James Van Arsdale - Artist - Santa Barbara, California

Essay for (Safe Inside My) Green Zone

By Kim Beil

As published in the brochure for the exhibition "(Safe Inside My) Green Zone" at CAF

“When the swords ran every which way like red-stained snakes, our fathers warmed to life; the sun of all peace seemed limp and lackluster to them, but the long peace caused them shame. How they sighed, our fathers, when they saw the gleaming bright, dried up swords on the wall! Like them, they thirsted for war. For a sword wants to drink blood and sparkles with desire.”
-Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

            When opponents of video games praise the creativity fostered by unstructured play, they rarely draw on children’s war games as examples. Instead, arguments typically range from righteous indignation over the psychological detriments of first-person shooter games to nostalgic pining for play centered in the out of doors. But what of the old Roy Rogers and Butch Cassidy-fueled “cowboys and Indians”? Or cops and robbers? Arguably to involve oneself physically, not virtually, even in imaginary battle implicates not only the subject’s psychology, but also the very physiology of the body as the fight or flight response is engaged.

            James Van Arsdale’s installation, (Safe Inside My) Green Zone draws on the iconography of Cold War era board games to examine not the legitimacy of play in its many forms—from the virtual to various instantiations of the real—but the object of its representation: the relations of human society. Staged on bare, wooden platforms with intricate under-girding that reveals the complex engineering of a bridge are multitudes of colorful, cast-plastic figurines. Glossy cherry-red bunkers and sour apple-green trees have the alluring sheen and translucency of hard candy. Pop art inspired explosions are mounted onto wooden props, matte green gas cloud swirls decorate the walls, and movement of troops and tanks is indicated by green plastic arrows that form arching paths between the bunkers and trees.

            The all-seeing vantage point created by the low platforms evokes in the adult viewer a sense of detachment and an illusion of control. Scholar of philosophy and rhetoric, Judith Butler argues that a similar distance is employed by the mainstream news media to represent the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In a 2003 interview she elaborated,
“You’re never going to see the bomb drop from beneath, only from above. And you’re never going to see any portraits of human beings as they run, or as they cower, when the bombs are dropped. And you’ll never see the decimated bodies. You’ll never see the close-up. The mainstream media won’t show this. It’s the panoramic aesthetic that allows for this nefarious sublimity, where you get ‘shock and awe’ which is only possible from a distance.”

The panoramic aesthetic of Van Arsdale’s work depends on an adult audience who is distanced not only by time from the childhood act of play but also by physical proximity to the artwork. Nostalgia can bridge this gap; the familiarity of the symbols in Van Arsdale’s installation invite the adult viewer to immerse himself in memory of childhood game play, to picture himself first at eye level with the platforms, then in the active practice of play. The absence of human figures in (Safe Inside My) Green Zone marks an empty space for the viewer to inhabit. As Butler describes, this strategy, when mainstream media outlets employ it, imposes distance between the observer and the object of his attention. However, the mode of interaction with Van Arsdale’s installation is left largely left up to the viewer. While it certainly takes a powerful act of imagination to project oneself into the arena of action, whether on the game board or the television screen, it takes little more than a bending of the knees for a viewer to change his physical perspective on Van Arsdale’s installation. This movement from the distance of a cinematic crane shot to the closeness of eye level returns to the viewer an experience of immediacy characteristic of the physical realm of childhood.

            Such duality in the experience of the adult viewer is also exploited by the paradoxical nature of Van Arsdale’s Exploding Sandbags and Grenade Popsicles. The green zone, maintained by heavy firepower and unrecognized by international rules of engagement, is meant to be a site of safety. However, as is seen with increasing frequency, this demarcation provides little more than the illusion of safety for those located inside its imaginary borders. Here sandbags designed to protect against explosions are themselves agents of destruction. Popsicles, those brightly colored markers of sweetness and childhood, are deadly.  

            The adult viewer is guided in his experience of (Safe Inside My) Green Zone through identification with both the memories of childhood and a sense of responsibility that comes with adulthood and parenthood. Highlighting this experience of the adult caretaker, the installation also speaks to the desire to protect the child for whom the war game was created, akin to the experience of watching with shock and horror as grade-schoolers suck on candy cigarettes. As the arrangement of (Safe Inside My) Green Zone suggests an absent subject—a child who just stopped playing with the toys—viewers are driven to picture the toys with their stenciled insignias of fiery explosions in the hands of that imagined child.

            Through his careful selection of materials and attention to the details of marketing and commodification, Van Arsdale creates a uniquely rich environment that calls attention to the multiple subjectivities of his viewers. Van Arsdale’s installation, like the psychoanalytic practice of play therapy invented by Freud’s student Melanie Klein, allows viewers to interact with his game on several levels. His canny use of child-sized props on low tables instills in his viewers a mise-en-abyme of identification. From the initial viewing moment that is characterized by distance, to a gradual recognition of a latent childhood subjectivity hidden in the self, and finally a reestablishment of the distance implied by the move to protect the imagined child, (Safe Inside My) Green Zone illuminates the tensions inherent to identification with an imagined other. As opposed to Butler’s description of the “panoramic aesthetic,” demonstrated by media accounts of recent conflicts, Van Arsdale’s installation invites the viewer to imagine himself on the ground in the midst of the action. As Nietzsche writes, “If one wants a friend, then must one also want to wage war for him: and in order to wage war, one must be able to be an enemy.” Likewise Van Arsdale reminds his viewers that the human subject can never be one and not the other. The subject is always friend and foe, adult and child, attacker and attacked.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Ed. Adrian Del Caro and Robert Pippin. Trans. Adrian Del Caro. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2006. p. 200.

Butler, Judith and Jill Stauffer. “Interview with Judith Butler.” The Believer Magazine. (May 2003).

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Ed. Adrian Del Caro and Robert Pippin. Trans. Adrian Del Caro. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. p. 40.


View the PDF exhibition brochure here

When: July 14 - Aug. 26, 2007
Where: Santa Barbara Contemporary Arts Forum, 653 Paseo Nuevo. Gallery hours: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. Information: 966-5373, www.sbcaf.org

Cover of brochure Green Zone James Van Arsdale
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