The specter of nuclear destruction has haunted artists since the dawn of the atomic age. For the generation of artists who came of age during the Cold War, the atomic mushroom cloud was a symbol that encapsulated the angst of an era. Whereas artists have responded to this frightening sense of impending nuclear doom in a variety of ways, Brian Dailey brings a singular perspective to this discourse, from the viewpoint of an artist who was once deeply embedded in the world he addresses and redresses in his creative practice. Indeed, his unusual background as both an artist and an arms control specialist affords him a rare insider’s view into the world of nuclear politics and policy-making through his inventive engagement with nuclear iconography.
Based in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area, Dailey is a quintessential polymath. His versatility across a range of artistic mediums—including photography, film, installation, and painting—draws upon his multifaceted life experience, as well as his unconventional evolution as an artist, in order to address urgent social, political, and cultural issues. Our conversation with the artist explores various facets of his creative vision, focusing on his recent Lamentations series—a meditation in two and three dimensions on nuclear theology, nuclear deterrence, and the implications of the continuing arms race in our atomic age. [End Page 49]
In his works in the Lamentations series—whether on canvas, paper, glass, or Plexiglass or constructed in granite, steel, plastic, or wood—Dailey takes on the role of witness and provocateur to challenge viewers to think the unthinkable: namely, the imminence and planetary scale of a nuclear holocaust. His artwork is based not on vague abstractions, but on hard and verifiable facts, figures, and government strategic plans. Encapsulated in titles such as The Delicate Balance of Terror, From Crossbow to H-Bomb, and Dichotomy of Barbarity, the artist enfolds his message in complex imagery—secular and biblical—inspired by the concept and taxonomies of lamentation. Indeed, the theology of destruction and exile that undergirds and informs the biblical Book of Lamentations finds its secular reflection in Dailey’s works from this series.
Dailey’s specialist background in arms control policy makes him one of the very few contemporary artists equipped to address the uneasy world balance of nuclear arms with such subtlety and insight. As a student at Otis Art Institute (MFA, 1975) and in his ensuing career in Los Angeles, Dailey participated in the pioneering art scene that gave rise to West Coast conceptual, performance, and activist art during the seventies. As a gallery assistant at Ace Gallery, he had the opportunity to work with such artists as Robert Rauschenberg, Donald Judd, Michael Heizer, Andy Warhol, and Sam Francis. Dailey’s own experimental artwork during this time included painting, sculpture, and performance art, reflecting the pluralistic forms of creative expression and political and social engagement that marked this period.
Seeking a fuller understanding of global challenges and potential solutions to global instability during the Cold War, Dailey took a sabbatical from his art-making in the 1980s to study international relations at the University of Southern California (PhD, 1987). He set off on a twenty-five year interlude to work on arms control and international security in government and in the private sector before returning to his roots as an artist. These experiences provide a fertile source of inspiration for his idiosyncratic creative practice. As the artist states,
There is art in politics and politics in art. Throughout life two passions stimulated my curiosity: art and international politics. The tension between two interests generated intense inquiry into these seemingly diametrically opposed professional fields. In the context of my career, the wanderings through a labyrinth of artistic and intellectual [End Page 50] encounters provided a lifetime of eclectic experiences, which, in turn, supplied a bounty of material for making art.
With two-and-a-half decades of in-depth engagement with the issues my current work addresses, I am able to explore them with direct experience and knowledge. In that context, I am exploring the legacy of my odyssey in government and business as a way to relate those experiences to contemporary social and political issues and as a means through which to create contemplative works of art.1
Dailey’s perspective as an artist and a national security expert is manifest in his current Lamentations series. Fluent in the nuclear semiotics that have long served to abstract and to distance strategy and deployment plans from the irreparable mass destruction that follows, he skillfully folds these signs and symbols into the series in ways that reconnect cause and effect. He creates a dynamic tension between the beauty of his forms, which solicits our aesthetic attention, and the potentially devastating impact of their meaning. As our world grows more and more unstable and the possibility of a nuclear calamity becomes ever more conceivable, Dailey’s Lamentations series encourages us to look at the issues laid bare in his provocative works and to think about them in profound ways.
