Something tells me the National Security Administration is monitoring Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle’s phone calls, and not just because the NSA monitors everyone’s phone calls. Since the early days of the War on Terror, the artist has built up an impressive arsenal of devastation. Starting in 2003 with Cloud Prototype 1 – a shiny amorphous blob reminiscent of a mushroom cloud, or a deformed variation of Warhol’s Silver Clouds – Manglano-Ovalle’s practice has centered on aestheticizing historical military objects of the game-changing variety. In 2007, he built a mobile biological weapons laboratory similar to the truck-based labs featured in Colin Powell’s infamous 2003 presentation before the U.N. arguing for disarmament of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. In fact, Manglano-Ovalle’s Phantom Truck was nearly identical to Powell’s doomsday laboratory, appearing like a life-sized 3-D version of the speculative computer-rendered models the former Secretary of State was certain existed in real life. 2008’s Dirty Bomb returned to the theme of atomic war. At his show Happiness is a state of inertia at moniquemeloche gallery, Manglano-Ovalle’s object of fascination is the UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle, or more commonly, a drone), a deadly symbol of 21st century mechanized warfare.
Dominating moniquemeloche’s relatively compact exhibition space, Drone Wing (2013), a life-size three-hundred twenty and a half inch replica of a UAV wing spans the length of the gallery diagonally. Suspended from the ceiling, the wing is an imposing object, standing in for a full-sized drone like a phantom limb in reverse: you can feel the scale and presence of the airplane, even though it’s absent. A sleek synthetic fabric called solartex acts as a skin over the wing’s plywood armature. The construction is flawless, but still obvious in its artificiality, giving the piece an overall D.I.Y. affect.
On a single wall, three photographs assert this theme of artifice even further. At first, the images appear to be pictures taken from the ground of a drone silhouetted against a clear blue sky. Upon closer look, strange lines trailing the black planes appear to be wire and poles, suggesting that the drones in the photographs are actually models suspended by line like fish dangling from a hook. Once that reality is called into question, the threatening objects begin to look silly, undercutting their destructive capacity. With little more than part of a treetop to suggest the ground below, Manglano-Ovalle keeps our eyes fixed to the sky and away from the figure holding the wire.
Manglano-Ovalle works within the formal confines of a loaded symbol. His work doesn’t need to visualize the atrocities of drone warfare to conjure thoughts of “collateral damage,” the Orwellian euphemism for unintended civilian deaths that are frequently the byproduct of aerial strikes. Nor does he point his attention to the military powers that send flying robots to kill human enemies. The drones do as much themselves. To paraphrase Miles Davis, the beauty of Manglano-Ovalle’s work is in the notes he isn’t playing. In focusing on the drones as merely aesthetic objects, the artist is replicating the aggressor’s blind-eye toward civilian destruction, convenient for the State and the people of the State alike. He’s also shielding the armed and powerful from culpability for their crimes. As the show’s title suggests, there’s “happiness,” or at least comfort in resisting changes to your position, or your nation.
The artifice of Manglano-Ovalle’s objects and images, and his oblique treatment of the most controversial aspects of his subject matter call to attention a fact that is easily forgotten: the function of art is both apolitical and amoral. Manglano-Ovalle can show us drones – he could even show us images of civilian deaths, if he were so inclined – but we would still just be looking. The artist’s work reminds viewers that the purpose of art, fundamentally, for better or worse, is to represent. In skilled hands, it can represent something as abstract as a state of inertia.
Happiness is a state of inertia is on view at moniquemeloche gallery in Chicago though November 9, 2013.