“Before I refuse to take your questions, I have an opening statement:” John Chamberlain’s “American Tableau, 1984” and the Reagan War Machine.
Thomas M. Murphy
This presentation posits that a detailed examination of John Chamberlain’s “American Tableau, 1984”2 will provide formable understanding of our place in history as we emerge from the latter Bush Administration’s “War on Terror.” A reading of the textualized body of the Chamberlain’s “Tableau” shall provide comprehensive knowledge of 1984 American culture by reading the post-human image that becomes not only grounded but also accessible as we engage the raw materials of discarded technology into characters, words and forms sculpted as text.
Part I Black Mountain & Theory
John Chamberlain’s sculpted texts began in 1955 3 at Black Mountain College.4 Though the first of Chamberlain’s accomplishments was to plug in his welder, under the tutelage of Charles Olson and Robert Creeley, Chamberlain went on to study Olson’s essay “Projective Verse,” but the “first important impression”5 was Ernest Fenollosa’s The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry, edited by Ezra Pound.6 Through Fenollosa’s writing Chamberlain learned to read his materials, the strips of cars skin. Chamberlain stated, “during, but not before I was at Black Mountain” he began to “see [metal pieces] on the floor […] like words.”7 Concerning the Chinese ideogram Man sees horse, Fenollosa states:
It is clear that these three joints, or words, are only three phonetic symbols, which stand for the three terms of a natural process. But we could quite as easily denote these three stages of our thought by symbols equally arbitrary, which had no basis in sound; for example, by three Chinese characters.8
Chamberlain’s “American Tableau, 1984” may not fit the term “natural process,” though its title consists of three joints, words or symbols strung together as a poetic structure whose visual connection employs Fenollosa’s “Chinese method.”9 The Chamberlain critic, Dieter Schwartz, insists, “the poem is preceded by its contents…and by its particular substance, from which it then derives its form.”10 Indeed, like the Chinese ideogram, Man sees horse, Chamberlain’s sculpture created the poetic ideogram titled American Tableau, 1984. As much as the vision of the “the metal laid out as words.” Chamberlain’s sculptures are “thought-pictures”11 that need to be read as texts, conveying the physical coded message as sculpted poetry. The linchpin here is that Chamberlain sees a connection between the Chinese ideogram and American usage of the cliché, expressing the common syntax of clichés creates community language.12 Such as “‘I second the motion,’ or ‘It’s too hot to handle’”13 or even “Honey, I forgot to duck.”14
Part II John Chamberlain’s Style
John Chamberlain has employed many sculpting styles since 1955 that includes rod iron, then steel sheeting, and then from 1967-1974 he shifted to squeezing and tying foam, manipulating polyurethane and crumpling aluminum foil and then back to using chromium-plate steel in the mid to late 70s. In 1979, Chamberlain’s sculpture style began to become more vertical with “Luftschloss 1979” and Roxanne Loup 1979” constructing a total of five vertical style sculptures in which the large scale metal strips are placed upon a sets of thick wood timbers laid as a base for an outdoor presentation.15 Moreover, Chamberlain expanded the pallet with a new process that added an influx of color applied by spray-painting multiple coats over already painted chromium-plated steel in 1980. At the beginning of the Reagan administration in 1981, John Chamberlain’s sculpture vision bifurcated: a new horizontal “Gondola” series named after poets and a new emphasis on the large vertical style that added a new technique, sandblasting patterns in the many layers of paint that add bands of paint stripes matching the sandblasting style. Such titles that stand out are “The Line Up 1982,” “Fenollosa’s Column 1983” and “Looking Good, Billy Ray 1984” that indicates Chamberlain intermixes police tactics, his old curriculum and the final comedic repartee from the 1983 film “Trading Places.” Even “Luftschloss 1979” refers to a Brian Eno song from “After The Heat” of that same year, 1979. In a word, Chamberlain’s titles seem cryptic, however they are direct comments on sporadic episodes of culture.
