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A Logo for America (The New Yorker.com)

On a recent Thursday, the Chilean conceptual artist Alfredo Jaar celebrated a homecoming of sorts in midtown Manhattan. Just shy of midnight, he stood in Times Square, surrounded by a crowd of about fifty friends and supporters. All eyes were trained south, toward a billboard on Forty-second Street, where, between 11:57 P.M. and midnight, each night for the entire month of August, Jaar’s landmark work, “A Logo for America,” is playing on repeat.

The piece débuted in 1987 on the same billboard, which at the time was just a light-bulb-studded screen. (Thirty years later, it’s a sleek digital canvas, with high-definition L.E.D. technology.) Times Square was a darker place then, “basically just a red-light district,” Jaar said; now the streets are illuminated by shimmery billboards. “A Logo for America” opens with an image of the continental United States, and across it flash the words: “This Is Not America.” The font and the graphics are pixellated, and they look primitive in the Times Square of today, but more arresting for it. An image of an American flag follows, with a second disavowal: “This Is Not America’s Flag.” The word “America” blinks on the screen, in a bigger and bigger font, either a taunt or an exhortation, until the “r” transforms into a map of the whole of the Americas—North, Central, and South. It spins like a pinwheel, and for a moment the landmass resembles a pair of eyeglasses, as if to confirm that a misunderstanding is being couched and clarified. It’s all over in less than a minute.

“A Logo for America” is upbraiding us: when we say “America” and mean the U.S., we’re claiming a geography that isn’t our own. “It would be like the French calling themselves ‘Europe,’ ” Jaar said. Coming, as it did, at the end of a period of bloody U.S. interventions in the Americas, the message of the work was barbed, and many New Yorkers in 1987 were not pleased with Jaar’s remonstrance. Most commonly, “A Logo for America” was seen as an anti-American affront, which missed, but also proved, the point.

 

Keep reading: http://www.newyorker.com/business/currency/logo-america

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