I stood frozen, with the plastic glass of cheap chardonnay halfway to my lips. The creature in front of me was hideous and alien, and yet uncomfortably familiar. It stood on a carpet of corn kernels surrounded by a meticulous ring of river stone, clutching a thorny cane. It wore a vest of charred timber adorned with age-encrusted metal washers like so many Girl Scout merit badges. Yet it was definitely masculine. Its right leg was an enormous rusty box wrench. It glowered back at me through holes in a rusty metal disk, one eye a protruding corn cob monocle, and the other vacuous space. From its mouth hung an unlit pipe, the rusty part of some farm machine, attached in hinge-like fashion to its disk-face. On its head was a hat of dry corn leaves.
Eventually the chardonnay became heavy, and I allowed it to continue on its original course. I’m not sure how long we stared at each other. And I’m not sure at what point I realized that I was looking into a strange kind of mirror, one that somehow managed to omit everything truly human from the reflection, leaving an exoskeleton made from the residue of 9000 years of domestication.
The carpet of corn and the river stone enclosure at the base take us back to the beginning, the first civilizations along the Tigris and the Nile and in the Indus valley. The charred wood that provides the structural support for the piece reflects the (continual) scorching of the natural world. The wrench and rusty machine parts capture the ugliness and degradation of the industrial revolution and its aftermath. And the merit-badge washers (or are they clasps, buttons, segments in a twisted spine): the hollow pride we take in our technological accomplishments and the trophy quality of our consumer trinkets. The pipe and the wrench leg represent our addiction to and our dependence on the machine, respectively. The wrench leg might also suggest our increasing instrumentality—the extent to which we have become merely tools ourselves. The corn-leaf hat and the corn cob eye embedded in the metal speak to our single-minded approach to industrial agriculture.
It was during the opening day of a display at the local art center. I enjoy art, but I was only there for the free wine. The sculpture was entitled “Totem for Dad.” The name was the clincher.