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February 17, 2005

Action/Reaction Paints Grim Picture


by Michael Austin

In September 2003, artist and social activist Adrian Lee unveiled his protest against everything wrong with society as he sees it. His statement was made in the form of 50 sizable painted panels combined to form a mural that covered the walls of an entire gallery. Now, for those of us who missed the limited gallery exhibitions, a new package documenting the project has been released for purchase.

Lee's impressively detailed montage of overlapping words and images of varying size and vivid color comes across as a visual "stream of consciousness," intended to "expose subverted truths and forgotten pasts of governments and people," according to the press release. Rather than "forgotten," it might be more to the point to say "covered up" or even "ignored." But in any case, that is only one of the facets of Lee's stupendous work. In Lee's gritty and cynical mirror, one sees a blind belief in mass media, the fear and paranoia that it causes and feeds upon – which in turn encourages submission – the relations between corporate and government interests and actions, the violent, rampant trampling of those in lower socio-economic positions, no matter what their country, and more. Some of the most memorable, creative, and uncomfortable images that force themselves into the viewer's consciousness include a man's brain pierced by the arrows of war and eventually transformed into an electrical socket; a powerful, bloody figure wielding a sword reading "Executive" who is surrounded by chess pawns; and a reworking of the famous Rosenthal picture of Marines raising the flag at Iwo Jima, which substitutes an oil-drilling apparatus for a flag.

While, as with most art, there is room for the viewers to interpret for themselves specifically what Lee's images mean, the artist's cynical vision of the corrupted nature of our society has a visceral clarity that is, at times, difficult not to wince at. In this world, nothing is really as we see it, and nothing is good or pure – under all lurks hidden motives and the sacrifice of someone's blood.

Perhaps the most challenging aspect of the piece is that after building to a crescendo of images of the bloody violence of war, it ends suddenly with a gigantic pop-art lettered word: "Reaction..." It is, quite literally, a demand for a reaction from the viewer, saying, "Now that you've seen this, what are you going to do about it?" Lee seems to be saying that we are all mired in this; we all play a part, whether we'd like to admit it or not. He asks us to confront the passionate anger, outrage, disgust, and sadness his work raises, but denies us the satisfaction of any simple solution, or even resolution, because in his vision they do not exist.

In addition to the main mural, the Action/Reaction Project also includes the creation and not-always-legal distribution of posters and stickers in several cities, along with more traditional graffiti art, with the same purpose of challenging people to confront the fetid underbelly of society they'd rather ignore. The newly released box set documenting the project in its entirety includes an accordion-fold book 20-feet long (picturing the entire sequence of mural panels in order on one side, and pictures and credits detailing the participants and process of creation on the other); a DVD (containing a short documentary, along with a time lapse video of the mural's creation and footage of the major gallery exhibitions of the mural in Osaka, Japan, and San Jose, Calif.); four small sticker versions of the posters Lee and his conspirators created and distributed; a patch featuring the skull and crossbones logo of the project; and some promotional materials, all enclosed in a two-color, hand-stenciled mailing case. All in all, it is an impressive and professional package, especially for a project that takes its form from underground/guerilla street artistry.

Unfortunately, it is not without flaws. The most frustrating, if unavoidable, problem with the package is that the mural panels had to be shrunk so drastically to fit on the small pages of the book that much of Lee's copious detail, particularly the many small print paragraphs detailing (presumably) bloody government interventions and atrocities, is rendered meaningless. The overall effect is still quite powerful, but one cannot help but think how much more powerful it would be were everything visible. Also surprising and disappointing is the fact that the package contains almost nothing in the way of explanation of the artist's inspirations, objectives, process, or thoughts about his work. One can only assume that Lee decided his work spoke so clearly for itself that no one would want to know more about its background and the artist who created it, but this seems quite an oversight. Even the DVD, which I had assumed was included for this purpose, has very little to say. Its major feature, the documentary, contains much footage of the artist and his conspirators creating their art, just hanging out or traveling the city, or, for lack of a clearer visible purpose, trying to look bohemian and artistic. They are abetted in this by lots of double-exposure of images, and a soundtrack featuring a mélange of various types of music and unidentifiable narrative poetry. (For all the indictment of the present state of society and culture in his work, the documentary, the packaging of the project with all its icons, and even the medium itself seem strikingly concerned with appearing cool and appealing to pop-culture sensibilities – but perhaps there is a point being made there again about the fact that we are all part of society and culture, its problems and solutions.) Thankfully, the Action/Reaction Web site does offer some of the insight into purpose and process one is left hungry for, if one is willing to look for it.

These criticisms notwithstanding, this project is a great achievement in scope and artistry. Unlike some of those he cites as sources (Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, etc.), Lee's art is immediately accessible to the average citizen and impossible to ignore; it attacks the senses on the most basic human level, but transcends that level through its cleverness with imagery and montage. Love it or hate it, the Action/Reaction project will provoke you to think and feel. Lee's style is not quiet and polite, nor is it easy to deal with. But if you are willing to open up your mind and take the journey around Lee's by checking out Action/Reaction, you will find it a powerful trip.

For more information on The Action/Reaction Project, click here.

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Michael Austin is the Outreach Coordinator for Antiwar.com.

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