The following interview with Brian Dailey was conducted at his Washington, D.C., studio on June 13, 2016, where the artist generously shared his work, thoughts, and life experiences that inspired the Lamentations series.
We want to begin our conversation with a quote from Jackson Pollock from a 1958 interview: “It seems to me that the modern painter cannot express this age, the airplane, the atom bomb, the radio, in the old forms of the Renaissance or of any other past culture. Each age finds its own technique.”2 Do you think your Lamentations series reflects a similar ethos? Can you tell us a bit about how you see the series and what motivated you to create these works in the manner in which you did?
Pollock’s own practice is the best illustration of his thoughtful reflection. Experimenting with household paints and alternative applicators, creating “drip paintings” on unstretched canvases on the floor rather than the easel, and turning to abstract “action painting,” he challenged Western traditions and conventions with techniques tailored to his time. Unlike many artists who have felt pressured by the exigencies of the art market to stick with a recognizable “brand,” as it were, Pollock wasn’t afraid to challenge [End Page 51] his collectors by breaking off in new directions and trying new techniques, as he did in 1951 with his “black paintings.” And who knows what direction his work would have taken had he not died so young.
With the introduction today of the Internet, the 24/7 global news cycle, and other rapid technological advancements, we have seen shifts in the velocity of change and the structure of contemporary culture of a magnitude even greater than in Pollock’s day, making his statement arguably even more relevant now. I don’t believe that an artist can effectively and substantively reflect upon our ever-changing society by spending years producing endless variations on one theme. To the contrary, I find myself compelled to work not with a signature approach, but with varied forms that best help me address the issues and challenges we face as a global society. With respect to the Lamentations series, I found it impossible to communicate the intent and meaning of the works without using a broad range of media. This approach contrasts with my previous series, which despite their different genres maintained a style and consistent use of media within each project. It is, however, the inherent nature of the multi-dimensional topic of Lamentations—nuclear iconography and related contemporary discourses—that demands such an eclectic use of media.
The “Station Six” tableau (Fig. 1) from your previous 14 Stations of the Crossroads photographic project serves as the springboard for the Lamentations series, creating a kind of symbiotic relationship between them and deepening the meaning of both cycles. How do you see these two series intersecting?
In the 14 Stations series, I wanted to tell a story about the evolution of a personal odyssey. I did that by establishing symbolic scenes of what I thought were the most critical professional and career decisions. So that series is a diachronic survey of these particular points—passions, if you will—that I touch upon. I always intended to follow up with a synchronic appraisal of the individual stations in response to world events and contemporary social issues.
Given the precarious dynamics of current geopolitical conditions, I selected “Station Six” for a synchronic “deep dive” as it represented my time as a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School. While I’ve seen a lot of shows in which artists used imagery of nuclear weapons and related geopolitical issues to send a message of protest, I didn’t feel that the work got to the core of this complex matter. It’s apparent that eliminating these weapons in today’s multipolar nuclear world is unrealistic any time soon. I felt that my knowledge of the field of nuclear arms control and related weapon systems meant that no other artist could speak to these issues in the same informed way.
I will continue to expand upon experiences chronicled in other stations as they become relevant or important to current events. So, in [End Page 52] short, I’ll do others; but will I end up developing all fourteen stations? It depends on events.
There’s a lot to unpack in “Station Six” in terms of the iconography of nuclear arms. The tableau unfolds in an almost covert way. You’re the man in the black suit behind the podium lecturing on U.S nuclear strategy. Everything you’re teaching is presented in terms of signs and symbols that tend to abstract the subject into something that is universal, standardized, and digestible. It’s a snapshot of how theorists talk about and confront the unthinkable. In the Lamentations series, our focus today, you extract elements from this theoretical model and place them in real-world scenarios with sometimes chilling results. Could you comment on your purpose in setting up this dynamic?
