Cultural Activism in a Time of Crisis
by Susan Noyes Platt
Preface by Peter Selz
copyright 2010
New York, NY

Nancy Worthington:
Subversive Games
Women War and Imperialism
pages 117 to 120




Watch it on YouTube

Nancy Worthington, “War What’s It Good For? Absolutely Nothing”
©2004, mixed-media interactive construction, 3′4″ (h) x 2′5″ (w) x 2′5″. Courtesy of the artist.

Women, War, and Imperialism 117-120
“Dissent is an obligation of a free people-particularly when the very notion of
dissent is unpopular.” -Nancy Worthington

Like McGill, the California-based sculptor Nancy Worthington analyzes the big
political picture through labor intensive detail, but rather than detailed drawings,
she creates humorous interactive sculptures. Her large assemblages made from
recycled toys and homemade gadgets, appear to be penny arcade games. We interact
with her toys through pulleys and switches, inadvertently activating sounds
and lights, or we sit in a seat and read newspaper texts. The illusion that we are in
control as we pull a lever or push a button is dispelled by the serendipitous events
that occur as the art works talk back and flash lights. Illusions are, of course, part
of the political metaphor.

Worthington committed to making social commentary early in her career.
She was first inspired by Picasso’s 1937 Spanish Civil War painting Guernica
which she saw at the Museum of Modern Art in New York before it was sent
back to Spain in 1975, after the death of Franco. Her background is conservative,
Southern Baptist: she began drawing during long sermons, so from the first
time that she set pen to paper she was resisting the status quo. Worthington’s art
embraces Dada, Pop, kitsch and modernism. Its game/ assemblage format might
be compared to the work of Edward Kienholz, but rather than representing the
underbelly of American society, Worthington addresses the political process in the
guise of a trip to an amusement park.

Worthington also reinvents historical painting, that traditional affirmation of
government power, using elaborate counter discourses that resist sanctioned public
narratives. Instead of aggrandizing historic moments or creating larger than
life myths, the series “From Selection To War: The Bush Regime-The First 4
Years” (2001-2004) questions recent history. The “George Dubya Series,” as the
artist nicknames it, is a group of twenty-six works each with a detailed historical
reminder of an event in the Bush era. Ranging in size from large human-scaled
sculptures to small drawings, it reminds us of the fragility of the democratic
process and the ease with which it can be manipulated. Worthington’s work
also documents events which we have already forgotten, much like Picasso’s
Guernica documented an event in the Spanish Civil War that would otherwise be
unknown. 44

Worthington’s approach is particularly apt for the Bush era, since his government
played games with the American public by manipulating laws and basic
human rights as though they were toys to be tossed away or games to be won. Her
strategy of engaging us to activate the pieces means that we cannot remain passive:
she encourages, by extension, our engagement in the political process itself,
as our rights are eroded and democracy is corrupted. Her humorous jokes and
intentionally silly puns also make her art accessible. As we laugh and play we
are ensnared by the serious meanings.

The main element in one of the earlier works in the series, The Crossing,
(2001), is a tapering orange buoy. Rubber rats running down its sides refer to the
cliche “rats leaving a sinking ship.” Perched on top of the buoy, we see a small
reproduction of Emanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware, altered
to feature a confused George W. Bush who wonders in a thought balloon, “what
crossing where?” Above Bush’s head is a Mr. Potato Head toy with a string we
can pull to make a sound like a foghorn. Fog of course is the main characteristic
of Bush’s election, actions, wars, and decisions. As a working gooseneck lamp
“sheds light” on the piece, The Crossing becomes subversive furniture as well as
a humorous game.”

Three works address the election of 2000. Road to the White House (2004)
recycles an exercise treadmill: speed and heart monitors are replaced with the
plastic skull of a Texas steer and a newspaper collage that refers to “Wacky
George’s Used Cars.” On the back of the treadmill, another collage reminds us
of the Bush dynasty with photographs of George W. repeatedly embracing his
father and brother Jeb. Worthington prevents us from working out on the treadmill
with a big stop sign. This system is rigged to prevent us from actually running in
the game.

