Those books, pasted together by my grandmother, year after year, replaced the cognitive exercise of memory for me. Sitting on a section of wall-to-wall carpeting, drinking the bubbling red birch beer from a tinted brown glass, I reestablished my relationships with the members of my family. This is where I put it all together and perpetuated the lies. Not malicious lies, but lies with so many years to develop that we forgot the truth because nobody rehearsed it. When Mark was sentenced to sixty days in a twelve-step rehab program in 1991, he wrote an inventory of his experiences with drugs and alcohol that filled a whole notebook, and then he gave it to us to read. It was in those pages that I learned he had once tapped the powder out of horse tranquilizer capsules, melted it down, and shot it into his veins for a high that lasted fourteen days. My God, I thought, Oh my God. This is Mark’s story? Okay, now put the cooked-down shot-up horse tranquilizer against the pictures in the album. What do you get? Collage. Dry made wet and introduced into the body. Cut cut cut. It’s not so radical.
Popular culture isn’t a freeze-frame; it is images zapping by in rapid-fire succession, which is why collage is such an effective way of representing contemporary life. The blur between images creates a kind of motion in the mind.
Reality is shaped by human constructs of which nature never dreamed. Art exposes and reevaluates these things, creating necessary discomfort.
Let’s talk about money, once labeled the “root of all evil” in the Hebrew Bible. Our modern social system runs on it, and yet what is money? A promise that vouches that we are worthy of the things we need and want, a watermark of our usefulness. If you have more of it, you are thus a better person, right? Something in many of us seems to fidget at this, to recognize that there is error here, an error that has been multiplied many times over, creating cracks that reach to the bottom of our society and threaten the planet which cradles us. Mark Wagner reveals and exploits those cracks to create art.
This ingenious video presented by The Avant/Garde Diaries plays up sociopathological overtones, even putting Mark into an orange shirt and shooting in such a minimalistic way that he seems to be some sort of prisoner speaking from his jail cell, or, worse, some sort of serial killer of dollar bills hard at work in his dark attic, stabbing and slicing his victims into pieces for his brilliant, grisly collages. All this from a guy who might ride next to you in the subway-a hidden, dangerous subversive.
Despite their immense cleverness, intricacy and beauty, which make me smile in spite of myself, I’m not completely sure how I feel about Mark’s collages. The destruction of hundreds of bills that could possibly help people in need reveals a certain privilege, an artistic hubris that smacks of a large ego. And yet, I appreciate the boldness of striking at a taboo that has sanctified our currency. Many people believe it is illegal to destroy or deface the American Dollar, but that assertion lies in a gray area. It is illegal to alter or destroy a bill for the purpose of defrauding someone, but the government itself destroys bills or coins when they become too disfigured for use. Doing so for artistic purposes, or even for simple low-tech mischief, is not typically construed as a crime.
The message here cuts deeper. The very word currency refers not only to money, but to “the quality of being generally accepted or in use”. If we accept the system money creates without acknowledging that it has a dark side-the extra pressure and amplified greed which it adds to the common goal of survival-we fail to safeguard our souls and our world against the resulting injustices. And yet, if we suddenly reject a system that underlies our entire civilization, we will destroy that civilization. We have to establish some sort of compromise, recognizing that money is only material, a necessary evil, at least until humanity thinks of something different. And what of all that “digital” money, the disembodied credit that floats through our modern cities like a soul or a ghost animating our desires? Will that ephemeral nature make it even more powerful and more cruel?
I think the world needs iconoclastic art such as this to call out the conflict between morality and the system we have built to sustain our society. What do you think?
When Henry Darger passed away in 1973 at the age of eighty-one, no one knew much about the reclusive man who had worked as a janitor for several hospitals in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago. He seemed generally unremarkable to those who met him, although his neighbors found him odd, especially the way he talked to himself in various dialects and voices when he was alone in his apartment. Shortly before his death, his neighbors and landlords opened his small room to discover a hidden world. Darger had created over 300 paintings, some ten feet long, and many of them painted on both sides. These paintings illustrated a novel of 15,145 pages titled The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion and a sequel of over 10,000 pages, Crazy House: Further Adventures in Chicago. There were also journals of supplemental materials, including hymns which had been given new lyrics for his new world, and an autobiography which told the events of Darger’s unusual life. It was all colorful and eerie, a wild combination of the innocent with the horrifying. This film, In the Realms of the Unreal: The Mystery of Henry Darger by Jessica Yu, reveals the rich inner world of a true outsider in all its facets. Narrated by a young Dakota Fanning, the film is spellbinding and disturbing.
Video via accochamps on YouTube.
The youth of Henry Darger was a tumultuous one. His mother died giving birth to a baby sister who was adopted before Henry could ever meet her; his kind and loving father grew too ill to care for him and died. Attending a catholic boys home in Chicago, Henry was rebellious and made strange noises which upset classmates and teachers. These noises may have been the result of Tourette’s Syndrome, but they resulted in his institutionalization at the Illinois Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children in Lincoln, Illinois. His treatment there was full of severe punishment, forced labor, and abuse. He eventually ran away from the asylum and found work as a janitor, by which he supported himself for more than fifty years.
His art reveals a simple-minded genius working through the events of a childhood that haunted him for a lifetime. Filled with self-loathing, he was nonetheless industrious and devoted, teaching himself to draw and paint, making collages and saving his money to purchase photo enlargements of figures he clipped from magazines and newspapers. These would become templates for his characters. Possessed with a natural eye, Darger is praised for his composition and the brilliant color of his watercolors. Full of daring escapes and epic battles, his art work is prized in museum collections. On the disturbing side, it is is characterized not only by the juxtaposition of beauty and violence, but by anatomic confusion likely stemming from his early abuse. Many of his paintings feature unclad transgendered girls bearing male genitalia. Whether this comes from lack of understanding, from a desire to impart some sort of masculine strength to his heroines, or from identifying them as a feminine part of himself, the effect is jarring.
Paraphrasing the Declaration of Independence, Darger laid forth a child’s right “to play, to be happy, and to dream, the right to normal sleep of the night’s season, the right to an education, that we may have an equality of opportunity for developing all that are in us of mind and heart”. Even with his reduced capacity for human interaction and his mental difficulties, Darger was well-educated and idealistic in his championing of his fantasy children. A man of many contradictions, he is one of the giants of the movement known as outsider art.