I’m interested in the idea of decoding the elements of nuclear deterrence theology because I want to make clear the disjuncture that occurs when going from theory to practice. While there are academics, scientists, policymakers, and politicians who postulate about mutual assured destruction (MAD) deterrence theology, when you work with the people who do the actual planning and execution of nuclear weaponry, that theoretical [End Page 53] discussion doesn’t exist. It’s a very important distinction.
The core belief of the MAD doctrine is that if global nuclear powers have sufficient ability to retaliate in a nuclear attack and destroy the other country, then this deadly potential is enough to deter nuclear war. As I learned, military planners with hands-on experience in nuclear targeting revealed that they were incredulous about the moral and practical application of the mutual assured destruction concept in the real world. Instead, the planners had a series of very complex options if deterrence fails, such as massive attack options, selective attack options, regional nuclear options, limited nuclear options. All of these options had subsets and a certain number of lay downs, damage assessments, and specific strategic priorities for going after urban industrial targets, or going after leadership, or going after military systems. Yet ironically, I’ve never seen or heard anyone planning for direct attacks on population centers, a core tenet of mutual assured destruction.
When one hears the title of the series, Lamentations, its biblical association is unavoidable. Why did you give the series this title, and does it hold such biblical connotations for you? This question is especially apropos for your first work Lamentations, Three Steps to Perdition (Fig. 2), which is a pastiche of a religious work by Rembrandt.
During my early years in art school, when I first saw Rembrandt’s painting Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem, I was taken by its powerful conveyance of Jeremiah’s sorrow, regret, and hopelessness. This forceful capturing of emotion has always remained with me. In the context of what I am doing with the Lamentations series, the painting embodied my sentiments about the very precarious economic and geopolitical situation we face today despite the end of the Cold War, [End Page 54] or indeed because of the end of the Cold War. The appropriation of Rembrandt’s composition reframes its sense of lamentation within a post-nuclear scenario, creating a contemporary resonance that intensifies the emotional potency of the work. The biblical connotation, therefore, is fortuitous. However, I did ultimately research and read about Jeremiah and the biblical dimensions of the title as part of the preparation for the work.
“Ideology, and, perhaps, theology, are important for understanding the role nuclear weapons played in maintaining stability between the superpowers.”
Would you characterize your Lamentations series and its engagement with nuclear iconography as a parsing out of the ideology of the Cold War nuclear arms race that marked you so profoundly, or is your vision more proscriptive in nature?
Actually, both. Ideology, and, perhaps, theology, are important for understanding the role nuclear weapons played in maintaining stability between the superpowers. That was the take-away from my experience as a member of the professional staff responsible for funding and oversight of these programs and their operations at the Senate Armed Services Committee. This experience certainly provided me with a profound understanding of the details, plans, and potential use of these weapons. It is with that knowledge that I can see how the current economic and geopolitical situation in the world today could easily spiral out of control and potentially culminate in a nuclear war. To that end, I am striving to confront the viewer with a visual means to think about this current state of affairs and hopefully to help to ensure it does not happen.
Your use of the word “theology” in relation to the nuclear arms race is unusual. Could you expand upon what a theology of nuclear weapons encompasses in terms of its relation to God?
I know it sounds odd, but I don’t use the word theology in its conventional religious context. Rather, I use it more as an intimation of how Western experts have adopted the deterrence doctrine of mutual assured destruction as a theology, if you will. As Nietzsche wrote in The Gay Science, one’s approach to philosophy should be like that of using a hammer. Notably, Nietzsche cited Jeremiah as inspiration for his point, quoting him: “My words are a hammer, and I use them to break rocks.” Building on Jeremiah’s hammer metaphor, Nietzsche essentially used it to proclaim that he was breaking down false, hollow assumptions about society and challenging their very foundations.
In the Western national security community, you can’t question MAD as a deterrence [End Page 55] strategy without being perceived as heretical. The questioning of our national theory of deterrence is based directly on my extensive travels to and wide-ranging experience with the Soviet Union and, later, Russia. My involvement in that geographic region has been enlightening and thought provoking, while at the same time resulting in alarming dialogues with their national security leaders. It is with that in mind that I’m trying to take the hammer and break this idol or theology that drives our geopolitical view of stability and war, which is potentially more dangerous than recognizing the perspective of others whose deeds contrast with our recalcitrant beliefs—hence the Lamentations series.