USDA Certified (2001) compares the certification of the 2000 Presidential
election to the certification of meat-both notoriously corrupt. Thirty Six Days
includes newspapers from the weeks when the election was not yet decided,
and represents a premonition of the war deaths to come with drawings of bombs
falling. Based upon Bush’s record number of executions while Governor of Texas,
Worthington believed the killing would continue. As she put it, “What better
way to continue his killing rampage than to take America into war (s) during his
Presidency?” She collaged a frame from the coverage of the protests at Bush’s

Hitler and Nazism is the theme of Black Tie and Boots Ball (Click, click)
(200 I). Under a photograph of Hitler is a silver tray collaged with nine photographs
of a goose-stepping Bush at his first inaugural. Hanging from either end of
the tray are crystal balls, a reference to Nazi Germany’s Kristallnacht. When hit
together, the balls create a spark of red warning lights inside.
Worthington’s political commentary is always laced with her particular
sense of humor, full of puns, absurdities, and ironies. Jokers Run Wild (2002)
a relatively small wall relief/collage surrounded with flashing lights, is full of
the “jokes” and “jokers” of the first Bush administration: John Ashcroft (Attorney
General), Tom Ridge (Homeland Security), Donald Rumsfield (Secretary of
Defense), and Dick Cheney (Vice President). Dressed as clowns, they offer up
threats while a small Bush head declares, “Keep America afraid and at war.” As
the intentional fear tactics of these “jokers” fade in our minds, Worthington’s art
serves as an historical document of the impunity of the government in the aftermath
of the World Trade Center attacks.

Oh Well, War is Peace (2004) critiques the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as
it plays on the parallel of the present and George Orwell’s world in 1984 where
the government promoted “war is peace.” It resembles a video arcade game complete
with lights and music. On the front, Bush and Blair in the “George and Tony
Show” arcade game arrogantly rock and roll through a landscape suggesting Iraq
and Afghanistan, dancing to songs like “Disco Inferno,” “Burning Burning,” and
“Shake Your Booties.’:” An abstract grid refers to computerized warfare, while
Osama bin Laden’s head appears as a hard-to-hit target in repeated spirals.
On the back side ofthe sculpture, we sit in a chair and look at a collage of images
of the burning World Trade Center and the head of the Statue of Liberty with
the text, “the balancing act: civil liberties vs. national security.” Underneath, another
newspaper clipping, “Bushes and bin Ladens in Business” (Cleveland Plain
Dealer, November 18,2001), explains the Bush family connections to the Carlyle
Group, a defense industry contractor, which is receiving multibillion dollar contracts
for rebuilding Iraq (for facilities that have never been built). At the bottom
of Oh Wel!, War is Peace, a flattened two-dimensional Uncle Sam is barely visible
under the superstructure and burden of the war games and corruption above.
In spite of her games and humor, Worthington’s purpose is to express her
deep opposition to the meaninglessness of war. That unequivocal stance is reflected
in her large sculpture War, What’s It Good For? (Absolutely Nothing) (2004)
(illus.). Looked at from above, the piece becomes coffin-like, partially covered
with two facing American flags. Green plastic toy soldiers on the lid are the pawns
in a game of manipulation: the “coffin” is also a game table pierced by metal game
rods ending in black and white chess pieces. Seven oversize wicket-like metal
handles span the width of the coffin/game suggesting it can be picked up and
carried. Underneath the coffin/game table, an army surplus suitcase filled with
red and white roses gives homage to the dead. Collaged on the lid of the suitcase
are photographs of flag-draped coffins that create a setting for a skull head with
“War” painted in large red letters on its forehead. When activated, the skull drops
its jaw and emits a ghastly repeated laugh.
Worthington juxtaposes the promotion
of war through games and advertising with the meaningless deaths and sacrifices
in war.

The early Dutch artist Pieter Bruegel, in Children’s Games (1560) depicts
children playing games as a grotesque and cruel activity. Worthington’s sculpture,
rather than depicting games, makes us the children in her sculptural games. As we
play those games, we understand the games of the U.S. government in all their
absurdity, cruelty, and arrogance.

The artists discussed in Chapters 3 and 4 range from artists working completely
metaphorically, as is the case of Antonio Tapies, to those who are exploring
the specific
details of torture, as with Selma Waldman. Finally, some artists take on the trajectory of history,
economics, and politics, in order to place current developments in a larger picture. They represent
only a sample of what is possible for artists who pursue social and political expressions in visual art.
In the next chapter, artists address racism, one of the means of both catalyzing and promoting
war and violence.

Link to Dr. Susan Platt’s website, “Art and Politics Now”