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Sunday, September 4, 2011
Being There (on Edward Kienholz's "Five Car Stud")
"Back Seat Dodge '38"
"Five Car Stud"
Edward Kienholz, restored by Nancy Reddin Kienholz Five Car Stud / Los Angeles County Museum of Art, opened September 4, 2011 / I saw the installation on September 2, 2011 and again on September 3, 2011
Artist Edward Kienholz gained enormous notoriety as far back as 1966 for his "Back Seat Dodge '38," an assemblage that included part of a Dodge car with the backseat door opened, within which manikins portrayed a couple "making out." Today one can hardly imagine the furor it caused upon its Los Angeles County Museum of Art showing, when the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors declared it as "pornographic" and attempted to shut the show down. A compromise was reached wherein the back seat door would remain closed, to be opened only by a guard when requested and no children were within the gallery! The uproar determined that the piece must be seen by everyone, and opening day more than 200 people lined up to see it.
In September 2011 Kienholz, who died in 1994, is sure to cause some controversy again with the presentation of his 1972 piece, viewed publicly in Germany at Documenta that year, and never again seen. The piece, purchased by a Japanese museum has been hidden away in storage and only recently, through LACMA and the Getty Museum's collaboration, has been restored by Kienholz's second wife and collaborator, Nancy Reddin Kienholz.
If the earlier piece shocked some with its sexual content, this should stun us all for its portrayal of violence. Certainly there are sexual elements; a Black man who has obviously been discovered in a truck with a white woman has been pulled from the car by six men, who, when we look closely at the scene, are in the process of castrating him. But the horror of this assemblage is not just the act, but the dramatic terror of the entire scene. The men are more bestial than human, their faces covered with horrific masks: one, pulling the ropes taught has his face covered with a mask that will remind some of the great circus clown Emmett Kelly; another, standing outside of the victim's truck, wherein a white woman sits vomiting, has a mask studded with horrific warts. The couple has evidently been caught by these brutes in an act of miscegenation. It is difficult to stare too closely at each of these men, even though the audience of 15 individuals allowed into the room at a time must pass close to them in purveying the entire scene.
It is interesting that these men had chosen "clown" masks or something close to them to hide their identities. It reminds us of the role James Stewart played in The Greatest Show on Earth, in which he dressed in clown makeup throughout to hide his identity—even though his crime was evidently an attempt to save someone's life. Further, it will bring to mind for some the serial killer of young boys, John Gacy, who worked as "Pogo the Clown," designing his own clown costumes, and sometimes enticing his victim's through charitable events. Gacy's first assault took place a year before Kienholz's installation.
Remaining within the surrounding cars are not only the sickened white woman, but, in another, a young boy, whom Kienholz describes as "sissy boy," modeled, in part, upon the face of his own son. The horror which this child is witnessing, unlike the sexual acts of Kienholz's earlier piece, is truly devastating, a vision that we recognize will never allow this fearful boy to live anything but a haunted life. These men are not only destroying a man and a woman, but robbing joy and innocence from the entire society in which they exist.
The victim himself is no longer a man, his torso having been transformed by the artist into a receptacle of fluids, a trough of water in which float the letters that occasionally spell out the word through which these men have justified their torture: "nigger."
Walking through this darkened exhibition, I was terrorized, awed even by the devastating act I was observing in tableau. But for me, even worse, was my own "being there," the sense of my voyeuristic fascination with the observation of it all. I could not bring myself to turn my eyes from the series of tragic events being played out before me, and I walked again and again round the circle of the five cars, peering into them, listening to the soft Delta music emanating from one. That can be understood as something good or bad. Perhaps in witnessing such a scene I could serve as a sensitive historian of such events in our own past, reminding others—those even today who might wish to harm people for racial or political differences—of what these actions mean to the individual and the society at large. Yet I might also simply be seen—in my inability to change history, in my own viewer passivity—to be merely an unwilling participant to such events. Only my actions in life can determine which kind of witness I might be. But I was there and cannot hide that fact. On the gallery floor the artist has laid down a carpet simulacrum of a dirt road, into which each viewer's footprints are embedded. I saw my own!
Los Angeles, September 4, 2011