Tony Tasset's "Eye"
Terror is an overwhelming feeling of panic and uncertainty; terrorism, the deliberate manipulation of that fear by force. In this post 9/11 moment there is an ongoing and ever-shifting transformation of our public sphere into a theatre of terror: from the U.S. direction of that terror in the photos of detainee abuse in Abu-Ghraib to the posting of al-Qaeda videos on YouTube to mounting of police surveillance cameras on the street corners of major cities, including Chicago and London. But there is another kind of terror at hand in this particular cultural moment: terror linked to the shifting sands of identity; new rules for intimacy, family, and community; and for gender, race, and sexual relations. In this form of terror, a working-class black mother might be brought to trial for fraud for lying about where she lives so that her child can go to another, better school district; a black professor might be frisked and then arrested for breaking into his own house in a prominent campus town; a young white gay man might be surveyed, filmed, and outed by his South Asian roommate through a posting on Facebook. In these cases, our sense of private suffering might suddenly become startlingly public, and the places that we were taught to trust in and turn to in the case of emergency—the police, the courts, our schools—are either at a loss to help, or are, in fact, part of the problem. [End Page 343]
What better subject for public art, then, than the acknowledgement of the dominance of this feeling of vulnerability and uncertainty in the public sphere? Hence the success of Tony Tasset's "Eye," made of 330 feet of fiberglass and temporarily mounted on the busy corner of Van Buren and State Street, in downtown Chicago.1 Tasset's "Eye" might start out by initiating the laughter of shock and incongruity, but at its center is the laughter of recognition. The "Eye" has received a mixture of responses: one Time out Chicago writer said that the sculpture induced a fear of wearing his contact lenses (Weinberg 2010). Others saw it as a kind of figure of mystery, and still others found explanations in the local and topical. One bystander, for instance, compared it to the big brother blue lights of Chicago police surveillance cameras, another to the need for the city's citizens to keep a watchful eye on the shenanigans of former governor Rod Blagojevich. Artist Tony Tasset himself suggests that the sculpture dramatizes the largest images of power being brought down to size: from a symbol of Godhead, and Universal Knowledge, to a piece of tourist art, a photo op, an eventual parody of power (Born 2010).
I read the "Eye" in a slightly different way. I think it might be read ambiguously both as a humorous send-up of historically masculine modes of power and as an image of human vulnerability: an exposed, lidless, and lashless eye in a venue of smog and dirt and dust, with its comically drawn lines of bloodshot radiating from its orange and blue starburst iris. Without the shiny, quirky glamour of "The Bean" (also known as "Cloud Gate," by Anish Kapoor), or the giant, lurking ferocity of Picasso's untitled sculpture in the Daley Center, the "Eye" is shockingly incongruous among the Chicago skyscrapers, less Lois Sullivan and more R. Crumb. Tasset's eyeball illustrates the comic transformation from high to low, from position of all seeing power to exposed and bloodshot abjection. In its displaced singularity, without its mate or a bed of flesh on which to rest, unmoored from its optic nerve, and sprayed with a sheen of lacquer to convey perpetual moistness, the "Eye" is human, always still available for further shocking, further harm, a keystone cop of public art.
What a suggestive transition Tasset's "Eye" makes to the ethical ambiguities of the scene of Gloucester's blinding, in act 3, scene 7 of William Shakespeare's King Lear, which threatens, in the wrong hands, to veer from pathos to...