Part III The Reagan War Machine
America in 1984 was booming economically and a sense of pride to be American had been renewed; both were because of the Reagan Administration’s quest to rebuild and rearm American troops. However, the underside of Reaganomics is a culture of “blood, torture, death, and terror” as Frederic Jameson characterizes “the under belly of the global or the American economy.”16 It is not too surprising that “[N]ations make war the same way they make wealth.”17 Reagan’s tenure as California’s Governor 1968-1974 paved an inglorious path of blood with tinges of homophobia,18 racism,19 censorship,20 and martial law.21 It comes as no surprise that the Ku Klux Klan in the 1980 election, “citing his opposition to busing and affirmative action as it declared that the Republican platform read ‘as if it were written by a Klansman’, endorsed Ronald Reagan.”22 Moreover, the Reagan doctrine, in short of turning the country towards the right, it imbued the last gasp of white patriarchal domination employing the template of a war-time economic plan that would rebuild the military to a level to “bomb Russia” out of existence while embracing the Multinational Corporations of the Military Industry Complex as outlined by Noam Chomsky in his text The Culture of Terrorism.23 The first such Reagan program was the campaign quest for a naval power of six hundred vessels that the Congressional Budget Office in 1982 stated would cost $119 billion over six years. Then Reagan’s infamous Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) known as “Star Wars” speech on March 23rd 1983, fifteen days after calling the Soviet Union an “evil empire,” created multiple piggyback programs that helped cease the 1982 recession. However, forty-nine banks failed in 1983, not only beating the Great Depression record of forty-three set in 1940, with 1982 following these two record years with forty-two failures.24 Although, Reagan at the time busied himself by meeting with only “audiences that mirrored his views [such as] the American Legion, the national Association of Manufactures, the National Association of Evangelicals, the Conservative Political Action Conference, and The National Review.”25 The bank failures of the early Reagan tenure does not include the enormity of the Savings and Loan crisis that continue throughout the entire 1980s at total cost of $160 billion until the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery and Enforcement Act of 1989 was signed into law by George H.W. Bush.26 The similarities between the Reagan regime and the George W. Bush regime are uncanny. Since the government took over Freddy Mac and Fanny Mae thirty-nine banks have closed.27 If any of these facts seem like déjà vu then be afraid.
Part IV Textual “American Tableau, 1984”
The first exhibition of “American Tableau, 1984” occurred September 12 – November 10 1984 in New York City’s Seagram Plaza.28 Brian Irwin, reviewer of the “Contemporary Conversations John Chamberlain: American Tableau” March 20th – August 2nd 2009 at the Menil Collection Houston, Texas, stated that “American Tableau 1984” is “a large sculptural work that has been given its own room and improbably fills the space like a model ship inside a bottle.”29 The bountiful colors of the twenty-one feet elongated, eleven feet wide and twelve feet high “American Tableau, 1984” amazes one upon first witnessing the sculpture’s chromium-plate steel, crumpled, crushed, painted, sandblasted, and welded together in an vertical direction causing the mass to appear as pure abstraction. One must step back to take in “American Tableau, 1984” in total to comprehend textual reading. The effect of the sculpture as a whole could be likened as a majestic skyline whose copious color-spectrum represents all aspects of society as the “Tableau.” Nonetheless, what is meant by the word “Tableau” may help with reading the textual nature of the sculpture. The fourth definition of tableau in the OED states “tableau vivant equals tableau, lit. living picture, a representation of a character, scene, incident.”30 A Tableau is a picture, a vision an image, whereas Chamberlain creates a still life three-dimensional rendering of what is Americana in the year 1984.
Before we embark any further in this reading of the textual sculpture, I like to introduce two ideas that will help in this rendering. In the 1919 essay “The uncanny,” or the German term unheimlich, Sigmund Freud states, “something has to be added to what is novel and unfamiliar in order to make it uncanny.”31 Freud thus decides that the term unfamiliar equals uncanny within its curves, lintels that renders it familiar and sensual, at the same time as dangerous and taboo. In Creeley’s descriptor of Charles Olson’s “Projected Verse,” he stated, “form [… is] an extension of content,”32 meaning the unfamiliar ideogram is poetics readable though uncanny vision. Moreover, Freud also stated, “[S]ituations which have […] an unintended recurrence of the same situation, but which differ radically from it in other respects, also result in the same feeling of helplessness and of uncanniness.”33 In addition to the “uncanny,” I also want to bring in post-humanism as in connection with the flayed cars whose skin have been used as sculpting material. Jean-François Lyotard put forward, “human thought doesn’t think in a binary mode. […] but with intuitive, hypothetical configurations. It accepts imprecise, ambiguous data that don’t seem to be selected according to preestablished (sic.) codes or readability.”34 In Bodies and Machines, Mark Seltzer investigates late 19th and early 20th century machines on a most complex level, indeed, Chamberlain’s “American Tableau, 1984” provides a towering, elongated, luminary “tense interaction between vision and embodiment, between the visual and the corporeal.”35 As Chamberlain affirms, “I am told, to a lesser degree, what to do by the material itself. […] My sense of nature is my ability to make decisions based on the sexual and intuitive aspects of my psyche.”36 Additionally, the sculpture is beyond poetic text but living as Donna “Haraway identifies the denatured human through the medium of denatured language.”37 In essences, “American Tableau, 1984” is an entity whose ideogrammatical texture is “denatured language” made up of malleable car skin.