You foreground the nuclear options you mentioned previously—massive attack options, selective attack options, regional nuclear options, limited nuclear options—in one of the works in the Lamentations series called Game Theory (Fig. 3), a colorful, recycled carnival game wheel. The Wheel of Fortune is traditionally spun in a gambler’s game of chance. Your version features Russia versus the United States in a zero-sum game of trigger points and different kinds of retaliations. As viewers take their turn at the wheel, they first notice the Tarot Fortune card that serves as the clicker, while the “trefoil pattern” (the international radiation symbol) at the hub spins into a mesmerizing blur. Could you talk about this work and the relationship you’ve set up between the Americans and the Russians within this framework?
Game Theory is about computer modeling in nuclear strategy, planning, and crisis management. The choice of a U.S.-versus-Russia scenario does not reflect a belief per se that this faceoff is the only [End Page 56] challenge to global stability and war. Rather, it is more an indication of my professional experiences. The work is a sardonic look at the role that game theory plays in the broad array of security planning. This ranges from crisis role-playing to actual computer modeling of “what if” scenarios in a nuclear exchange. At the same time, the range of game theory models are only as good as the scenarios or assumptions upon which they are based.
“The range of game theory models are only as good as the scenarios or assumptions upon which they are based.”
Historically the superpowers extensively used such game theory for nuclear planning. In the 1950s and 1960s the U.S. employed computer exchange models that were favored by economists, academics, and scientists and often contracted by the military. These models continue to be used even today. I developed a level of skepticism, if not concern, about the use of game theory as a planning tool largely after seeing how the Soviets applied it.
While the U.S. relied on these models for military planning and exercises, the Soviets often relied on them for actual leadership decision-making. The end of the Cold War provided intelligence that gave us significant insight into Soviet nuclear operations. It also validated situations in which the Soviet Union, fueled by their reliance on game theory, was literally on the verge of nuclear war—as occurred in 1983. But more interesting, what also came out of documents and interviews after 1992 was the revelation that the Soviets developed a Dr. Strangelove-type weapon system called the “Dead Hand” that would activate in the event Soviet leadership was eliminated. This Soviet computer-based decision model would automatically launch their land-based nuclear forces without human decision or intervention in the event of changes in seismic, light, radioactivity, and overpressure sensors. Even stranger, in 2011 the General in charge of the Russian Strategic Rocket Forces asserted that “Dead Hand” is still operational today. Given the bizarre and startling possibility of such a computer-based decision model, I thought it appropriate to use the superpower scenario as the foundation for the work and the idea of spinning a wheel of fortune as the mechanism for predicting the outcome.
There seems to be a narrative arc to the works in this series, which is certainly reinforced by the manner in which you have just installed the pieces at your studio in Woodstock, VA. (See Fig. 4.) Do you see this structure or the dialogue between the individual works as fixed? Can each of the individual objects hold up on its own? [End Page 57]
The series is meant to take the viewer progressively through the historical sequence of war and lethal destruction and culminate with contemporary geopolitical issues. While each of the works stands on its own, there is an overall sequence inherent in the Lamentations series that reflects the complexity and multiple meanings behind each piece. The structure of the series can be outlined by four key works.
The opening work, Lamentations: The Three Steps to Perdition, addresses some of the causes or motivations for war—namely avarice, [End Page 58] revanchism, and vanity. From Crossbow to H-Bomb encapsulates the evolution of military weapons, reflecting their dramatic exponential growth in destructive power and the ability of humans to alter if not eradicate their own existence. With Enough Shovels (Fig. 6) offers a sardonic commentary on the facile manner in which policymakers all too often formulate our nuclear deterrence strategies. The last work in the series, To Look Is to Think, confronts the viewer with a temporal look at the precarious state of global security issues today. In between these works are others that complete, as you say, the narrative arc of the series.
