As I was nearing completion of my undergraduate studies in Art History, I had a crisis of conscience. As my graduation date got closer I became more and more disillusioned with my chosen field of studies. I had been accepted in to a prestigious graduate program in another part of the country, but what was the point? I, like many students, had had my eyes opened to many injustices and inequities in the world during my time at University. And here I was studying art?! I was frustrated and dissatisfied by what I originally saw as a disconnect between art history and the very pressing problems facing the world. I felt my chosen discipline was elitist and out of touch with the “real world” – I wanted to make a difference, and I couldn’t see how studying art could be at all beneficial in this pursuit. I came very close to dropping out.
And then I stumbled upon a book by Suzi Gablik called The Reenchantment of Art. I remember pretty much putting everything else on hold to read this book from cover to cover. This book gave me much to think about, and I have returned to it several times throughout my career, but what I remember most clearly during that first reading was how I felt when I read Gablik’s description of a particular piece of public art, one which grappled so eloquently with so many of the questions I had been asking. The piece was Mierle Laderman Ukeles’s Social Mirror (1983), and it kind of blew my mind. Social Mirror was a project in which the artist added mirrors to the outside of a New York City Sanitation truck. This piece focused on something few people spend a lot of time thinking about – garbage. We throw something away and rarely think of it again, especially in the 1980s before environmentalism became a household talking point. Not only did this piece draw attention to the sometimes culturally invisible role of sanitation workers, it also ensured that passersby recognized their own role in the social, cultural, political, and environmental issues inherent in our “throw away” society. The mirrors quite literally placed the viewers in to this picture. This was not someone else’s problem. The description of this piece made me realize the potential art could have in terms of engaging head on with some of the most pressing problems of our day. Art did not have to be elitist and, in fact, could have an important role to play in things like social justice movements or environmentalism. While this seems absolutely obvious to me now, I will always remember just how inspired I felt reading about Social Mirror in Gablik’s book. It is not an exaggeration to say that this experience shaped the trajectory of my career thus far.
Fast forward thirty years, and another piece of mobile public art in New York is making waves in important ways. This time it is a piece called Sirens of the Lambs and it is by the enigmatic street artist, Banksy. Since this piece was first spotted on the streets of New York City on October 10, 2013, my social media feeds have been full of people posting and reposting about it. Sirens of the Lambs is a truck full of stuffed animals – plush cows, chickens, pigs, lambs, bears – that first appeared in the Meatpacking neighborhood of NYC. From there, the plan, according to Banksy’s website, is to have it tour around the city for two more weeks. The animals on the truck can be “heard” squealing, squeaking, and crying, creating a cacophony of sounds that draws attention to the piece. Footage from the artist’s website shows folks stopping to stare as Sirens of the Lambs rolls by them on the street – people gather to witness the spectacle, taking photographs and no doubt posting them to Instagram and other social media sites. The video footage captured by the artist shows a range of reactions to it – in one shot a baby cries at the sight, in another a group of men looking out from a shop advertising “prime meats” seem to be chuckling as the truck drives by.
The truck has the words “Farm Fresh Meats” lettered on the driver’s side door, but the white vinyl letters are peeling off, the body of the truck is faded and full of stains – creating the sense, in other words, that this is a truck that has been on the road for a while, that prior to being part of the Sirens of the Lambs, it was used to haul live animal bodies to slaughter. The juxtaposition of this harsh reality with the clean and cuddly-looking plush animals commands attention in a way that a truck full of live animals would not. Animals on trucks heading to slaughter are accepted as part of modern life; many people drive right by them without even taking a second look. Some don’t even notice them at all. We certainly don’t see a lot of people sharing photographs of slaughter transport trucks full of live animals through their Instagram feeds. And this is the crux of this piece – it takes a truckload of toy animals to draw attention to the cultural invisibility of actual animals in these situations. We are not used to seeing stuffed animals in this context, but we are all too used to seeing live animals in the back of slaughter trucks. So used to it, in fact, that it barely registers.
Banksy’s Sirens of the Lambs, just like Mierle Laderman Ukeles’s Social Mirror three decades earlier, draws attention to the cultural invisibility of certain aspects of our society – in this case, the animals in our contemporary food system. Like Ukeles, Banksy implicates all of us in this process through this very public piece. I wonder about the impact this piece will have on those who have the opportunity to see it.