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Third Text, March 2005

Museo Fuerte Conde de Mirasol, Puerto Rico

An artist who does not teach other artists, teaches no one.
– Walter Benjamin (1934)

Art is a weapon, a weapon for peace, wrote Mexican muralist Diego Rivera in the 1930s when the spectre of fascism was on the horizon. The urgency of this appeal and the paradox that it harbors, that of fighting for peace, have hardly disappeared from the world stage. If the threat to humanity has changed since the early 20th century, this is because the current threat is more insidious yet less easy to name in ideological terms. Moreover, even when the contending sides for or against humanity's best interests can be clearly identified, the co-existence of these competing forces within the context of a "globalization" under the aegis of Western capital means something perplexing: definitive victories through the macrostructural transformation of the existing order will remain elusive for the near future. Here as elsewhere, defending the environment or de-militarizing the planet will continue to entail what Antonio Gramsci envisioned as a micro-based "war of positions" linked to the popular movement worldwide to overcome hegemonic institutions underpinning the Pax Americana (which in Imperial expanse outstrips both the Pax Romana and the Pax Britannica, and in military might surpasses even that of the Third Reich in relation to its contemporaries.)

The commanding exhibition of over a dozen multi-media artworks by Marc Blane, which were recently on display in Vieques, Puerto Rico at the Museo Conde de Mirasol, functioned like a multi-dimensional front to engage with many of the above-noted issues. An attentive viewer was immediately struck by how Blane implicitly deployed art as a "weapon for peace," while explicitly transforming actual weapons into an art that was at once peaceful in intent, but unnerving in its visual impact on the spectator. Literally as well as metaphorically, Blane used his considerable technical skill as an artist to transform "swords into ploughshares" -- or, perhaps, more accurately, weapons of mass destruction into images of mass deception. In this case, the weapons he used as material for artistic transformation were nothing less than the residue (or simulations) of those launched by the U.S. Navy, which, from the 1940s until May 1, 2004, literally targeted huge portions of the Island of Vieques for destruction -- all under the contradictory heading of "preserving peace" and defending U.S. "national security." Needless to say, the appalling environmental conditions created by this systemic act of "species imperialism" will long have disturbing consequences for the health of citizens in Vieques, however peaceful the post-imperial situation of the island has now become. (Indeed, responsibility for cleaning up the huge amount of toxic waste left by the U.S. Government will remain a pressing issue for the island's population in the foreseeable future.)

What makes Marc Blane's multi-media images so compelling visually, though, is not just how they address on various levels these urgent concerns. Instead, what makes his artworks so indispensable is how they signify as art, but do not signal as slogans. Crucial to any intelligent understanding of art, as well as to any savvy social movement, is critical thinking allied with astute analysis, whether visual or otherwise. Visual slogans for or against a position (no matter how well intentioned or humane) inhibit humanity's capacity to conceive its own options, rather than just to ratify elite choices. Conversely, by granting the spectator considerable interpretative latitude along with giving the audience a consummative role, Blane has used art to trigger a critical dialogue with viewers about the "common good." This artistic practice recruits macro-aesthetics on behalf of local change, a "micro-revolution" as it were, thus advancing beyond mere topical issues to self-empowerment in non-instrumental terms. Among the ways in which Blane sustains this critical engagement for himself, while eliciting a comparable responsibility from us through our responses, is his adroit use of various visual languages to tutor our senses, to stimulate our imaginations, and to trouble our thoughts.

The most successful sculptures in his exhibition are at once crisscrossed by competing visual languages and constitutive of diverse historical forces. Symptomatic in this regard are four key works by Blane from 2003: Ship (El Barco), The Scream (El Grito), Indigenous Couple (Pareja indigena), and Indigenous Man (Hombre indigena). Each sculpture invokes visual affinities with different European artists - from J.M.W. Turner and Francisco Goya to Edvard Munch and Constantin Brancusi - in addition to recollections of Pre-Columbian art like that of the Taino, while also being a disturbing testament to "state of the art" weapons design by the U.S. Military.