It was during my weaving in and out of the undulating surface, amazed at the structure but unable to map its topography because of its immensity that at an almost strange moment, a feeling overwhelms me as I view the far right-hand-side of John Chamberlain’s still-life artwork. When I gaze upon the larger than life white monolith, separated from the rest except by a frail link of red metal, the bulky white section that dominates the rest, that commands the rest into rank and file, orderly and yet distant, is reminiscent of big brother, of George Orwell’s 1984’s horrific sense of crushed dreams, destroyed feeling of possible futures, the obliteration of Free Will that manifests itself in a combination of controlling benevolent father-figure with the threat of most personal worst scenario in the term “room 101.”38 Clare Elliot, assistant curator of the Menil Collection, states Chamberlain “emphasizes volume […] metal sheets are bent and folded around an essentially empty core. […] American Tableau [is] an accumulation of fourteen such volumes.”39 “American Tableau, 1984” gives the affect that the “‘[c]onception of the text as threat, a hostile otherness designed to dominate the reader.’”40
As one can see, “American Tableau, 1984” is visually stunning, sublime and all at once I felt and feel that I’ve know or seen superimposed onto the structure and realized what I saw, from right to left, Ronald Reagan as the white figure, bullet hole and sandblasted wrinkles, christening with his red bloody hand a naval vessel that represents his campaign quest of a six hundred fleet. What it is verbatim, it’s Ronald Reagan “christening” a vessel with blood that represents the culture climate of 1984 that John Chamberlain has bought into completely by exercising his right to vote that empowers the Multinational Corporations of the Military Industry Complexes. The ‘uncanny’ sculpture foretells Reagan’s support of Guatemala’s General Rios Montt’s massacres during the campaign known as frijoles y fusiles (beans and guns).41 Then came the Iran-Contra scandal that plagued the latter part of the Reagan Administration or even the controversy support of the right wing Central American death squads. Now that is a vivid scene of a poser of humanity, in a baptismal ceremony, not with the effervescent champagne but with the bottles of blood thrown on those who wear fur. The distinct distance of the large white column phallic shaped body embodies the Ronald Reagan of 1984. A man whose regime changed the landscape of America with his vision of more weapons and their delivery systems that reached below the ebb tide to Earth orbit. Who on August 11th 1984, a mere month before “American Tableau, 1984” initial display in Seagram’s plaza in New York City, while about to make his weekly radio chat jested, “I’m pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.”42
For one last moment, I would like to go back to the notion that the “Tableau” represents the diversity of America in 1984, however, I don’t see any from my hardcore punkers days like the Dead Kennedys, the Dicks, M.D.C Millions of Dead Cops or Multi-death Corporation, Code of Honor, Black Flag, Circle Jerks, FEAR, T.S.O.L. True Sounds of Liberty, P.L.H. Peace Love and Happiness, Bad Religion, Agent Orange, 7 Seconds or any other band that I listened to, saw or slammed to in 1984. No, none of these American punk groups are represented in Chamberlain’s tableau, there are no lyrical strains of the DKs “Bleed For Me”
When cowboy Ronnie comes to town/Forks out his tongue at human rights/ Sit down, enjoy our ethnic meal/Dine on some charbroiled nuns/Try a medal on/Smile at the mirror as the cameras click/and make big business happy-43
sandblasted into the chromium-plate steel strips. Thus when I rebelled in my hardcore punk days, it was against Ronald Reagan, who threatened all life with nuclear war as if he was in a western film. No, we have a tableau that has the uncanny feel of a war vessel. Who else beside Chamberlain should know the unheimich of a vessel, having served on the U.S.S. Tulgai, CVE-72, “a small aircraft carrier,” during World War II in which Chamberlain was “in four different ‘battles’”44 and who would go on in November of 1984 and vote for Ronald Reagan, but John Chamberlain, sculpture of “American Tableau, 1984.”45
1 Reagan, Ronald. “Ronald Reagan Quotes.” Brainy Quotes. 7.31.09 <http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/r/ronald_reagan.html>.
2 Chamberlain, John. American Tableau, 1984. Paint, chromium-plated steel. 144 (12′) x 252 (21′) x 132 (11′), The Menil Collection, Houston.
3 Schwarz, 10.
4 Sylvester, Julie. “Auto/Bio: Conversations with John Chamberlain.” John Chamberlain: A Catalogue Raisonné of the Sculpture 1954-1985. Julie Sylvester Ed. New York: Hudson Hills P, 1986. Print. 11.
