Why Is this Indian Smiling—in Berlin?
In The Great Gatsby, the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg stare down, mysterious and godlike, at the valley of ashes and all who pass through it. And in Lewis Carrol's Alice in Wonderland, the Cheshire Cat's smile was known to hang in the air long after its feline owner had left the scene.
In the heart of Berlin, Germany, a dead zone of sorts, the eyes and toothy grin of the controversial Cleveland Indians' mascot make for a similar enigmatic and perhaps unsettling sight for passers-through.
The 40-foot-tall neon image of Chief Wahoo, as he is commonly known, is a creation of French artist Cyprien Gaillard and sits atop the Haus Der Statistik, a vacated communist government building on Alexanderplatz.
It's not uncommon for Europeans to embrace American pop cultural symbols without fully understanding them, but in this case Gaillard seems to have done his homework. A statement on the website of the gallery sponsoring the work explains some of Gaillard's reasoning behind this appropriation of "a Native American cartoon caricature."
The statement reads, in part: "Gaillard’s frequent use of the logo in his work points at the paradox of US sports club’s adoption of American Indian team names and mascots, irrespective of the country’s destruction of its indigenous peoples. Gaillard is interested in how such ancient symbols live on in marketing and mass culture, how what is 'out of time' continues to exist."
Another piece by Gaillard, "Indian Palace," features the Indians mascot silkscreened on windows from the East Berlin Palast der Republik, which was demolished in 2009. A curator of an exhibition that featured the work offered this explanation "The Native American grinning through the shimmering glass brings to mind the constant change in power relations, hierarchies and values."
It's no coincidence that the pieces work with demolished or likely-to-be demolished buildings; Gaillard's explanations of both pieces also include the idea that the Indian is a symbol of Cleveland, which is a symbol of urban decline or the futility of urban planning—in piece called "Contemporary Art and Economics in Berlin," a writer from the Wall Street Journal tries to make that idea fly.
But Rob Schmidt of Newspaper Rock isn't buying it, or any of Gaillard's reasoning, really.
Of course, artists, bloggers, and curators can say all they want about what a work does or means—that doesn't mean they're right. It's up to the viewer to decide what he or she is seeing; whether the work succeeds or fails; whether it is a clever re-imagining of a controversial symbol or merely a callous and harmful repetition.
That's life in the art world. Or art in the real world.