Ehren Tool, ‘Humble Occupation’,
Project Slogan, Aberdeen, 21 – 26 February 2012
This exhibition is organised by Aberdeen-based artists’ group, Stray Dog and hosted by Project Slogan, another artist-run venture in the city. Together they present the ceramic work of Ehren Tool, a 2004 MFA graduate from the University of California, Berkeley. The title of the exhibition has immediate impact and intrigue once you know that Tool used to be a U.S. Marine. A new recruit in 1989, Tool served in the first Gulf War in 1991, then as an Embassy guard in Europe as a ‘defender of the diplomatic efforts of U.S. foreign policy’. If it’s something of a surprise to know that the Marine Corps has given rise to an MFA, it’s no surprise to know that the experience of war has stuck with Tool and his art ever since.
Stray Dog have gathered in the Project Slogan space a good few of Tool’s trademark ceramic ‘cups’ as the artist describes them. Tool has made other forms of ceramic work but the cup has become his calling card. Since the late nineties he has made many thousands of them, and given away more than four thousand of those. His humble objective – to make people think about war.
Stray Dog have lined up three rows of Tool’s cups with no sleeve-staining curatorial polish. The cups are just lined up, and that as that seems apt. Take your pick of a few chairs, sit down, look at the cups, stand up, look at the cups, sit down again, think about war. The set up is conducive to the thinking required by Tool’s moving artefacts. And that title. Most recruits to this show are going to be left of centre on the political spirit level when it comes to assessing, what do you call it, the neoliberal-military-industrial-complex? Even the often quiet diplomatic efforts of U.S. foreign policy, the likes of which Tool was once stationed to protect, will find little favour with Hawkish anti-hegemonists. So in this context, thinking about war, I’m thinking that Tool and Stray Dog are saying something about the mercilessness of U.S. military supremacy and the stupidity of war. Remember Arthur Miller’s famous statement on refusing an invitation to the White House during the Vietnam War – ‘when the guns boom, the arts die’.
There is that sentiment, at least something of it. And with it, the title of the exhibition exudes sarcasm. U.S. military occupations (insert your opinion about Iraq [etc.] here) are anything but humble. The global reach and readiness of the land, air, sea and space resources of the United States of America is terrifying. It is doubly so when attached to and steered by the Hawkish Neocon sentiment which sprung up in certain quarters after 9/11. Recall Richard Perle’s voice of reason: ‘If we just let our vision of the world go forth, and we embrace it entirely, and we don’t try to piece together clever diplomacy but just wage a total war, our children will sing great songs about us years from now’. Some of the text and much of the imagery stresses the need to be deeply deeply sceptical of the military logic of the U.S. and of the logic of military force, full stop. War is brutal and all about death, unreason and failure. The cups are memory objects here, items on shelves which seem to exist as all that’s left. Broken but still – nothing much but present. And again the meagreness of the the cup holds symbolic import. A humble artefact, a modest production speaking to mass destruction. Tool is outspoken on a related point. Given the perennial battles on the domestic front in the U.S., the cost of war in all senses is non-sense – ‘Drink out of the cup with bombs on it,’ Tool invites, and thanks to likes of public servants like Perle, ‘we don’t have money for schools, we don’t have money to make the corrections system a corrections system instead of a penal system, for any of that. But we do have money for million-dollar Tomahawk missiles and $13,000 cluster bombs’. Sing great songs.
But there’s something else. Something else on the other side of the title – the humble occupation which is that of the artist. The repeated making of Tool, the concentration on the cup, is a modest project. This is not an artist concerned with the styling of the artist. This is an artist driven to making and giving tokens of positive making. The discipline of this is striking. And saying that, I’m minded of something which one of Tool’s UC Berkeley tutors said in seeking to position his practice: ‘Anyone who begins a life in the arts doesn’t do it for the notion of money. They do it because they don’t have a choice: they have something they need to say. Ehren is one of those people.’
And so returns something of Tool the Marine. His work, as he has often said, is not anti-war or anti-American, and it shouldn’t be press-ganged into that discourse. The cups silently relay the disasters of war, yes, but their imagery also makes it clear that what we know about the military is uncritically bound up with video games, toys and pornography. Tool exposes the brutality of it all, the cost of it all, and the partiality of our ‘all’. Tool’s practice is one of respectable dedication, one in which choice has been delimited by his given programme, and this aspect might indicate a deep-seated solidarity with colleagues in the services. The works do well to heighten our empathy for those who face the actuality of it all – Perle is an easy target, but for those who have no real choice, condemnation is not reasonable, and Tool’s project acts as a mental bridge.
War is always ghastly but people are not always – the cups are at once reminders of horrors and humble survivors. Guns boom, but they are out-boomed by, of all things, cups. And for every single humble cup that Tool occupies us with, the ineradicable energy of art is protected and shared. Sing great songs.