From the seemingly unending number of apocalyptic novels and subsequent movie adaptations, to the newfound relevance of modern classics, dystopias have made a cultural resurgence, reflecting the world’s growing unease with the surveillance state and government secrets, intensified by seemingly capricious urban bombings and terrorist acts.
On display at ArtHelix, hanging by chains from a 14-foot ceiling are David Packer’s blood red V8 engines that impose a demanding presence. A slaughterhouse trope perhaps or automobile shop initiatives, these finely crafted ceramic representations of the powerful Detroit engine allude to more than a degraded city or lost suburban consumers aspirations. The fast and beefy V8 machine is indeed a symbol of accelerated power but today it is directly associated with Detroit and the capitalist demise of a once powerful American city. The V8 engine ideal is now as hollow and useless as Packer’s ceramic renditions.
But the useless blood red V8s in this exhibition, as remains of a larger machine, read less like a metaphor for a derelict American city than for the “infernale machine” or “Buda Wagon.” In 1920, after the arrest of his comrades Sacco and Vanzetti, Mario Buda parked his horse-drawn wagon in the financial district of Manhattan, directly across from J. P. Morgan Company. Mario Buda disappeared before the explosion. Buda’s Wagon was, in essence, the prototype car bomb.
The V8 engines seen in relationship to David Packer’s other hardwearing objects, colorful ceramic bidons (water canisters), found dwarfed trucks transformed by rust, a decorative ceramic helicopter, and schematic drawings of airports, reinforce the darker reading of the V8s.
Plastic is the new ceramic in most third world countries and this fact was not lost on Packer while he was on a Fulbright in Morocco in 2013. The ubiquitous ceramic bidons were once a beautiful artisanal tradition in North Africa. The blue and white glazed ceramic water canisters are nowadays only produced in plastic but Packer flips the cultural switch back and casts the plastic bidons into brightly colored ceramic water vessels (or gas canisters) positing a suggestion of another fallen praxis.
Also on view are metal toy trucks or a miniature army of trucks but somehow they do not seem all that playful. In fact, there is an aggressive gesture in the way in which they are installed; lined up, side by side, constructing a wall of impasse. But on closer look, the little trucks are rusted and immobile, suggesting they were used, degraded, and now useless. Abandoned in a desert storm perhaps.
In the next room of the gallery is a ceramic helicopter that presents a visual twist on the airborne war machine. The surface of the helicopter is covered in cheerful colored decals of daisies. Is there nothing sinister here? Only a whirlybird that brings to mind Ride of the Valkyries from Apocalypse Now. The maps surrounding the hanging helicopter underpin this impression. Beautifully conceived and meticulously drawn, Packer has illustrated the schematic outlines of various airports, as seen by a drone or satellite. The runways and outlines of the airports in such places as Karachi, Addis Ababa, and even far-flung Las Vegas, deepen a sense of surveillance and foreboding.
There’s a long-standing tradition of ignoring the warnings of future-conscious artists and creative thinkers, but we do so at our own peril: deliberating dystopias can still teach us about ourselves and about how to alter our future. David Packer’s exhibition ingeniously helps us consider our situations.