Orange Cone Project

In October 2011, Beijing Charlie and I (appearing in the video below as critical theorist and post-modern deconstructionist, Andrew White) arrived in the village of Johnson, the site of the Vermont Studio Center, for a month at this artist and writer residency. Johnson was a mess. All the streets and sidewalks were being replaced. There were mud puddles and orange cones everywhere guiding pedestrians and cars through this quagmire. The first day crossing the Lamoille River bridge to his writing office, Charlie spied one of the lost orange cones in the river. Initially further irritated by the impact of the construction project, he paused and considered. This is a community of creative visual and literary artists. If we conceptualize this god-awful cone as an art installation—and tell people that is what it is—does it become transformed into ART? I am the author of the voice over Watch the video, visit the site and decide for yourself

Chaos and Order in Johnson Vermont

The link in the above image takes you to The Orange Cone Project, outside this site

Below is the text of the voice over


I am here this evening as critical theorist and post-modern deconstructionist Andrew White. I have been privileged to experience, as you all have, Beijing Charlie’s massive installation and performance piece, the Orange Cone Project here on Main Street Johnson.  I am confident that when I am finished you will have a thorough understanding of this great work of art. I would like to share with you my essay…

Chaos and Order in Johnson Vermont

by Andrew White

October 9, 2011

Simultaneously a kind of radical gesturality and a reification of materiality, Beijing Charlie’s The Orange Cone Project is a logical successor to his 2008 piece, “Y-Knot”, where he created the world’s largest single letter art installation. Like its antecedent, this piece engages multiple subjectivities challenging viewers to slow down, even stop, to reconsider the social and physical significance of the space they inhabit.

To date too many critics have emphasized genealogies of aesthetic discourse, seeing the piece as largely derivative of the site-specific earthworks of the 70’s and the social interventions of the 90’s, failing to acknowledge both the playful appropriation of these traditions and the serious intent of interrogating the role of labor and questioning the meaning of contemporary representations of the North American landscape. The artist does acknowledge his influences, creating miniature earthworks in the vein of Smithson’s spiral jetty and using flags in ways that echo some of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s recent work. But more significantly, there are implications of autochthonous earthen structures such as the Great Serpent Mound built by the Adena peoples of Ohio as well as of Pop Zhao’s dragon installation, which in turn reflect Beijing Charlie’s Sino-indigenous roots.

For the artist, naming constitutes an act of violence which valorizes constructed spaces of colonial hegemony across boundaries appropriated by didactic official discourse implicated by mechanisms of cultural production which alter the native imaginary. The deliberately bland public name of the project, Johnson Village Beautification, obscures the problematics of the beautiful, slyly suggesting a universal definition and implicating the colonization of the self. What “beautification” means in the increasingly multivalent global context stands in sharp contradistinction to the question of what it may mean in the apparently monocultural environs of rural New England. In turn, this underlines the exclusion of the Other and calls attention to the indigenous history of the land, invoking the genocide of the native population with a surprisingly light hand.

The use of the word “village” in this title is equally crucial as Beijing Charlie interrogates what this concept means in the transnational context of the 21st century. While the intent of the project might seem to be the revivification of local businesses, with the year-long disruption of traffic one has to ask what the impact has already been on these very establishments. The artist is telling us that any attempt to save the village through the means of consumer capitalist intervention will, ironically and sadly, destroy it. Critically, this particular village was chosen for its name as well as for the socio-cultural geography it inhabits. Johnson, a familiar Anglo-Saxon surname, invokes the everyman while its slang reference to the male member reminds us that this is a phallocentric society and that the drive to tame the landscape is a traditionally masculine one.

With his primary title, “The Orange Cone Project,” the artist subverts the more public one. Selecting the humble cone to represent this relatively massive construction piece is an act of legerdemain, emphasizing detail over gestalt. The cone stands as an attempt to impose order on this otherwise chaotic scene, directing human traffic through the installation, constraining the viewing, decentering the spectator, and purposely distracting the eye with its bright primary color. But the order is illusory, as indicated by the morasses of mud and the deceptive depths of the puddles not to mention the traffic snarls and frayed tempers.

Despite his terse artist’s statement, “Questions Kill Answers,” emblematic of his resistance to, even rejection of, interpretation, Beijing Charlie has created a nuanced work which deliberately transgresses the boundaries of traditional North American landscape rendering, even as it employs its conventions while concurrently critiquing the very logic of capitalism. We are forcefully reminded that it is crucial to radical democracy that we reclaim criticality through the autoethnography of white subjectivity and a reconceptualization of the postcolonial imagination.

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