Sunday, March 13, 2011

Conditioned Humans or The Human Condition? Satirical Humor in the Works of Suzanne Klotz

  By Sophia Isajiw

American Boy Bed, Suzanne Klotz, Farhat Art Museum collection

You can't make up anything anymore. The world itself is a satire. 
All you're doing is recording it. 
– Art Buchwald, American political satirist 
and Washington Post columnist

Humor’s cultural importance as a tool to disarm, teach, and open up possibilities for willing and constructive interactions, is summed up in an early statement by the philosopher Plato: “Serious things cannot be understood without laughable things.”1 In contemporary society, the roles the arts perform within culture have been limited too often to entertainment and aesthetic functions only. But the more challenging roles of art to culture are its civic, social and educational functions. Culture shapes the way we view the world. In a country that protects freedom of speech, yet lives with daily censorship of its people and its journalists for fear of immanent terrorism, and whose primary ethos has become unmindful consumption, the vital purposes for art making and viewing are too frequently forgotten, misunderstood, undervalued, or regarded with utter suspicion. Art that makes use of satirical visual humor therefore goes down like a sugarcoated pill, giving viewers greater incentive to pay attention to, and understand more deeply, the serious things, while laughing all the more ironically at the comedy of errors that is the human condition.

Shuhada, Suzanne Klotz, Farhat Art Museum Collection

Arizona artist Suzanne Klotz’s socially relevant mixed media works seduce viewers with their opulent surface renderings, deft puns and symbolic use of mass-produced materials. Yet they also overwhelm with their carefully researched facts and figures. Banal objects from pop culture, military culture and daily use are transformed through her keen sense of social irony to complicate their consumer-driven surface illusions, and to more readily locate the less visible truths lying beneath their luscious façades. These thought-provoking images reveal a vivid commentary on the events of our times, conjure a haunting vision of a world without reason, and remind us that an understanding of the past is crucial to our present and future. Her works prompt us to reexamine our values, social behaviors and morals. They reflect, in an ironic way, the misconceptions many Americans have about America’s role in global society. They demonstrate a way to continue being critical and penetrating without hatred or marked disrespect for the religious convictions of diverse believers and non-believers alike. Her exhibitions seek to create awareness and dialogue about human rights abuses, examine the impact of military invasion and occupation, and explore the often complicated relationships between social and personal accountability and power. 

Beneath these interconnected themes is a passionate commitment to human rights and a simmering outrage against hypocrisy and injustice. In Unclaimed Laundry, an inverted American flag (a symbol of distress and metaphor for an inverted democracy), a shredded Palestinian flag, and embroidered and découpaged hand towels, handkerchief, and pillowcases are physically suspended from a vintage American Cordomatic clothesline–implying they’ve been left to dangle from a naïve 1950s ethos of America’s place in the global order. Pink parrots flitter and alight in a Disneyesque parody of American suburban domestic order. Here she uses the images of one domestic reality to describe, by implied comparison, another shattered domestic reality, asking in the process: if we define ourselves according to a marketing myth, what kind of worldview has it conditioned us to? 

Unclaimed Laundry, Suzanne Klotz, Farhat Art Museum collection

On closer inspection, the pillowcases on which we rest our heads, and the towels upon which we wipe our hands, image only chaos and the atrocities of war in the Middle East.   Each laundered item on the clothesline addresses specific violations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The domestic iconography of “God Bless Our Home” and “God Bless Mommy and Daddy Forever”–sayings common to the American heartland–are here bitingly inverted and complicated by meticulously researched facts and figures. They detail the number of Palestinian homes destroyed in the heavily disputed 2002 “massacre” in the West Bank refugee camp of Jenin during the Second Intifada’s Operation Defensive Shield which employed modified military versions of the U.S. Caterpillar D9 armored bulldozers. Listed also are numbers of Palestinian males and children imprisoned without specific charges or trials. As a meditation on expanding meanings of “home,” it is clear in this satire of domestic family values that these same values are literally “hung out to dry” when applied to military aggression in other homelands. American dollar bills are tucked under the clothespins, presumably to reference the amount of unwavering diplomatic and material support, through taxpayers’ dollars, the United States provides the Israeli state and the related effort to spread “democracy” throughout the region. A small kerchief appropriates Disney characters to transform Mickey Mouse into a police officer holding a hula-hoop for Pluto to jump into  while informing us that over 1,500 laws regulate daily activity in Palestine, like so many loopholes to jump through, “catch-22’s” to avoid and checkpoints that must be navigated daily. Knowing that American audiences have become numb and desensitized to the banality of human body counts, Klotz includes information regarding the bombing of a Gaza Petting Zoo, including an image of an ostrich with a leg blown off and a very angry teddy bear pondering the list of numbers of remaining victims. Poignantly, those two pink parrots that Americans so proudly display on the outer walls of their suburban homes pick up a double reading now as rosy escapees from that same bombed out Gaza petting zoo. 

Clean sweep Settlement Extruder, Suzanne Klotz, Farhat Art Museum

In Clean Sweep Settlement Extruder, an Electrolux vacuum cleaner refitted with mounds of concrete, rocks, bullet shells, gas mask and Israeli and U.S. flags, suctions a Palestinian flag through one hose while an “extruder” hose drops mounds of concrete representing new settlements. Cast iron praying hands atop the machine allude to nationalist objectives that masquerade in the guise of religion (the artist is always careful in her work to separate Judaic religious beliefs from Zionist political aspirations). The satire is distilled, compact and clear: a familiar household item is used to personalize the impact of the machinery of state that forces people out of their territory. Each of her works becomes a powerful indictment of man’s inhumanity to man. 

