The first day of winter break, with Trump’s inauguration looming, I visited the Home Land Security exhibit in San Francisco — an eighteen-artist installation in the city’s abandoned military bunkers and out-of-use nuclear missile administration buildings. The featured artists were from eleven countries, and worked in media from paint to Duct Tape to bullets. Untraditional materials combined with the structure of the pieces themselves strived to reflect on “the human dimensions and increasing complexity of national security, including the physical and psychological borders we create, protect, and cross in its name.” I first read about the exhibit while doing research for a grant, and intended to visit as diligent project reconnaissance, but when someone is burning in front of you — literally burning, on fire — it’s hard to take notes.
I’ve never been much of a horror movie girl. Psychological thrillers? Sure! But the grotesqueness of horror films reverts me to a younger self, inclined to bury my head in a blanket or peek through my fingers for a just a second to see if it’s over. So in December, when I walked into a cramped underground bunker and found myself surrounded by video footage of (albeit fake and digitally-enhanced) brutal violence, my first instinct was to read the wall plaque, like a well-trained museum kid, and quickly turn away. Yet, as a man tied to a chair became slowly engulfed in flames in front of me, while to my side, another man hung by his legs while being pummeled with water, I couldn’t look away. The video piece by Bill Viola, entitled Martyrs, depicts four people on separate screens on whom the elements — earth, wind, air and fire — are inflicting extreme suffering. Described in the exhibition pamphlet as commentary on “the human capacity to bear pain and death, and to inflict them on others in loyalty to our values and beliefs,” it follows that the people in the videos are the martyrs — being subjected to and also offering themselves to the horror of the elements. But the scope of pain caused by wind or air did not induce my trance-like state, upon reflection. The piece is captivating in a metaphorical and literal sense — in that it both fascinates and imprisons — because of the fifth element: human participation. The man on fire has been bound to a chair; the man hanging upside-down has been strung up by the artist. Yes, the natural world can itself inflict pain, but that pain is amplified and catalyzed by human participation. The audience is implicated; we are martyrs as well. Not in the heroic sense, like a Socrates, but in the sense of the original Greek: witness. This piece is not about suffering; it’s about torture, and we’re participants. To turn away or hide our eyes would be to fail to witness and to contemplate our culpability.
Not every piece featured in Home Land Security was as confrontational and upsetting as Martyrs, though nearly all were equally thought-provoking. I marveled at the beauty of Al Farrow’s Revelation I and Mosque III — sculptures of a church and a mosque constructed from bullets, a trigger, and a Bible, among other relics of war and religion. Farrow’s intricate models made me reflect on the relationship between religion and violence but lacked the sometimes didactic overtones of a history exhibit. There was something almost lighthearted about Michele Pred’s Encirclement (a sculpture made from items confiscated by the TSA) and Tirzah Bassel’s Concourse (a Duct Tape-on-walls depiction of an airport security line). The TSA confiscates water guns! Even a material as pedestrian as Duct Tape can be called into the service of art – how whimsical! But, simultaneously, under the quirkiness hummed the deeper, more complex moral questions: From whom were those items confiscated? I bring nail clippers through security all the time! Who feels scrutinized and uneasy in the security line? And, again and again: Who gets to feel safe? Who gets to feel at home?
A note on the exhibit’s title: “homeland” is actually one word. As in, the Department of Homeland Security. The nerdy editor in me was initially bothered by the grammatically incorrect name, Home Land Security. Look! It’s underlined on my computer right now. But, obviously, the curators of the exhibit made a deliberate decision to subvert and modify the familiar term. This linguistic alteration forces us to consider whether the concepts of home and land are inherently and inextricably intertwined, whether you can have one without the other, and which term it is more important for “Security” to modify. If home is defined by something as physical as land, what happens when a person is separated from a physical home? What are the implications of being a landless person, and therefore, perhaps, a homeless one? What are the consequences of denying an individual entry to a new land? The title aims to shed light on the way in which we create homes, and whether the idea of home is naturally exclusionary. Perhaps most powerfully, the exhibit asks us to consider these questions of home and land in a military space built to aid violence, enforce exclusion, and protect people’s home. Though indirectly, the presence of the art in the bunkers, the church, and the nuclear missile building makes us sit in discomfort: what is the cost of homeland security?
On the day of my visit, the usual Presidio winds were strong, but the characteristic San Francisco fog dissipated during my time underground. Instead of heading to my car after visiting the final room, I climbed with my mom — the granddaughter of Jewish immigrants who fled Eastern Europe to Ellis Island — to sit on top of the bunker closest to the the water. And though I’d been there before, to that very spot, in fact, for picnics with friends and assorted high school shenanigans, the view from the edge of my city looked different to me. I could see the top of the bridge, but the feeling I so often relish when looking at San Francisco’s splendor, that the Golden Gate is somehow mine, that the city is somehow a part of me, was muted, mutated. I felt eerily uneasy instead of warmly at home.
I can’t help but think about that feeling this past week, and about the strange loneliness of people who look out across the ocean with fear and longing instead of safety and love. I also can’t help but hear echoes of my grandfather — who grew up in a brownstone in Brooklyn with his entire extended family and went on to work for Bobby Kennedy’s presidential campaign — singing me the often left out verses of Woody Guthrie’s anthem, This Land is Your Land, which undermine the more well-known verses’ homage to American inclusivity:
As I went walking
I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said “No Trespassing.”
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.
In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people,
By the relief office I seen my people;
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?
So as I sit here and imagine myself atop that concrete during an unusually clear, pre-Trump day, I wonder who gets to decide which people get homelands.
All quotes and images are from the exhibit’s website: http://www.for-site.org/project/home-land-security/
Photos courtesy of Robert Herrick