Standing deep in the heart of Texas, approximately, and in the shadow of the Tower of the Americas just off Durango, artist Ken Little describes his new installation: “It is a white picket fence in the shape of the United States. It’s a simple garden fence, with no gates, no way in, and no way out. It’s the American dream and the American nightmare.”
It’s that simple, and that deceptively iconic. In the Tower’s bar, some 600 feet in the air, the mind flickers quickly from Tom Sawyer to “Homeland Security,” the sculpture’s apt title. But standing on the lawn, which is Little’s preferred perspective, the double edge reveals itself slowly as you pace around it and think about hopping over the barricade between you and, say, the capital.
“It’s about concrete issues of war and terrorism,” Little says. “Issues on the ground. It’s a shape that wouldn’t even be here if it were not shaped by immigrants.”
It’s a decidedly post-9/11 work of art. Little created “Homeland Security” in 2004 for the GriffnerHaus in Austria, the only American out of 12 artists invited to create work out of housing materials. The piece was selected for the 2009 Texas Biennial in Austin, and this installation is sponsored by Artpace and Public Art San Antonio — thanks to the strong advocacy of Artpace Director Matthew Drutt.
This version, like Austin’s, features hexagonal flat tops on the pickets; the original points were thought to be too dangerous. But that’s pretty much the only controversy the installation has generated to date. “In some ways, it’s a little disturbing, because everyone’s been so polite,” says Little. “But I’ve been preaching mostly to the choir, so to speak.”
That may change now that “Homeland Security” is within striking distance of the Alamo, a proximity that Little relishes, and not just because a public-art proposal he was invited to submit a decade ago was rejected (“As if Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! is not a desecration,” he says of the Alamo Plaza’s other myth gristmill). His sculpture’s white line most readily evokes that equally ineffective barrier that’s partially built along our Southern border, and to Little the endless trickle of workers from Mexico and beyond is “a manifestation of something that’s gone on forever” — and so much of our rhetoric and policy is still “fighting back the invading Mexican hordes.”
A companion work, “This is Not Nine One One” — the contiguous United States again, this time outlined in blue neon by Little’s partner, Cathy Cunningham — hangs upside-down in Artpace’s front windows, complete with a red inverted heart that unfailingly evokes a ball sack.
“When the country is run by testicles and hubris, all we have is conflict,” Little says. Unlike “Homeland Security,” which “manifests the issues in a very tangible way,” the Artpace installation is “totally about a mental state, the psychological state of American politics,” in which the ideal that we bring our best ideas to the table to hash out a compromise, and losers return to the big team until the next election, has been lost.
An easy analogue for the window installation is the American flag, which is flown upside-down as a sign of extreme distress, but for Little it’s “more the idea that we’re part of the planet, and when seen from the perspective of the planet, it can be any shape.”
But feel free to develop your own interpretation. One of the things Little likes about the sculpture is its plasticity, they way it can be adapted to so many issues and ideas. “Artworks gather meaning to themselves as they live,” Little says. “I will be watching it to see if it accrues an audience that’s interested in it. If it doesn’t, it goes into the dump.” •
Through Sep 19
200 S. Alamo
(located on the lawn adjacent to Durango)
It’s Not Nine One One
Through Sep 19
445 N. Main