Speaking of With Enough Shovels, an installation of seven shovels mounted on a wall representing the seven continents, the Duchampian gesture of that work is striking. Can you talk a little about that piece and the influence of Marcel Duchamp on you as an artist?
With Enough Shovels can indeed be considered an homage of sorts to Duchamp, and one can certainly infer a reference to his work In Advance of a Broken Arm. Both Duchamp’s and this work incorporate mass-produced shovels (readymades) and both rely on linguistic cues in their assigned titles to give meaning to the artworks. But that is about as far as one should take it. Rather than being inspired by a found object, the concept for the work was sparked by a 1982 statement by T.K. [End Page 59]
Jones, Deputy Undersecretary for Defense. When asked about the possibility of surviving a nuclear attack, he glibly responded, “If there are enough shovels to go around, everybody’s going to make it.” After stenciling the population of each continent on the shafts of shovels and installing the work, I then realized with some humor and irony how the artwork is a “tipping of the hat,” as it were, to Duchamp. Of course, his snow shovel holds very different implications than the one in the installation, which stands in for Antarctica.
Your question, however, is actually more important on a different level. I was certainly attracted to Marcel Duchamp’s work and in particular his approach to art. But I also need to put that influence into its proper context. I think that he and the Dada movement exerted a major influence on all generations that followed. European Dada artists exhibited a powerful response to the destruction and horrors of World War I. At its very core, it was a protest movement using artworks to convey political statements about war, technology, and the growing destructiveness of weapon systems. It was their willingness to use art in that way that is the attraction and inspiration for my work.
Similarly, and coming out of the same period, Kazimir Malevich and the Suprematist movement also had an early influence on me in that they, too, believed in art as a means to make social and political statements. There is a powerful authenticity to these movements and artists that inspired me to use art as a vehicle for contemporary commentary—something that I think is missing in much of the art today. It is important to note that, with respect to the Suprematist movement, it was shut down in 1926 by the Communist party in Russia. They leveled the charge that it was “counterrevolutionary sermonizing and artistic debauchery” and forced Malevich and his colleagues to adhere to the style of Socialist Realism. This certainly speaks to the power of art and the threat it can pose to vulnerable or totalitarian regimes. Even to this day, unstable governments insecure about their legitimacy tend to move first to control artists.
Are there other artists that influenced you in your early career, and, if so, why?
The other major artist that influenced and inspired me was Francisco Goya, especially his later work. Again, the authenticity of such emotional and poignant works such as The Third of May 1808, The Second of May 1808, as well as Caprichos and the Desastres de la Guerra, and finally the Black Paintings, all speak to the critical and important role that art can play in society. Beyond that obvious point, Goya was also of interest because his work was inspired by his direct reaction to events unfolding around him. Whether or not he ever actually witnessed the atrocities of Napoleon’s army, I believe the power of the work speaks for itself. He took risks to explore these issues, which he did at a time of great personal peril given the Inquisition and occupation by the French army. It is that engagement and willingness to take personal risks that was one of the [End Page 60] inspirations to use art as a way to address issues of our time.
What, then, motivated you to interrupt your art career when, at thirty, you chose to pursue a career in arms control and national security and, later, business? You have to admit this was an uncommon direction to take mid-career as a successful artist. Can you elaborate on the reasons for this circuitous career path—from art to national security and then back to art?
There was no single reason why I took a sabbatical, as it were, from art to pursue national security, but rather probably five or six motivating factors for this decision. Let me address two of them. First, in the 1970s and 1980s, there was pressure on artists to focus our work on a certain approach, or what I saw as an implied branding. This is not what I wanted to pursue in art. It is true, as I look back, that other artists like Bruce Nauman or Gerhard Richter were able to navigate diverse artistic paths. But at the time, the pressure was pervasive to conform to a consistent approach in one’s work. It seemed that most collectors and dealers considered consistency in an artist important for both the stability of the investment and as a matter of recognition. The art world has evolved somewhat since then, and it is a little easier today for artists to work in a multi-genre fashion. It is still challenging to create political art in the U.S., Russia, and China, although Europe is more inclined to explore this type of work.