Friend Ship - 2003 - 11" x 25" x 7" - concrete, steel, brass, epoxy resin

Made from concrete, steel, brass, and resin, Ship is modest in size (11" x 25" x 7"), yet monumental in impact. By elegantly limiting his range of references to three main motifs - pre-Columbian totemic heads, discharged U.S. bullet shells, and the basic structure of a ship - Blane has suggestively increased the number of divergent historical associations with which the work echoes visually, especially in the Caribbean. Ships and boats are among the most important human creations for an island like Vieques or Puerto Rico, since it was by these means that humans first reached them many millennia ago, as far back as 4000 B.C. This was how the Saladoid and the Taino (the latter of whom were on Vieques when Columbus arrived in the New World) both migrated from South America, from what is now Venezuela. Looked at in this light, the ship signifies human mobility as an evolutionary precondition for ancient civilizations.

Indigenous Man - 2003 - 79" x 12" x 12" - iron, terracotta

More disturbingly, the ship also signifies more destructive developments, such as the advent of European colonialism. The ship that made possible "el encuentro y la conquista" (or the meeting between the Old World and the Americas) also signifies both Western navies and the slave trade they instituted. This trade in "human cargo" between West Africa and the West Indies changed forever the course of human history, not just the cultures of the Caribbean. Among the very great paintings in art history with which Blane's sculpture shares an inter-image dialogue in a larger discursive field is Turner's Slave Ship (1840). As Paul Gilroy has rightly noted in The Black Atlantic, Turner's painting represents nothing less than "capitalism with its clothes off." Yet, to this observation, Gilroy also added a contrary note, namely, the ship as an emancipatory sign for a post-colonial world on the other side of both slavery and racial prejudice. For Frederick Douglas, this is precisely what the ship that sailed to non-European ports from the West often meant: the glimpse of a more tolerant future. To these above-noted significations of the ship as a formal motif should be added another more contemporary one, namely, that of the ship as war vessel on the high seas in the service of the U.S. Navy. This latter sign, anchored so harshly in the massive military assault on Vieques as an island target is, after all, what the ship signified when the microrevolution there brought an end to this particular role of the ship in these troubled waters. Even more recently, there are the competing signs for the ship represented by the fishing boat of locals and the sailboat of tourists, each with quite different implications for the island's future economic odyssey.

Indigenous Couple - 2003 - 84" x 12" x 12" - iron, terracotta, glass, polyester resin

Significantly, both the outsized Indigenous Man and the equally imposing Indigenous Couple feature the bizarre conjunction of a totemic head and an empty rifle shell (here simulated with great skill in a huge format). They involve isolating in a columnar, life-size scale a motif used in multiples and in miniature on the Ship. Blane thus initiates an effective inter-image dialogue with Brancusi's Endless Column (1938), an anti-war monument in Romania grounded in peasant culture from that region. Yet, as with Brancusi, so with Blane here, these sculptures comprise a site of convergence that intertwines pre-modern popular cultural forms with modern urban-based design. The visually jarring, aesthetically moving experience of these two striking sculptures in Vieques reminds us of an observation by Andre Breton about appropriate artistic form at an unresolved moment of history: beauty will be convulsive or it will not be.

The Scream - 2003 - 18" x 10" x 7" - aluminum, iron, polyester resin

Another sculpture by Blane that has an enduring visual impact is a multimedia piece entitled arrestingly, The Scream. Even before glimpsing the title, the viewer often makes a formal connection already with the celebrated image of Edvard Munch, which has the same name and a similar emotional appeal. But, while Munch's Scream (1893) is an indelible image of existential angst, Blane's workhas more immediate historical resonance. Whereas Munch's expressionist painting (and print) denote the absurdity of modern existence, thus flirting with an ahistorical "condition humaine," Blane's equally emotive sculpture signifies more the unnecessary absurdity of an ultra-modern "war on nature" in the historical present. (After all, every war assaults nature, even more than people.) This point of the multi-media work is made with a singular combination of solemnity and comedy -- solemnity through the use of the distorted, half-exploded mortar shell and comedy through the use of the highly polished coconut seed that, with its almost comical anthropomorphic features, looks strangely like a screaming face, of nature screaming. These formal traits are orchestrated as if to articulate the absurdity o militarism to the point of life-threatening laughter. All in all, Marc Blane's masterful sculpture avoids being a visual slogan, a pawn of propaganda, while being partisan in its critical claims on the spectator. In this way, Blane's work, executed as it is with remarkable technical virtuosity, reminds us of Marcuse's observation that, "Compared with the often one-dimensional optimism of propaganda, art is permeated with pessimism, not seldom intertwined with comedy... it communicates truths not communicable in any other language, it contradicts."