The Tale of the Ugly American

Each summer, The Metropolitan Museum of Art sponsors a site-specific instillation on their roof. Most of them have been pretty satisfying affairs. The best of the lot was Doug + Mike Stern’s Big Bambú in 2010. Roxy Paine’s Maelstrom in 2009 worked for me, as well.

I read the description of The Roof Garden Commission: Imran Qureshi, this year’s installation, and my enthusiasm was dampened. I am not a fan of political art. The collision of politics and art rarely works for me. The political message almost always sucks the life out of whatever artistic merit a piece might have. I usually end up feeling harangued.

This year, Pakistani artist Imran Qureshi’s work is said to be an emotional response to the violence in Lahore, where he lives. He’s painted a landscape across the stone floor. The images of red foliage is meant to reflect Central Park. Using red acrylics, detailed, delicate leaves were painstakingly, drawn across a huge span of the floor.

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But when you pull back, what you see is the foliage dissolving into splatters of blood.

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What I suddenly realized is that for many people, this degree of horrific violence is an everyday occurrence. I found myself unexpectedly overwhelmed and quite moved. My preconceived notions about pedantic political art, not to mention my lamentations about my daily commute, were turned to dust.

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After I left the museum I was pretty rattled. If you have an ounce of compassion for innocents who suffer, you can’t help but to be moved. I was wondering how the piece is being received by the media so while riding the 5th Avenue bus downtown, I looked up the review in the New York Times. Mid-column I read this:

“A curious, illustrative thing happened on the day of my visit to the Met. Across the terrace I saw a large man lying face down on the stained floor pretending to be a bombing victim as his wife and several children laughed and took pictures. Then the kids piled on top of him in a heap of chortling bodies.

I was chatting with Sheena Wagstaff, the Met’s chief curator of modern and contemporary art and the exhibition’s organizer, and we were dumbfounded. Ms. Wagstaff went over to ask the man what he was thinking. She reported back that he said, ‘A sick sense of humor runs in the family.'”

I raged as I re-read these paragraphs over and over again. I’m basically a pencil pusher. I’ve had exactly ONE fight my entire life ONE! I was in sixth grade. I’m so complaisant and prone to run from a fight that sometimes I worry that I have low testosterone. But I kept thinking that if I had see this unfold in front of me I’d have snapped and kicked him right in his sick sense of humor. In front of his family. Then I realized that this piece was inspired by witnessing acts of violence! Are we all monsters inside?

22 thoughts on “The Tale of the Ugly American

  1. can’t be explained. we are spoiled, here in these united states. we don’t have thick, bomb-proof glass in the windows of our restaurants the way they do in Israel. we don’t have guards, armed with automatic weapons, patrolling our airports. we don’t know jack, or shit, about real terrorism, and yet we act like we invented it…

    • It’s true and I’m not perfect. I catch myself being a big baby while there’s daily mayhem in other parts of the world. We’re like ancient Rome before it fell. And that should tell you a thing or two.

  2. Maybe you didn’t feel harangued because it isn’t political in a partisan way – it’s just depicting an unpleasant reality that isn’t often seen on TV footage of such events. The spattering of blood is something you might not be aware of unless you were an eye witness, like the artist. That’s what makes the piece so effective.

    • That’s exactly what happened to me while viewing. I know there’s blood-splattered pavement in parts of the world. I read the papers. But this was such an effective and powerful depiction that I really got under my skin. For the better, I’m sure, but it’s not a pleasant exhibit. I won’t bring the daughters to this one, that’s for sure.

  3. What a very moving piece. The subtle soft flower petals or succulent leaves and the stark very real harshness of the blood—-seemingly indistinguishable as to where one begins and the other ends, and vica versa….this just hit me in my solar plexis….!
    I do think we are all capable of monstrous acts, but I think much of those horrific feelings stay dormant, unless……unless….unless—everybody’s breaking point is.different, and/or is never tested. Then again…..
    I honestly cannot see how someone with an open heart could find anything funny about this installation. What that family did is unfathomable to me.

    Thanks so much for sharing this with all of us. I so appreciate seeing all the many fascinating and beautiful ART that you go and see in NYC!

    • I suppose it’s a thin line between monsters and monster who act out. The difference is the ability to keep it in check. Am I being a jerk about the ugly American tag? Doesn’t that seem like a home-grown behavior? Who else would do that except a bunch of spoiled rotten Americans?

