No. Magazine Number 20 Autumn 1993
Windows of the Dream National Endowment for the Arts – Visual Artists Public Artists Projects Grant
Nashville artist and Vanderbilt professor Michael Aurbach is, at once, a perfect and decidedly risky choice as a contributor to the “Windows of the Dream” project. On the one hand, this project was designed as a memorial to a man who was murdered here in Memphis; Aurbach’s theme of past years has, after all, been death, incorporated into a series of installations entitled “Final Portrait.” On the other hand, the man who was murdered was Martin Luther King, Jr., a canonized martyr who preceded multicultural philosophy; Aurbach was critically–and rather self-righteously–castigated for his detachment and political incorrectness in a review in the last issue of NUMBER:.
It is true that Aurbach’s work has an air of detachment, a coolness and disengagement that can be cerebrally stimulating but, yes, emotionally irritating. But one of the most important, yet conveniently forgotten (by those who would–and do–censor art for all the “right” reasons), qualities of good art is its role as an irritant. Art is not a reverent endeavor; there are no sacred cows, there is no “correct” or “incorrect,” politically or otherwise.
Aurbach’s is an art which plays upon dichotomies–the pure and the impure, high culture and low, technology and kitsch–in both appearance and content. lt is socially oriented yet personally eccentric, formal yet non-functional, quietly confident yet subliminally confrontational. The “look” is impersonal, untouched by artist’s hands, often commercial or industrial (depending upon the desired effect). The content is usually dependent upon wordplay (both obvious and arcane) and visual image-play, both of which often employ recognizable stereotypes and obvious irony, blended with less discernible and more intellectual references.
His untitled “Windows” piece is a typical contradiction. It is, in some ways, more reverent than past works; there is an overt respect for the subject and an anger beneath the coolness. At the same time, there is an underlying “tabloid” fascination with the actual dirty deed of assassination that one might not find in other “Windows” pieces. It is rather simple and straightforward in comparison to some of his previous “Final Portrait” pieces: Within a grisaille hybrid-Egyptian tableaux, a bridge, meticulously crafted and faced with wooden “bricks,” spans the space of the window–except for an obvious gap in the very center. Inside one bridge tower stands a simple lectern or pulpit; in the facing tower is a carved wooden rifle, aimed at the lectern. Positioned above this scene are two representations of video cameras, evocative of security devices, each one aimed at an opposite side of the assassination scenario below.
The symbolism in the piece is both implicit and explicit: the unfinished bridge between the black and white races, its construction cut short (or purposely cut apart the two pieces would actually fit together) in the middle by the murder of Dr. King. The symbolism of the security/video cameras is more ominous than obvious: Do they reference the government surveillance of Dr. King (also referenced in Danny Tisdale’s Better Than One window installation)? Does the camera aimed at the assassin’s rifle also imply government involvement on that “end of the bridge”? Or is it simply an accusation thrown into all of our faces, that we are all somehow guilty by watching the scenario unfold from the comfort of our living rooms, precognitively aware of the outcome as a society but unwilling to act as anything more than observers of a TV drama?
Aurbach’s piece asks more questions than it answers. And, in the long run, it acts not only as a tribute to a slain martyr, but also as a slap at our collective, complacent (and “correct”) face.