5 Sylvester, Julie. “Auto/Bio: Conversations with John Chamberlain.” John Chamberlain: A Catalogue Raisonné of the Sculpture 1954-1985. Julie Sylvester Ed. New York: Hudson Hills P, 1986. Print. 11.
6 Schwarz, Dieter. “To Create the Flow.” John Chamberlain: Papier, Paradisio Drawings, Collages, Reliefs, Paintings. Edited by Dieter Schwarz. Translation by Fiona Elliot. Düsseldorf, D: Kunsteseum Winterthur, 2005. 10-12
7 Dawson, Fielding. “Self Portrait in Steel: A Talk with John Chamberlain.” John Chamberlain: Papier, Paradisio Drawings, Collages, Reliefs, Paintings. Edited by Dieter Schwarz. Translation by Fiona Elliot. Düsseldorf, D: Kunsteseum Winterthur, 2005 99. Print.
8 Fenollosa, Ernest. The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry. Ed. by Ezra Pound. 1936. San Francisco: City Lights, 1983 7-8. Print.
9 Fenollosa 8.
10 Schwarz, Dieter. “To Create the Flow.” John Chamberlain: Papier, Paradisio Drawings, Collages, Reliefs, Paintings. Edited by Dieter Schwarz. Translation by Fiona Elliot. Düsseldorf, D: Kunsteseum Winterthur, 2005. 10
11 Fenollosa 8.
12 Sylvester, Julie. “Auto/Bio: Conversations with John Chamberlain.” John Chamberlain: A Catalogue Raisonné of the Sculpture 1954-1985. Julie Sylvester Ed. New York: Hudson Hills P, 1986 11. Print. “It has occurred to me that the cliché is the ideogram of the United States, because the cliché means what it means, and it means the same to the Poles or the Italians or the French or the Germans or the English in the United States. When people come to this country, they brought their own syntax, to which they attached English words, so no one understood anyone else. But when somebody said, ‘I second the motion,’ or, ‘It’s too hot to handle,’ those kinds of things meant the same thing to everyone. That’s how the language of the United States came to be based on cliché and slogan, because everybody could understand it” (Chamberlain 11).
13 Sylvester, Julie. “Auto/Bio: Conversations with John Chamberlain.” John Chamberlain: A Catalogue Raisonné of the Sculpture 1954-1985. Julie Sylvester Ed. New York: Hudson Hills P, 1986. Print. 11.
14 “Reagan assassination attempt.” Wikipedia.org. 29.9.09. “When First Lady Nancy Reagan arrived in the emergency room after being informed, he remarked to her, “Honey, I forgot to duck.” (borrowing boxer Jack Dempsey’s line to his wife the night he was beaten by Gene Tunney). A Röhm RG-14 .22 cal. blue steel revolver six times in three seconds.”
15 Sylvester, Julie. “Catalogue Raisonné of the Sculpture.” John Chamberlain: A Catalogue Raisonné of the Sculpture 1954-1985. Julie Sylvester Ed. New York: Hudson Hills P, 1986 166-167. Print.
16 Jameson, Frederic. Postmodernism: Or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. 7th printing. Durham: Duke UP, 1991, 1997 5. Print.
17 Cebrowski, Vice Admiral Arthur K. and John J. Garstka. “Network-Centric Warfare: Its Origin and Future. Proceedings, January 1998” (1).
18 Reagan had Y resign after it became public he was gay.
19 Reagan stated that he would have never voted for the Civil Rights Bill.
20 Rosenfeld, Seth. “The governor’s race.” San Francisco Chronical 9.6.2002. SFGate.com 29.9.09. Web. Rosenfeld sifts through the FBI files on Ronald Reagan during the 1960 that lead to and through his time as the Governor of California. Reagan called the Free Speech Movement “filthy speech advocates.”
21 Rosenfeld, Seth. “The governor’s race.” San Francisco Chronical 9.6.2002. SFGate.com 29.9.09. Web. Rosenfeld sifts through the FBI files on Ronald Reagan during the 1960 that lead to and through his time as the Governor of California. During the unrest of Peoples’ Park in Berkeley, 1969, Reagan declared martial law for a month and sent Edwin Meese to officiate the debacle where many were injured and one person killed.
