels like cool air streaming through an open window.
–DAVID M. ROTH
Michele Pred, “Confiscated” @ Jack Fischer Gallery through October 8, 2011.
About the author
David M. Roth is the editor and publisher of Squarecylinder.
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