Aiming to deconstruct violence and oppression in our current political and social situation through the intersection of surveillance, weaponry and consumerism, Lincoln-based artist couple Nancy Friedemann-Sánchez and Charley Friedman present new work at The Garden of the Zodiac Gallery.
Titled after the infamously designed prison, Panopticon, which continues through February 7, considers how citizens of the United States regulate their own lives in the face of constant surveillance and threat of death by firearm. They successfully accomplish this through a combination of wall and floor sculpture.
Emerging from the late 18th century, the panopticon was proposed as an alternative to former penitentiary design and punitive surveillance. Built with a cylindrical outer wall and central inner control booth, those incarcerated could not see if anyone occupied the booth or not, nor could they know if they were being watched. This feeling of potentially being watched would encourage people to regulate their own behavior, or at least, that was the goal.
Although never realized, the legacy of constant surveillance endures today. What both Friedemann-Sánchez and Friedman establish is that Americans now live within a formless, yet omnipresent, panopticon that forces us to adjust our thoughts and actions.
Entering the gallery, surveillance is literally personified through disembodied eye sculptures by Friedemann-Sánchez. These woodcarvings are scattered throughout the space, all grouped in clusters. The approach is comical and cartoonish, drawing inspiration from Byzantine or Etruscan art, but presented as surrealist pieces.
Referring to one of German surrealist Hans Bellmer’s “Poupée” sculptures – dismembered female doll figurines, which he posed in domestic settings and photographed, Friedemann-Sánchez too dismembers American mass surveillance. In one grouping titled “Scaffold,” head-sized eyeballs are propped onto formless limbs, some sharpened at the ends, and all circling around a pre-Columbian styled vessel containing pointed tree branches.
This amorphous grouping lends itself to free association. For example, one such eye is mounted on a spinal timber, all connected to multiple other branches that appear like limbs, with one leg alluringly stretched towards the viewer. The squat figure even refers to human biology and the current pandemic since it resembles a type of virus called a bacteriophage.
Instead of being passive, the artwork stares back at us, the viewer, and we are placed in an uncomfortable situation where we have to consider our own behavior as we walk around the gallery.
Surrounding these peculiar sculptures is a work titled “Gun Show” by Friedman. Composed of multiple black wood cutouts in the shape of firearms, American gun culture is invoked with all its violent consequences at the fore.
In the United States of America, firearms are enshrined within the country’s civic religion, where keeping and bearing arms is tantamount to freedom and a true expression of liberty. But at what expense? Friedman considers the country’s fraught history with handguns and rifles, measuring it through contemporary life.
The weapons themselves are witty and surprisingly delightful to look at. There are guns and rifles shaped as clouds, as human viscera, as toys, maps and even Swiss cheese. Some are so abstracted that they appear as a single curved line for a barrel with a tab for a trigger.
This excess of individualized weaponry points to weapons as a consumerist item flooding society, each individually made to satisfy the unique taste of every person. Just visit any Wal-Mart; you can buy groceries, garments, home decor, and firearms all in one convenient trip.
According to Friedman, every gun is essentially a barrel, a trigger and a rear sight, all objects that are activated by humans. Firearms themselves don’t commit massacres; they need a human to direct a bullet. In a perverse way, guns are components to this formless panopticon we live in and connect to Friedemann-Sánchez’s eye carvings since guns use human eyes as directional tools.
Weapons are therefore tools to regulate human activity and thought. Firearms enter the minds of every American in childhood where school shooting drills are conducted in preparation for actual shootings. How can the minds of American children not be altered by seasonal reminders that their lives may end at the hands of a terrorist, domestic as well as foreign, or even friend or family.
Since shootings have occurred in virtually every setting in the country, from schools, to theaters, and festivals, it fundamentally tells every American that there is no safe place where a shooting cannot occur. It makes us regulate how we live and how we raise future generations to live their lives.
At the center of these eye sculptures and guns is a dragon-like creature titled “Kill, Overkill, Super Overkill”. Friedemann-Sánchez, who frequently refers to the colonization of Latin America, also titled it in Spanish, naming it “Matar, Rematar, Recontra Matar”.
With this sculpture, the artist works in a Duchampian approach, crafting this figure with found objects from South America, as well as from around her own home. Sourced from the Tikuna people from Amazonia, the figure’s head looks like an alligator, with its elongated face and sharp canines. Toward the figure’s body is a yanchama, a textile that is made from processed natural fibers, and at the figure’s center are rocks coated in graphite.
Pierced by rods similar to those found in Friedemann-Sánchez’s other work titled “Scaffold”, the figure looks like it exhaled its last breath. Taking into consideration where the sculpture’s materials are sourced from, this figure can be seen as a stand in for a bull wounded during a bullfight. This figure died while surrounded by walls of firearms and highly attentive and unblinking eyes.
Both Friedemann-Sánchez and Friedman consider the panopticon as a form of social control, particularly in the United States, where it is not a fascistic government spying and controlling us, but our selves through our own actions and complicity. We allow ourselves to be surveilled through our iPhone cameras, ignoring that black eye staring at us as we scroll through social media. And it is not a well-regulated militia that propagates mass shootings in this country, but the actions of a delusional minority. And we have done nothing impactful enough to stop them.
Panopticon runs through February 7, at the Garden of the Zodiac Gallery. Located at 1042 Howard Street in the Old Market Passageway, the gallery is open Tues-Sat from noon-8pm and on Sun from noon-6pm. For more information, please contact 402.341.1877, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit the Garden of the Zodiac page on Facebook.