Anne Surprenant, Drone 1, graphite, pigment stick and encaustic on panel, 2011
An artist is a spy. She looks around her, noting “top secret” details. Then she conveys this forbidden knowledge to her spy network (i.e. the walls of her gallery). Anne Surprenant is one such spy, revealing the secrets of unmanned aerial vehicles in “Out Of the Blue,” a show at the gallery at R&F Handmade Paints in Kingston.
Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)—commonly called “drones”—are either piloted by remote control or operate autonomously. The United States military uses them frequently in remote regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Surprenant’s first picture, Drone 1, is a theatrical “dragonfly drone,” with a doughnut hole above which hovers a circle of reedlike protrusions, like the undulating tentacles of a sea anemone. ( I’ve never seen a drone, I realized.) Surprenant renders these mechanisms with painstaking pencil drawings, covered with a thin layer of shiny beeswax.
This may be the first art show ever devoted to drones (though an Australian rock band called The Drones was founded in 1998). One aspect of Surprenant’s art is a romance with flight, the surprising fact that machines can zoom through the air without flapping their wings. (Surprenant is French for “surprising.”) One notices the absolute immobility of her aircraft, as they hover above the Safed Koh Mountains, between Pakistan and Afghanistan. The wax layer adds to the illusion of floating.
“Out Of the Blue” was conceived when Surprenant heard an author reading from his book on the radio in July. He narrated the story of an Afghan man strolling away from his compound to see the sunset, during a large family gathering. The Afghan patriarch heard a drone approaching, rushed back, but it was too late. His entire extended family was destroyed. Out of the blue.
On the Internet, Surprenant found a video titled “What It Looks Like When a Drone Vaporizes Humans.” A black-and-white camera captures tiny figures running, being targeted, and exploding. The artist chose three images from the video to mount behind nylon polymer screens, giving viewers the experience of being drone navigators.
America was built on slavery, and today we have fashioned a new race of slaves for military use—mechanical slaves who will never complain, call in sick, or demand their freedom. They fly through the sky, blowing up women washing their hair. It’s embarrassing to see “our tax dollars at work”—a shameful American family secret.
Drones are not fearsome; rather, they are awkward, insectlike. They seem to be facing backward, because their propellers are in the rear. A hump at the front houses the “brain.” Beneath, they have spindly legs. “Usually, what makes a plane elegant is the lack of landing gear,” Surprenant points out. “In every picture I’ve seen, drones have landing gear.”
Her titles are extremely flat and inexpressive: Drone 3, Untitled 1, TV 3. Surprenant is deliberately draining the anger and outrage from her images, as she drains the color, relying on gray graphite, surrounded by bands of black. “One of the feelings that I wanted you to have color-wise, from this show, was a sense of falling asleep in front of a TV,” Surprenant explains. Is this “political art”? It doesn’t depict raised fists or weeping mothers. It avoids the satisfaction of melodrama. But it raises difficult questions I would call political—or perhaps moral. What is our culpability, as Americans, for these foolish-looking angels of death?
“Out Of the Blue,” an art show by Anne Surprenant, will be exhibited at the gallery at R&F Handmade Paints in Kingston through January 21. (800) 206-8088; www.rfpaints.com.