The other day, a very good friend e-mailed me a link to a website that is essentially an online art exhibit. I was not just taken with the subject matter but intrigued by the accessibility. I have long bespoke my admiration for artists that make a decision to participate in social conversation, choosing communication over decoration.
“America The Gift Shop” is a collection of work based on the question, “If American foreign policy had a gift shop, what would it sell?” Phillip Toledano states that, “We buy souvenirs at the end of a trip to remind ourselves of the experience.” He then asks himself and viewers, “What do we have to remind us of the events of the last eight years?”
The answers come in the form of artworks, varied in method and material, that illustrate the moral and political horrors of the G. W. Bush administration. If one were to imagine these artworks inhabiting an actual gift shop, the viewer would walk in to find racks of t-shirts emblazoned with such slogans as “I WAS RENDERED TO A SECRET PRISON AND ALL I GOT WAS THIS LOUSY T-SHIRT.” A neon sign flashing in red and blue — “REGIONS DESTABILIZED – While you Wait!” would hang in the window. Shelves would be loaded with figurines of drenched and hooded Abu Gharaib prisoners standing on batteries with jumper cables connected to their hands. Pick up a snow-globe and shake it to watch the shredded paper swirl around Dick Cheney as he disposes of incriminating documents. You could buy your kids a “Choc and Awe” chocolate bar and take them outside to jump around in the bounce house that is a reconstruction of a Guantanamo Bay prison cell. Buy your littlest one “Abdul the Amputee,” a knitted doll with bandaged stumps for arms.
These objects may shock and anger some people — the thought of these horrors being reduced to souvenirs and humorous slogans. But remember, while history books can constantly be re-written, these are the kinds of objects that wind up in thrift stores and antique shops for decades — small and accurate examples of the mainstream sentiment of the time.
Toledano is, at root, a photographer. A visit to his website reveals a meticulous and accessible collection of his past works. Video Gamers (2002), the earliest of the bunch, is a study of personality traits let loose while his subjects are playing video games. These portraits are classically staged; well-lit faces hang above dark clothing that folds into the background, their expressions ranging from surprised and triumphant to what can only be described as the “killer instinct face.”
Bankrupt (2003-04), one of my favorites, is a revealing series of photographs taken of the vacated offices of bankrupt business ventures. Wires snake across the low pile carpeting, personal mementos still litter cubicles, piles of books occupy the middle of meeting rooms, abandoned trash is scarcely discernible from objects of value, a softball statue still stands in the empty boss’s office…
Arctic (2005) is a group of absolutely spectacular photographs that clearly indicate Toledano’s skill and his adventurous spirit. On the other hand, Phonesex (2007-08) and Days With My Father (2008) are examples of Toledano’s willingness to go inward, using landscape of human experience to tell his story.
I had the pleasure of a short interview with Phillip Toledano. We spoke mostly about his past work while he sat in a hotel room in Atlanta, where he is working on his next project. He wouldn’t reveal what it was; insisted it was a secret…though, upon reflection, he did bring up the fact that he would be eating at food courts a few times…
Emberly Modine: How did you come to creating work that, on one hand, is overtly political and yet so completely personal on the other?
Phillip Toledano: Well, all my work is socio-political in nature. I’m interested in what’s right in front of us (or me), and I think everything I work on is personal — it’s just different levels of “personal.” Anyone who has been awake in this country over the last eight years should be personally outraged at what’s been happening.
EM: Can you explain how, for instance, Phonesex is personal?
PT: [Laughs] I’m interested in how society functions, and I’d been thinking about the way in which we, as a country, have been deluding ourselves for the last eight years. In a strange way, although it seems like a stretch, I felt there was a connection between our current situation and Phonesex; there is a great deal of self-delusion. I’m generally interested in the things that we feel we have an understanding of but don’t. I suppose the work is personal because it interests me. Again — “levels.” I’m working on three new projects, all quite different, but they’re just things that stick in my mind. Ideas sort of show up like gatecrashers at a party and sit around on the sofa until i notice them.
EM: When did you do the series of photographs taken of bankrupt offices?
PT: That book came out in ’05. I’m working on sort of a sequel. It’s sad, really, but I’m drawn to loss. I’m the Morrissey of photography.
EM: It’s interesting how pertinent that work is three years later. It seems like you touch upon the needling fears that people have — joblessness, loneliness, the isolation of working in a sort of…taboo industry — yet you aren’t very overt about it. There is a more human, relating tone rather than a didactic one.
PT: It’s true. I feel as though I have a strange kind of connection to the world. I can smell better than other people or something.
EM: That’s an interesting way to put it.
PT: I can’t believe I said that. That sounds very odd indeed!
EM: Some of the pieces in The America Gift Shop remind me of old knick-knacks from before the American civil rights movement.
PT: Really? Like…?
EM: The cookie jar with the Abu Ghraib prisoners stacked on top of the lid. It reminds me of old “blackface” things from that era, perhaps because it’s embarrassing to look at them. They make me feel shameful.
PT: Oh, that never occurred to me. They should make all us shameful. We’re complicit in our own way — inaction, etc. The mainstream media doesn’t want to touch this work (“America the Gift Shop”). A friend of mine at ABC showed it around. Interesting how we’ve swept it all under the rug. Maybe there will be “Abu Ghraib – The Reality Show” soon.
EM: That would be frightening. It’s funny how we constantly extol the horror of tragedies we didn’t commit, like the Holocaust, but when it comes to ones we share responsibility for…
PT: Exactly. That’s a very good point. I suppose no one wants to admit they’re a murderer.
EM: What expectations did you have from people at ABC seeing your work?
PT: Well, I suppose the dream was to get it on national TV, make it part of the dialogue, and somehow affect the election. [Laughs] That was the dream. The reality is the web loves it but the real world doesn’t.
EM: They are worried about what their sponsors would say.
PT: Exactly. Budweiser doesn’t want to come after the bobbleheads.
EM: So many artists are reluctant to show much of their work on the web, while you seem to relish the medium as a way to expose it. Your pictures are large and beautiful, and anyone could take them.
PT: The web has been amazing for me. You mean anyone could take them as in steal them, or as in photograph them?
EM: Well, whatever everyone else is afraid that someone could do with the images of their work.
PT: Oh… I’m not afraid at all. The world is far too transparent now, thanks to the web. About six months ago, I got an e-mail from a designer in Hong Kong. They told me that the Hong Kong advertising club had ripped off my “Hope & Fear” series for an ad campaign. The next thing I knew, newspapers are calling me to ask how I felt about it. It became a huge scandal. The HK4A has apologized to me. The art world is way behind the web. It’s a way to get your message out there. Days With My Father reached more than half a million people in the first two months I posted it. I got e-mail from all over the world. It was really touching.
EM: No gallery foot traffic could compete with that. How do you sell your work? I don’t see a way to purchase it online…
PT: Well, that’s another question! From occasional shows, collectors, etc. I don’t have a gallery that represents me, so there is no steady income stream that way. But yes, there is always e-mail.
To keep track of Phillip Toledano, visit his website often.
Emberly Modine would like to thank Mr. Toledano for the images she took off his websites.