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Assaults on Visual Culture
By Jeremiah Palecek

What motivates individuals to destroy visual culture? Is the destruction of a symbol in itself also an artistic act? In the words of Russian Anarchist Mikhail Bakunin “The urge to destroy is also a creative urge” . Every day we take in thousands of instances of Visual Culture. It’s all around us. Whether it’s the buildings which we inhabit, the pictures on the walls, the logos on the billboards, or the tattoos scarred into our skin. With such a sustained barrage of visual imagery it’s easy to block most of it out.

Imagine surfing endlessly through a television. Every time the channel flips you get a split second piece of visual culture. Now imagine that there are one hundred television sets surrounding you in a room. And you are channel surfing all the television sets at the same time. This may sound extreme because the idea of watching more than one television at a time seems impossible. However if you are living in any city in the world one cannot walk outside without being barraged by thousands of instances of symbolism infused with meaning. Images don’t converse. They just talk. They try to tell you things, and sometimes you won’t agree with what it is they want to tell you. Most people don’t have a problem with the little green man that illuminates and let’s us know it’s ok to cross the street. However the totalitarian symbolism that seeks to dominate our daily lives via politics, religion or marketing campaigns can be as annoying and disconcerting as an annoying friend who always finds out about your birthday party even though he wasn’t invited. So it is no surprise that after years of being forced to listen to a piece of visual culture that many feel the need to tell it to SHUT THE FUCK UP.

Kadhim al-Jubori is a weightlifting champion. He trained extensively lifting hundreds of pounds on his back and pushed his body and muscles to the limit. When he competed in international competitions the country inscribed across his uniform read IRAQ. Kadhim al-Jubori is the man who started the mob which in the end (with the help of a US tank) tore Saddam’s statue down. His huge muscles which once represented saddam’s country were now being used in a vicious assault on a pediment. His huge hands brandished a thick sledgehammer and with every swing he was sending a very clear message. This statue and what it represents are going to fall. Kadhim’s message of destruction was so powerful that it instantly became co-opted by the new occupying force. The Us military. In a contrived publicity stunt the US military was quick to give aid to the man, however when a soldier climbed the statue he wanted to use his own piece of visual imagery as part of the colloborative performance piece. The American soldier who climbed the statue draped an American Flag over the face of Saddam. Kadhim al-Jubori and the mob which had gethered underneath were furious. The Iraqis present were most likely happy to have a tank on the scene, but they were unhappy with the co-opting of their frustration into what became a publicity stunt in support of the US occupation of Iraq. The flag was removed, and an Iraqi flag was put in its place. A chain noose was placed around Saddam’s head, the tank engine roared into reverse and the statue came tumbling down into a crowd which looked like piranhas swarming a dead cow in the amazon. Fists and shoes pummeled the bronze statue and Kadhim admitted that his hands were still sore for twenty days after the incident. Their knuckles bled and bruised as they beat the hell out of a piece of art. The American media wanted to see the incident as being pro-American, however the Iraqis were having none of it. The frustrations and hatred they held toward this man were all part of their own personal stories. And the desire to destroy the statue started long before any American tank drove into Bagdhad. When asked about what caused Kadhim to take action against the statue he stated
“It became my dream ever since I saw them building that statue to one day topple it.”. But the media wasn’t through with Kadhim’s statements yet. Five years after the statue fell he stated that “I really regret bringing down the statue,” “The Americans are worse than the dictatorship. Every day is worse than the previous day.” I would propose that it isn’t his act which he regrets, however he hates how this act made him a symbol for pro war American forces. In fact when questioned on Al Jazeera he still refers to his action as a “ joyful day for me, which I try not to think about anymore”

Kadhim al-Jubori talks to Al Jazeera about his action against the Saddam statue.

Otakar Švec’s Stalin Sculpture

In 1951 Otakar Švec was contracted to build a large statue of Stalin followed by a flank of proletariates in Prague, Czech Republic. Three weeks before May Day (The day which the statue was to be unvieled) Švec followed the lead of his wife and stuck his head into a stove, inhaled the gas, and killed himself. Otakar Švec won a contest held by the communist party (the only party) to create a piece of art with which he didn’t agree, and it would be that same government which would also eventually side with his position. After revelations were made public about Stalin’s various war crimes the political climate had changed and Stalin was no longer regarded as a communist hero. In October of 1962 the largest statue of Stalin on the planet was strapped with 800 kilograms of dynamite and blown up in a colossal display governent funded artistic destruction. The message being sent was loud and clear and bits of the statue scattered all over Letna hill in Prague. The space remained empty until after the velvet revolution in 1991 when a large metronome was erected. The metronome represents the constant passage of time, and so far no one has felt the urge to attack it. The area at which Stalin once stood looking over Prague is now inhabited by skateboarders who enjoy riding the smooth granite surface which was laid by the communists.

The largest sculpture of Stalin is Blown to smithereens.

Governments all over the planet have recognized the power the destruction of a political symbol can carry. In Iraq the toppling of Saddam was started by one man, and then co opted by the US military. In Prague, a statue made by communists was blown up by communists. But there is one group which simply doesn’t care whether or not their actions are twisted by the media or parties in power. They are called The Black Bloc. The Black Bloc has its roots in anarchism, and they all wear the same black masks, black hooded sweatshirts, and black jeans so that if an individual commits an illegal act the entire group is to blame. In essence everyone in the Black Bloc is a collective anonymous force. Today there are cameras everywhere and the police and property owners surely don’t see the destruction of visual culture as a piece of performance art. They are interested in protecting these symbols at all costs. Using pepper spray, CS Gas, and batons to beat back the Black Bloc as they near a McDonalds. To those in the Black Bloc, McDonalds represents everything wrong with globalisation and it is no mistake that the first thing they attack are the corporate symbols which talk to them every time they leave the house. When some of those in the Black Bloc were asked about why they choose to destroy imagery one is likely to get a variety of answers. Some will go into the unfairness of the current Free Trade system put into place by Bill Clinton’s neo-liberal policies. Other’s will give a lengthy explanation as to how McDonalds exploits the environment, and its workers. But some will answer “Because it is fun”. This type of explanation many times will leave moderate liberals angry. They don’t want to be lumped in with a group of stick and cobblestone wielding masked individuals. But then again, the Black Bloc also doesn’t want to be associated with them either.

Black Bloc Attacks a McDonalds and Police in Prague, Czech Republic

I believe that the destruction of visual culture is just as likely as a parent telling their child to be quiet. It is inevitable that there will be a backlash to the constant chatter going on around us all the time. Sometimes the destruction will be sponsored by the state, sometimes the action of one individual will be co-opted by a new occupying force wishing to capitalize on an emotional act. But at the heart of the issue there is something else going on. To many, seeing Saddam’s bronze being drug through a street, or Stalin being blown into a million bits, or even seeing a young masked individual attacking a the golden arches with a hammer emotes a response which makes many people feel good. Until that feeling changes expect more pieces of visual culture to be beaten, burned, and smashed into tiny fragments. Each one of those fragments carries with it its own story. It is evident that these broken bits of media detritus littering the scene after an attack carries just as much, if not more, weight as it did when it was fully erected.

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One Comment

  1. Hannah
    Posted April 13, 2011 at 9:29 pm | #

    great site!

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