Second, prior to the foray into government and business, the political content of my earlier works was based mainly on vicarious rather than direct experience. I found this frustrating when discussing security and political issues with other artists. It was clear that neither they nor I really knew what was truth and what was fiction; we were passive recipients of information rather than experiential thinkers. For example, when I created the 1975 installation work Closely Watched (Fig. 7), which addressed the issue of the U.S. government’s rampant and unauthorized surveillance of its citizens, I didn’t fully appreciate the extent of and issues behind this activity. But I knew it [End Page 61] was wrong. Going beyond that instinct of misconduct, I was curious to know how and why this surveillance was happening. This, and other factors, launched me on a new career path in which I would eventually learn from the inside about the issues and protocols involved in worldwide security. With twenty-five years of in-depth engagement in government and business, I’m now able to create more informed and contemplative works of art because of that experience.
Your use of textual language, whether painted, printed, or engraved, is clearly a very important artistic element in the Lamentations series. These textual elements function as design components, commentary, supplements, and even as direction markers to guide visitors around your works. Is there something about your subject matter that demands such a strong interrelationship between text and image?
Your observation is important. I take an interdisciplinary approach to my work, spending considerable time reading and pondering questions derived from, among other things, philosophy, science, mathematics, language, and anthropology. I often incorporate elements from such other disciplines in my work. At times these can be symbols, linguistics, mathematics, astrophysics, or poetry. In one of my most recent series, Riddles (2015), the structure of the work is based on a spiral cypher with embedded haiku-style poetry. The parallel or multi-parallel structures of text and image are critical elements of the work.
So in terms of the Lamentations series, language, taxonomy, physics, and philosophy are just a few of the components I incorporated in the individual works. For example, in the Action/Reaction (Fig. 8) sculpture there are elements of physics, language, philosophy, and anthropology woven together to bring forth the story of the nuclear arms race. The sculpture From Crossbow to H-Bomb echoes the title of Bernard and Fawn Brodie’s seminal 1962 publication on the military history of weaponry. This work incorporates anthropology, mathematics, and physics to form an understanding of the historical growth in the lethality of weapons. The words “From Crossbow to H-bomb” are engraved in the enduring granite material to build upon the historical and anthropological dimension of the work, reminding those in the [End Page 62] future of the potential path to human destruction and our intellectual struggle with the nuclear question. Similarly, engraving the title of the sculpture How Many Angels Can Dance on the Point of a Needle? (Fig. 9) onto its granite base serves to memorialize the futile debates over the minutiae of nuclear target planning and survival that take place without acknowledging the reality of the massive destructive potential of these weapons systems.
Let me turn to your specific point about text and image. Much of the world of national security in general and nuclear iconography in particular is wrapped in the taxonomy of acronyms and dictums. Thus, in art one must find a way to merge this taxonomy with the visual image. A good example of this would be Graveyard Spiral (Fig. 10), in which the shape and text are one and as such interconnect color-coded operational plans with ruination. The most obvious example of text and image is, of course, To Look is to Think. In this final work, the letters on each of the panels spell out “Witches Brew,” and the words filling each of these letters form a language symbolizing the state of the world. Each letter guides viewers to the next, drawing them through a laconic narrative of a continental cocktail of misfortune.
You make the leap to our present post-Cold War condition in Dichotomy of Barbarity (Fig. 11), bringing us up to the brutal savagery of today’s acts of war. Your [End Page 63] striking symmetrical design utilizes bold complementary green and red geometrical forms to encircle two geographical areas: on the left, New York City as a nuclear target with the Museum of Modern Art as ground zero, and on the right, Syria, where ISIL has recently looted and plundered so many priceless antiquities. When one stares at the composition for any length, it results in the optical illusion of an afterimage in which the green and red colors are inverted. These flipped colors, then, function to bring a kind of equivalency to two seemingly disparate scenarios. Could you provide us with some background on this provocative work and its composition?