      • No, I think you are correct in this and I think we are a very cynical people here in the U.S. now—for all our ‘touchy-feely’ stuff, it seems to me we are cynical and angry and think nothing of making fun of just about everything and everyone—-and so much of the time it is inappropriate and very hurtful. I am not on Facebook or Twitter, but sometimes the papers and/or the internet will share some horrific meanness that people say to someone else or about someone else. Our magazines are filled with cynicism and meanness…..! I’m not sure when that started happening but it sure seems to be the NORM, now, for a lot of people. It IS the end of the world, in a way, when we lose our Humanity. And it sure feels like that is what is happening now—a true lack of Humanity!

    • EXACTLY! And what if it were a group of Pakistanis doing the laughing and carrying on down at the World Trade Center?! Can you imagine? Fox News would have a field day with that sort of thing. It was disappointing to read.

  4. thank you, brother, for articulating a reasonable and, to my mind, appropriate response to what is a very real experience for far too many people in this world. as GB said, being a witness to blood shed is a reality most people have been spared.

    this past week has been filed with so many examples of “the ugly american” and the sense of entitlement so many people have that i have been on the verge of a complete shut down and withdrawal from society. it is through keeping in touch with my blog pals around the world that reminds me there is more good than bad in this world. xoxoxox for you and yours.

    • It’s pretty upsetting to walk around on that roof and realize there are streets covered with the real stuff. And I don’t mean flowers. It’s a tough space to crawl out of. As for ugly Americans, I’ve never been one to make blanket condemnations and I’m not about to start now, but making a joke out of it seems like a quintessentially American response.

  5. Now that you’ve actually met me, you can imagine that I would have had a really hard time NOT ripping that guy a new one, right there in front of his family. I suppose it doesn’t mean much to him that in the US we’re free from everyday violence, and sidewalks splattered with blood for real. Sometimes I hate us.

    • I would have paid good money—made a significant donation to the charity of your choice—to watch your reaction. It would have been priceless, deadly and totally appropriate.

  6. I remember cowering under my sheets, crying, as a kid during the ‘troubles’ back in the early seventies, even though the ‘troubles’ were miles away. I went to bed every night thinking a bomb would explode at any minute on my doorstep. It never happened, but that did not dispel the fear, nor stop the crying of a young kid who had no understanding of politics or geography.

    • Amerikeys have never had bombs rain down on our cities. Detinations in the marketplace. But I’m confident that 99.9% of visitors to the exhibit wouldn’t exhibit such boorish behavior.

  7. Terrorism is interesting the point is to terrorise the populace. I worked in London during the IRA bombing campaigns but in the end you get use to it and almost accept it then it loses currency. Luckily for us they then got round the table and it stopped (mostly) of course dealing with in route cause i.e. The inequality really was the cause of the troubles ending.

    In my trips to the USA it always struck me odd the level of violence readily on the TV and the casual attitude to weapons as well. Ere they cause or effect on a societies view?

    • How does one get use to something like indiscriminate bombings?! I can barely get used to my ingrown toenail. I’ve said it in the past; Americans are soft. You should see how they still carry on about 9/11. My God! You’d think it just happened last Tuesday!

      The good old USA is expert at exporting violence. Not only weapons, but that includes aspects of our culture, the TV shows a case in point.

  8. There are reasons we are thought of as assholes the world over, i notice it every day, see it every time i have to travel with the Posa, i do my best when abroad to change minds one person at a time but i know that behind me will be ten more fucking it all up, all you can do is try…

    • On my first trip abroad when I was a young stallion in the Coast Guard, I stayed at a B&B in London. I was having the time of my life. One morning I go to breakfast and there’s four Americans at the table. All they did was complain about how undercooked the bacon was. I could see the hurt in the proprietor’s eyes. I thought to myself, “Christ, thank God there are no more of those around.” Little did I know…

  9. Sadly many people become immune to horrific scenes after daily family viewing the news whilst eating.
    I wonder if he deliberately chose that raspberry shade instead of the colour of blood?

    • Actually, while those photos are an accurate reflection of how the work is structured, they’re a poor representation of the true color. It’s much closer to that of real blood, which is what makes it so horrific and upsetting. (To any normal, caring, person, that is.)

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