I read about the installation in ADN a few weeks ago and went over tonight to have a closer look.
I have mixed feelings about the politics underlying its creation — the owner of Grubstake Auction, the storage yard fence of which serves to display the work was a vocal objector to the nearby Karluk Manor, a first of its kind for Anchorage ‘housing first’ facility for homeless alcoholics that opened this year. Parts of the installation reference Karluk Manor [protest signs reading, ‘No Red Nose Inn in Fairview’ — Karluk Manor was formerly a Red Roof Inn motel; and a stop sign modified to read, ‘Please STOP ENABLING’].
I happen to believe that Karluk Manor and its operator RuralCAP have a good program and deserve a chance to succeed. But its detractors have legitimate objections, as I previously noted.
While I was photographing the installation, a guy in a Grubstake Auction truck [I assume it was Ron Alleva?] paused to ask, “How do you like it?”. “Love it!!” “Yeah? Well, we created that!” He seemed keenly proud.
And I do love it. Most of my artist friends will probably not agree, but for me this project functions on multiple levels, and really makes the viewer think long and hard about the subjects undertaken. All of the impact of successful visual art.
Most of the many local spring cleanup efforts are considered successful when they get rid of trash, not put it on display. Some of it’s buried, some recycled — but it’s taken away, out of sight and mind. Putting up the bottles on the fence is a metaphor of how alcoholism is dealt with, both by its sufferers and by society. So many municipal commissions in the past have focused on how to get rid of the homeless, by moving them someplace where no one can see them. [Astoundingly unsuccessfully, since the problem has reached an epidemic in recent years and today there are people with cardboard signs asking for money at every single midtown intersection.]
The piece is expertly placed for maximum exposure, both to the general public and to the homeless alcoholics it directly addresses. The 6 ft tall chain link fence runs right along a sidewalk next to a road that’s used to bypass part of E. 5th Ave. on the way out of town to Eagle River and points north. In the surrounding blocks are shelters, soup kitchens, gas stations, strip bars, sleazy motels… and garages, a paint store and storage lots with electrical transformers, lumber, trailer parts, cars and trucks. It is a strange, forlorn part of Anchorage, except there is also a wonderful creek with a salmon run, and an excellent urban nature trail. And a mill, feed and garden store, and a taco wagon or two.
‘<—JAIL?’, asks a fence section, spelled out in bottles and pointing toward the Anchorage Jail, a few hundred feet away on the adjoining property. Other parts depict a skull, a cartoon heart, a liquor bottle marked with XXX, and a slogan, ‘NO TO BOOZE’. The message is quick and recognizable, and cutting instead of cute.
One is struck by how many bottles — 1,500 or more according to the ADN story, which also says they picked them up in just a few days without having to range very far in their search. The bottles hang from the fencing, shine in the sunset light showing ironic brand names [Rich and Rare, Monarch, Southern Comfort].
Harry Mezak deserves recognition for this effort. I hope to see more from him in the future. He is following in a great tradition of activist visual art, whether he knows it or not.