In Battle of the Buddha, Wisniewski questions the sustainability of traditional national identities by underscoring the internal conflict brought on by globalization. The artist illustrates the economic tension in China with a high definition motion capture digital projection featuring a clash between good and evil Buddhas. Accompanying the performance capture projection in the installation are four satirical tableaus that parallel China’s adaptation to global capitalism with various American icons shown in various states of decline.
Upon entering Wisniewski’s darkened installation, one sees a wall-sized projection of a Chinese Buddha-a stereotypical Chinatown souvenir version of the deity with large belly and benevolent smile. It becomes clear, however, that this motion capture animated figure is a physically and internally conflicted being when he splits like a cell into two entities. They face each other, bow, and then fight using martial arts maneuvers reminiscent of Hollywood action films or digital video game avatars. The comedic battle lasts for several minutes only to end in a final bow before the Buddhas reunite as one. Viewed through an economic lens, Battle of the Buddha recalls China’s recent readjustment to its national identity. As a consequence of global competition, after decades of dominant communist ideology, China has become increasingly entrepreneurial and capitalistic.
The weakened American economy, in contrast, is evoked in Shanghai Bonzo, The Bride The Bear and the Bulltwinkle, and Exhibit Closed For Renovation, three tableaus in which small solar panels on tripods-referencing energy, technology, and progress-hover over symbols of atrophied Americana. In Shanghai Bonzo a flaccid pair of cowboy boots and pair of blue jeans appear to be beating an old oil drum that supports a leather saddle. Business magazines, standing in for musical notes, spill from the opening of the pseudo-instrument. Article titles such as “Winners and losers in the race for fuel,” “Endangered species,” and “Where have all your savings gone?” paint a grim picture for the future of American progress.
The Bride The Bear and The Bulltwinkle highlights the artificiality of American consumer culture. Large foam-rubber bear legs stick up from the bottom of a wedding gown while fake skulls spill from its neck, a fabricated moose antler holds a Christmas ornament, and a miniature Radio Flyer sled completes the tableau. The bear and antler recall Saturday morning cartoons or amusement parks where nature has been domesticated and made safe for our entertainment. The wedding dress highlights the ritual nature of consumption, while its whiteness suggests wintertime, echoed by the Christmas ornament and miniature sled. The skulls speak to the decay of American traditions.
Wisniewski references the weakening of U.S. global dominance in Exhibit Closed For Renovation. U.S. flag bunting forms a barrier to a set of pleated slacks and wingtip shoes at the center of the sculpture. Like the cowboy in Shanghai Bonzo, the fragmented and empty figure is representative of an American archetype, this one an old-fashioned businessman or politician. The title suggests that the preeminence of American economic power is under construction while the United States renegotiates its role in the global economy. Whether it can regain its superiority is uncertain given the string of skulls encircling the base of the tableau.
Untitled (Fallen Man), the final work in the installation, consists of a massive, damaged jet engine cowling and other objects depicting air disasters. Like the solar panels and oil drums, these references to flight recall earlier works by Wisniewski-Untitled (Drop), 1990, is on view at Artpace outside the exhibition and underneath the stairs. Next to the cowling is a life-size wire armature of a man falling through the air upside down, his outstretched arms reaching for a cockpit voice recorder and a flight recorder. The questionable future of America’s dominance this time is couched in terms of the airline industry. The cowling bears the flight insignias of the American flag, but these are punctured and abraded. The project not only laments America’s fall from economic grace, an idea that resonates today as the country tries to recover from the current global economic crisis, but it reminds us that we may cease to fly at all unless we find greener alternatives to oil and natural gas.
-Alexander Freeman, Education Curator