Suzanne Klotz’s artworks draw from personal experience – she has witnessed the effects of military aggression on the families of both Palestinians and Israelis. Between 1990 and 1995, she was a repeated guest artist of Mishkenot Sha'ananim, a non-governmental International Cultural Centre in Jerusalem. Much of her time was spent in the West Bank and Israel, facilitating collaborative exchanges between Palestinian and Israeli artists, educators, and professionals, culminating in a landmark group exhibit at the Municipal Gallery in Jerusalem. She has been an eyewitness to events in the region only to see them misrepresented in the American media, and thus feels strongly that it is important for people to personally investigate truth in distant lands as well as in their own back yards. Her use of familiar household materials deliberately personalizes some of the 'unseen' aspects of war and questions the effects of military occupation not only on the forces involved but also on the family dynamics of societies at large. 

99 Names of Allah, Suzanne Klotz, Farhat Art Museum collection

By contrast, there is nothing satirical in her treatment of authentic faith. 99 Names is a series of ninety-nine handcrafted artist books, each referencing a separate attribute or virtue of God as recorded in the Qur'an. The books affirm the unity within the spiritual teachings of the major world religions and double as personal interactive journals for recording one’s private application of each virtue.

Another artwork made of multiples, Democracy Sampler (Cookies from the White House), consists of a U.S. Army-issued ammunition box, filled with ceramic stoneware “cookies” packaged in separate biohazard specimen bags. Each cookie represents a different chemical used in warfare in Iraq, it’s name printed on one of those little American toothpick flags like some dementedly cheerful American Diner home-cooked meal. The cookie names include: Nerve Gas, White Phosphorous, Depleted Uranium, Cluster Bombs, Napalm, and 70 tons of radiation poisoning. Facts and figures served up cold with such scathing parody are sobering, their impact palpably resonant. 

In fearlessly tackling a wide array of inter-related issues in these works, Klotz suggests such follies are not limited to the Middle East but common in every civil society. Her urgent warning cautions that even to the victor will come ruin. By turns witty, grotesque and satirical, her intent is to create compellingly dissonant visual experiences that challenge aesthetic and intellectual complacency and expand social consciousness and awareness. In navigating the terrain between indifference and attentiveness, social conditioning and compassion, Klotz reminds us that art still provides humanity with a True North-seeking compass, and that hers can function as a willing magnetic north to conscience. 

Too often, we tend to view artworks as completed solutions or answers, when in fact most artists see their works as questions posed to the cultures in which they live. In Family Ties, the questions are laser precise in their spiritual and ethical dimensions: how can our individual fears override our common humanity? How can unjust treatment of other human beings ever be justified? How do humans settle in their conscience questionable actions taken by governments elected to represent them? What do our tax dollars fund overseas? How do our noblest ideals fare around the world? Where is our collective voice of outrage? The exhibit provokes viewers into asking themselves internal questions for which there are no easy answers. Thus, these satiric works can run the risk of provoking viewers to an anger directed at the art or the artist for providing the stimulus. The more difficult next step is for viewers to interact constructively by asking themselves where they stand personally and what might they do? The cumulative effect of the work asks us to connect our own core humanity to that of these other cultures for whom American export culture and political decision-making translate into real daily social impact. 

Boogie Man Comforter, Suzanne Klotz, Farhat Art Museum Collection

Viewing these works, we may laugh uproariously one minute, only to become embarrassed by our response the next. We may find the humor uplifting, or very nasty.  Satire is thus a form of stealthy criticism. Because satire combines the outrage of truth with humor it can be profoundly disturbing. As is the reminder that this is the recording of real life, Klotz is not making this stuff up, each fact is carefully researched from multiple reliable sources. If the world itself has become a satire, a satirical art of civic engagement needs to disturb our deep indifference and complacency, but not in order to make us feel bad about ourselves. Rather, precisely in order to create spaces where we think more deeply and feel more sharply what American ideals, rights, privileges and our roles as American citizens mean, and not in simplistically conditioned ways, but under difficult conditions. If you don’t laugh, you miss the point. If you only laugh, you miss your chance for deeper meaning and illumination. 

Klotz’s satire reminds us it’s not ok to escape from everything else all of the time, as the consequences often come back to roost. She brings a sober awareness that the world can’t fade into the background forever, like some convenient exotic Hollywood location. Often she makes her point by pushing the satire over the top where we no longer laugh, provoking viewers into extreme cognitive discomfort. In those moments the cynical overtone evidences the artist knows it’s futile to think she might correctively restore paradise to earth through her artworks. At best she is aware that, although she may hope to reform and restore through her art, she can guarantee only to expose vice and hypocrisy, to make them sufficiently repulsive through the shock of recognition, to simply slow the course of greater evil. What happens when we can no longer laugh while viewing her work? When we feel so traumatized by the revelation of our own conditioning we don’t know whether to laugh or cry? For starters, we begin to think, to become more deeply attentive, possibly to anger, and perhaps to begin to passionately desire an alternative outcome than that represented in her imagery, the imagery of a, by now, surreal human condition.
The book publication and exhibition title, Family Ties Occupied Art, implies that the foundation of a society is in the strength of its family bonds, which comprise the strength of the community, however families and communities are defined most broadly. By extension, the strength of a nation is dependent on its ability to interact with other nations. The larger implications regard the greater human family to which we all belong, and thus we are all implicated in this global satire together. From the conditioned nursery rhymes we sing as children, to the Proud To Be American t-shirts and hats we wear, to the foreign-made products we eagerly consume, those taxes we pay as good citizens and all the gas burned on family trips to other countries and cultures–we are all in this human condition together, for better or for worse! So what will be the quality of the experiences we record?

Sophia Isajiw, MFA
Independent Arts Writer/Curator

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