To put this in context, when I visited Kyoto in 1976, the Japanese told me that U.S. Secretary of War Henry Stimson placed the city off limits for the atomic bomb, despite its high military value, because Kyoto was a cultural icon. While the American military was adamant that Kyoto remain on the target list and even ranked it the number one site for the first atomic bomb, Stimson prevailed with Truman, arguing that such destruction of an iconic cultural site would damage our efforts to rebuild Japan. This example is not a one-off since we also saw similar efforts by Eisenhower and other Allied military and civilian leaders to spare European cultural heritage sites from destruction. This speaks to something about the decision makers in World War II who understood the need to protect, as much as possible, cultural landmarks. Can we say the same thing today with the increased destructive power of nuclear weapons?
In Dichotomy of Barbarity, I am addressing this question about cultural destruction by looking [End Page 64] at the full spectrum of conflict. In other words, I’m showing extreme examples at both ends—the developed society and the barbaric society—yet the outcome is ultimately the same in terms of destruction of culture. Yes, what ISIL does is despicable, but at the end of the day, how would we look back at ourselves? When the nuclear target of Manhattan is hit, that treasured Matisse, that treasured Goya, that treasured Caravaggio will be forever gone, just as ISIL took away that treasured Temple of Bel in the UNESCO world heritage site at Palmyra in Syria.
To the other point in your question, the use of primary colors is an important element throughout my work. But rather than using the conventional primary colors of red, yellow, and blue, I opted to add the color green to the primary color spectrum to represent the four elements. As an aside, I should note that these four colors—with the addition of white—match those used by the U.S. military to indicate increasing levels of severity for varying military situations and graduated alert states of the defense readiness condition (DEFCON). This influenced my decision to employ the same four-color spectrum in Graveyard Spiral.
In Dichotomy of Barbarity, however, I emphasized a palette of red and green. These complementary colors create a tension of opposition just like the extremes associated with the lowest and highest ends of barbarity. In short, while talking about the barbarity of ISIL, we neglect to acknowledge that if nuclear-armed states engage in war they will destroy similar cultural treasures, not to mention the horrific loss of human life that will occur.
We notice that the penultimate work in the series, Beguiled in the Wilderness of Mirrors (Fig. 12), documents key moments from the mid-20th century to 2014 where decisions were made based on faulty U.S. intelligence gathering and assessment. The message of this work seems to be that without accurate intelligence and analysis, [End Page 65] decision and policymakers will always be blind to the consequences of events that destabilize world order.
“While I aspire to a world without nuclear weapons, the reality is that they exist and, worse yet, are proliferating. Until they are eliminated, we have to manage the conditions that sow the seeds for war to ensure that these weapons of mass destruction are never used.
As you’ve noted, this sculpture focuses on the American intelligence community’s historic failures to predict or alert political leaders about geopolitical events facing this country. Five concentric circles of events indelibly engraved into a black granite disc trace this tale of consequential intelligence failures. Starting with Pearl Harbor in the outer circle and terminating with a group of contemporary geopolitical incidents near the center, each crisis maps over time the fraught legacy of injudicious decisions that has fostered regional instabilities, unnecessary interventions, failed wars, and near cataclysmic crises. These orbital rings gradually tighten around a highly polished reflective sphere that mirrors back a distorted image of viewers and the world around them.
A double metaphor is embedded in the sculpture that serves simultaneously as a schematic for the detonation system of an atomic bomb and a symbolic representation of the impaired mindset of intelligence analysts. In this dual construct, the reflective hemisphere echoes a spherical nuclear trigger or “pit.” When the “rings of intelligence failures” metaphorically compress the pit, they trigger a nuclear chain reaction. In the second construct, the warped reflections in the sculpture’s sphere parallel the inherent mirror-image biases and decision making of our intelligence and political leaders. Beguiled by their own opinions, believers are left to wander in a wilderness of mirrors that cast an inaccurate representation of reality, promoting instead precarious wishful thinking.