22 Ehrman, John. The Eighties: America in the Age of Reagan. New Haven & London: Yale UP, 2005. P 183.
23 Chomsky, Noam. The Culture of Terrorism. Boston, South End P, 1988 25-26. Print. The Reagan-Doctrine “fall into three categories: Transfer of resources from the poor to the wealthy; Increase in the state sector of the economy, and growth of state power in general; An ‘activist’ foreign policy. […] The second program on the agenda was conducted in the traditional way, by expanding the protected state market for high technology waste production and thus forcing a public subsidy to advanced sectors of industry; what is called euphemistically ‘defense spending.’” This has been the most rapid military build-up in U.S. peacetime history. Concomitantly, state spending increased more rapidly than at any time since World War II, and the administration moved to protect the more powerful state from public scrutiny by such measures as censorship, limiting access to documents, and an enormous increase in clandestine activities designed to diminish still further any influence of the annoying public on affairs of state.”
24 Munro, Ross H. and Alexander L. Taylor III. “Why So Many Banks Go Belly Up.” Time. 29.8.83 29.9.09. <http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,949786,00.html>.
25 Green, Mark. “Introduction: The Great Communicator, or the Great Prevaricator?” There He Goes Again: Ronald Reagan’s Reign of Error. Mark Green & Gail MacColl. New York: Pantheon Books, 1983 14. Print.
26 “Early 1980s recession.” Wikipedia.org. 29.9.09. < http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Early_1980s_recession>.
27 “Bank Failures 2008-2009.” The Street.com 29.9.09. <http://www.thestreet.com/tsc/common/images/storyimages/022509_bfmap.swf>.
28 Sylvester, Julie. “Catalogue Raisonné of the Sculpture.” John Chamberlain: A Catalogue Raisonné of the Sculpture 1954-1985. Julie Sylvester Ed. New York: Hudson Hills P, 1986. Print. 209.
29 Irwin, Brian. “American Tableau at The Menil Collection.” 29-95.com Houston’s City Guide. April 13, 2009. <http://www.29-95.com/art/story/american-tableau-menil-collection>.
30 Simpson, John and Edmund Weiner, Eds. The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition Vol. XVII. New York: Oxford UP-USA, 1989 517. Print.
31 Freud, Sigmund. “The ‘Uncanny.’” The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud: Volume XVII (1917-1919) An Infantile Neurosis and Other Works. Translated from the German under the General Editorship of James Strachey. In Collaboration with Anna Freud. Assisted by Alix Strachey and Alan Tyson. 1955. London: Hogarth P and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1991. 221.
32 Schwarz, 10. Comment from Robert Creeley to Charles Olson as qtd.
33 Freud, Sigmund. “The ‘Uncanny.’” The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud: Volume XVII (1917-1919) An Infantile Neurosis and Other Works. Translated from the German under the General Editorship of James Strachey. In Collaboration with Anna Freud. Assisted by Alix Strachey and Alan Tyson. 1955. London: Hogarth P and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1991 237. Print.
34 Lyotard, Jean-François. “Can Thought go on without a Body?” The Inhuman: Reflections on Time. Translated by Geoffrey Bennington and Rachel Bowlby. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1991. 15.
35 Seltzer, Mark. Bodies and Machines. London and New York: Routledge, 1992. 96.
36 Chamberlain. 18.
37 Hayles, N. Katherine. Chaos Bound: Orderly Discorder in Contemporary Literature and Science. Ithaca and London: Cornell UP, 1990 286. Print.
38 Orwell, George. 1984. 1948. New York: Signet, 1984 196. Print.
39 Elliot, Clare. “Contemporary Conversations – John Chamberlain: American Tableau.” Exhibition Pamphlet. Houston, TX: The Menil Collection, 2009.
40 Hayles, N. Katherine. Chaos Bound: Orderly Discorder in Contemporary Literature and Science. Ithaca and London: Cornell UP, 1990 286. Print. Pechter, Edward, as qtd. by Hayles, 286.
41 Parry, Robert. “History of Guatemala’s Death Squads.” Third World Traveler: consortiumnews.com. 1.11.05. Web. HxGuatemala_DeathSquads.html.
42 Reagan, Ronald. “Reagan’s ‘We begin bombing in five minutes’ joke.” 11.8.84. Accessed 28.9.09. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Five_minutes_speech>.
43 Dead Kennedys. “Bleed For Me.” Bleed For Me/Life Sentence. 1981.
44 Sylvester, Julie. “Auto/Bio: Conversations with John Chamberlain.” John Chamberlain: A Catalogue Raisonné of the Sculpture 1954-1985. Julie Sylvester Ed. New York: Hudson Hills P, 1986 10. Print.
45 Dawson, Fielding. “Self Portrait in Steel: A Talk with John Chamberlain.” John Chamberlain: Papier, Paradisio Drawings, Collages, Reliefs, Paintings. Edited by Dieter Schwarz. Translation by Fiona Elliot. Düsseldorf, D: Kunsteseum Winterthur, 2005 100. Print.