In September 2003, artist and social activist
Adrian Lee unveiled his protest against everything wrong with society as he
sees it. His statement was made in the form of 50 sizable painted panels combined
to form a mural that covered the walls of an entire gallery. Now, for those
of us who missed the limited gallery exhibitions, a new package documenting
the project has been released for purchase.
Lee's impressively detailed montage of overlapping words and images of varying
size and vivid color comes across as a visual "stream of consciousness," intended
to "expose subverted truths and forgotten pasts of governments and people,"
according to the press release. Rather than "forgotten," it might be more to
the point to say "covered up" or even "ignored." But in any case, that is only
one of the facets of Lee's stupendous work. In Lee's gritty and cynical mirror,
one sees a blind belief in mass media, the fear and paranoia that it causes
and feeds upon – which in turn encourages submission – the relations between
corporate and government interests and actions, the violent, rampant trampling
of those in lower socio-economic positions, no matter what their country, and
more. Some of the most memorable, creative, and uncomfortable images
that force themselves into the viewer's consciousness include a man's brain
pierced by the arrows of war and eventually transformed into an electrical socket;
a powerful, bloody figure wielding a sword reading "Executive" who is surrounded
by chess pawns; and a reworking of the famous Rosenthal
picture of Marines raising the flag at Iwo Jima, which substitutes an oil-drilling
apparatus for a flag.
While, as with most art, there is room for the viewers to interpret for themselves
specifically what Lee's images mean, the artist's cynical vision of the corrupted
nature of our society has a visceral clarity that is, at times, difficult not
to wince at. In this world, nothing is really as we see it, and nothing is good
or pure – under all lurks hidden motives and the sacrifice of someone's blood.
Perhaps the most challenging aspect of the piece is that after building to
a crescendo of images of the bloody violence of war, it ends suddenly with a
gigantic pop-art lettered word: "Reaction..." It is, quite literally, a demand
for a reaction from the viewer, saying, "Now that you've seen this, what are
you going to do about it?" Lee seems to be saying that we are all mired in this;
we all play a part, whether we'd like to admit it or not. He asks us to confront
the passionate anger, outrage, disgust, and sadness his work raises, but denies
us the satisfaction of any simple solution, or even resolution, because in his
vision they do not exist.
addition to the main mural, the Action/Reaction Project also includes the creation
and not-always-legal distribution of posters and stickers in several cities,
along with more traditional graffiti art, with the same purpose of challenging
people to confront the fetid underbelly of society they'd rather ignore. The
newly released box set documenting the project in its entirety includes
an accordion-fold book 20-feet long (picturing the entire sequence of mural
panels in order on one side, and pictures and credits detailing the participants
and process of creation on the other); a DVD (containing a short documentary,
along with a time lapse video of the mural's creation and footage of the major
gallery exhibitions of the mural in Osaka, Japan, and San Jose, Calif.); four
small sticker versions of the posters Lee and his conspirators created and distributed;
a patch featuring the skull and crossbones logo of the project; and some promotional
materials, all enclosed in a two-color, hand-stenciled mailing case. All in
all, it is an impressive and professional package, especially for a project
that takes its form from underground/guerilla street artistry.
Unfortunately, it is not without flaws. The most frustrating, if unavoidable,
problem with the package is that the mural panels had to be shrunk so drastically
to fit on the small pages of the book that much of Lee's copious detail, particularly
the many small print paragraphs detailing (presumably) bloody government interventions
and atrocities, is rendered meaningless. The overall effect is still quite powerful,
but one cannot help but think how much more powerful it would be were everything
visible. Also surprising and disappointing is the fact that the package contains
almost nothing in the way of explanation of the artist's inspirations, objectives,
process, or thoughts about his work. One can only assume that Lee decided his
work spoke so clearly for itself that no one would want to know more about its
background and the artist who created it, but this seems quite an oversight.
Even the DVD, which I had assumed was included for this purpose, has very little
to say. Its major feature, the documentary, contains much footage of the artist
and his conspirators creating their art, just hanging out or traveling the city,
or, for lack of a clearer visible purpose, trying to look bohemian and artistic.
They are abetted in this by lots of double-exposure of images, and a soundtrack
featuring a mélange of various types of music and unidentifiable narrative poetry.
(For all the indictment of the present state of society and culture in his work,
the documentary, the packaging of the project with all its icons, and even the
medium itself seem strikingly concerned with appearing cool and appealing to
pop-culture sensibilities – but perhaps there is a point being made there again
about the fact that we are all part of society and culture, its problems and
solutions.) Thankfully, the Action/Reaction
Web site does offer some of the
insight into purpose and process one is left hungry for, if one is willing
to look for it.
These criticisms notwithstanding, this project is a great achievement in scope
and artistry. Unlike some of those he cites as sources (Noam Chomsky, Howard
Zinn, etc.), Lee's art is immediately accessible to the average citizen and
impossible to ignore; it attacks the senses on the most basic human level, but
transcends that level through its cleverness with imagery and montage. Love
it or hate it, the Action/Reaction project will provoke you to think and feel.
Lee's style is not quiet and polite, nor is it easy to deal with. But if you
are willing to open up your mind and take the journey around Lee's by checking
out Action/Reaction, you will find it a powerful trip.
For more information on The Action/Reaction Project, click here.