Is This Year Like the Cross Section of a Grapefruit?
Annie Armstrong muses on how her relationship to art has changed and been informed by the election.
Yoko Ono, Cloud Piece, 1963 via @YokoOno
I have a hard time understanding my own emotions sometimes. I think it’s why I’m so attracted to art, yet I don’t make it myself. I really rely on it to help me comprehend what’s going on both within myself and in the world at large. Like most Americans, and like most global citizens, my inward life was in constant flux last week as I followed the U.S. presidential election with white knuckles. I’m still trying to come to grips with what happened and what it all means. My mind keeps going back to art—as a way to deal with reality but also to help me process the feelings of this past week. A guide and also a sign that we/I’m not alone.
Most people I know had their own coping mechanisms for the seconds, minutes, and days after the polls closed. I’m too neurotic to be able to turn away, so I watched every grueling county come in as my need for sleeping and eating would permit it. It’s a pretty obvious analogue to relate any election to Hans Haacke, who’s most known for his ambitious polling projects, but one sculpture that I saw at his New Museum retrospective last year really felt pertinent. Among all of his work that deals with democracy and polling, Blue Sail, 1964-1965 came to mind as Florida became the first state to sway between blue and red. The piece consists of a thin swatch of cobalt blue chiffon which ebbs and flows over a generic rotating fan. The cloth itself made me think of the fragility of the system, and its hypnotic motion was more of a numbing agent than a calming one.
A lot of my vim and vigor for the results came from the very radical flip of Georgia into a blue state. I’m currently in my hometown of Atlanta, and while my New York naysaying friends never imagined this could happen, I happened to have the knowledge that Fulton, Chatham, and Cobb county belong to the majority Black cities of Savannah and Atlanta, and that former gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams had been hard at work since her loss in 2018 to get new voters in these areas registered. Abrams lost her race through the blatant voter suppression of these areas, but had quietly and diligently been working to deploy them against the powers that be. David Hammons created his piece How Ya Like Me Now? in 1988 for the D.C.-based non-profit, Washington Project for the Arts. It depicts the preacher and two-time presidential nominee Jesse Jackson as a white man, and spray-painted across his suit and tie is the cheeky and incensed title. Much like Abrams flipped the script on how a racist system was used against her, Hammons forced viewers to question if Jackson were white, would he have been elected president? As the Trump administration demands a recount-by-hand of the votes in the state, the phrase echoes in my head on behalf of all the work Abrams has done.
We know it’s silly to pretend like a new president can fix the structural problems that exist in the United States. Any satisfaction and relief I feel comes with a knowledge that this progress can only do so much, and only exists within the restrictive template that American politics complies to. Lucio Fontana’s iconic slashes through canvas have never felt that rebellious to me, but the implied action of it does feel satisfying. This middle finger to the parameters of art always does elicit an impish smile in me. Yet their symmetry and precision nukes the work of any punk ideals that the act of stabbing through a painting implies. Fontana’s slashes smack of a safety pin earring made by a luxury brand—instead of expressing their intended radicality, they just work within the parameters of the widely-accepted and commercialized anarchic aesthetic. Biden’s becoming president in the same form of government that allowed Trump to gain power in the first place. The system hasn’t changed.
Still though, I’m not one to rob joy from myself or others. I felt genuine and true relief when the election was called, especially for those who really bore the brunt of Trump’s presidency. There was a real physicality to that relief. When it was finally called, I dashed to Piedmont Park to find a massive ongoing celebration. There were, of course, the expected expressions of joy: the champagne-popping, dancing in the street, the arrhythmic cacophony of incessant honking, and my personal favorite of banging together pots and pans. Many noted how surreal it felt. I’d take it a step further and say it was almost Dada. Beyond those means of celebration, I found adults climbing trees like they were kids again, dogs dressed up in people clothes, and people just sprawled out in the grass, smiling and looking up at the sky. Kind of like everyone there took a page out of Yoko Ono’s Grapefruit to get instructions on how they can get this relieved and vulnerable energy out (“EARTH PIECE Listen to the Earth’s turning. 1963, spring”, “LAUGH PIECE Keep laughing a week. 1961, Winter.”, etc.). It had been so long since our country’s population had met up to express anything besides rage or protest, that seeing it happen felt like looking into another world. I for one certainly didn’t know what to do with my body and all of this confusing delight, so Ono’s instructions would have been welcome.
All of these intricate feelings that came along with the election ought to continue to be examined. Our political situation doesn’t have to be the way that it is, and it is said over and over again because it is true: this win does not and should not equal political complacency. One passage from Grapefruit may get a spot on my desk for the next four years: “CLOUD PIECE: Imagine the clouds dripping. Dig a hole in your garden to put it in. 1963 spring.”