So do you consider the Lamentations series as the next chapter in relaying what you’ve learned from your experiences? Also, in light of your previous comments, should we infer that this new work is anti-war and/or anti-nuclear?
Indeed, this series can and should be read as a translation in visual terms of the issues I struggled with and the insights gleaned during years immersed in nuclear security issues—as well as what it means in today’s geopolitical environment. Is it anti-war? Well, during my time in government, and even business, I was exposed to the internal debates over decisions to go to war. It is the hardest decision for a president to make and one that must not be taken lightly. Unfortunately, both from experience [End Page 66] and from reading history, I determined that most decisions to enter war are seriously flawed and/or a result of failed policies. In contemporary terms, I found it counterintuitive, but the U.S. military is the most resistant to enter into war. Instead, policymakers and politicians are often the irresponsible and quixotic individuals who capriciously declare war: Vietnam, Afghanistan, and the Iraq War come to mind. But the long and short of it is, yes, I am anti-war. I have seen the consequences of war in El Salvador, Kuwait, and Afghanistan. While World War II may be an example of a “necessary” war, early attention and focus may have obviated even that war.
It is this latter point that is the focus of the Lamentations series. While I aspire to a world without nuclear weapons, the reality is that they exist and, worse yet, are proliferating. Until they are eliminated, we have to manage the conditions that sow the seeds for war to ensure that these weapons of mass destruction are never used. The works Thinking the Unthinkable (Fig. 13) and The Delicate Balance of Terror (Fig. 14), in particular, are intended [End Page 67] to incite thought and discussion on this subject. Despite the end of the Cold War, we are facing today the seeds of war fueled by nationalism, revanchism, terrorism, irredentism, and poverty. This requires renewed attention and ingenuity to manage these conditions before they lead to war. I fear that one of the most pressing of these issues is world poverty. Sadly, this is not a new condition. As Aristotle observed almost 2,400 years ago, “poverty is the parent of revolution and crime.”
The final work in the series is To Look is to Think (Fig. 15). As you mentioned previously, this multi-paneled piece brings the issues with which your project engages up to the present, confronting the viewer with freeze frames of the precarious state of today’s global security. Can you talk a little about this dénouement of the Lamentations series and the unusual manner in which you have it installed in your studio?
I believe that only as a global tapestry, if you will, can we understand the depth of the dangers and issues that we are facing. This work maps out key regions of the world in a holistic look at this global condition, inviting the viewer to contemplate the enormity and common threads of these challenges. No longer are the superpowers of the past the only two major players in this precarious world scenario. Rather, the problem of nuclear proliferation is further complicating this contemporary state of affairs, as manifested by other nations such as India, Pakistan, North Korea, and potentially Iran. Each of the panels illustrates in image and text the simmering cauldron of tensions and provocations in different regions of the world today.
From a distance, we are able to see that there is something brewing and, indeed, to recognize that the letters spread across the panels spell out “witches brew.” But the closer one gets, the more the unity falls apart, and we are confronted simply with a cacophony of words. These words are intended to elicit a reflection upon matters too often lost in the confusing barrage of current events. Any one of the issues identified in the “brew”—such as systemic poverty, revanchism, nationalism, religious bigotry—has the potential to intensify into a full-blown crisis. At any moment, one of the scenarios mapped out on the panels could trigger a chain reaction leading [End Page 68] to a world spiraling into a vortex of nuclear implosion. As currently installed in the studio, the panels are divided in two parts hanging on adjacent walls and converging in the corner. This is intended to physically draw the viewer into the center of the maelstrom.
Of all the works in the series, this one was probably the most challenging and the one that underwent the longest evolutionary process. I found that it was no easy endeavor to formulate and convey the tumultuous “brew” of social, environmental, political, military, economic, religious, and cultural concerns being addressed in the entire Lamentations series. I decided that, rather than permanently affixing each of the letters spelling out W-i-t-c-h-e-s B-r-e-w to its individual panel, I would hang each of them on a single tack. Floating within their frames, the letters appear fragile and tentative. This is intended to imply that the outcome of the combustible events in the brew is neither inevitable nor irrevocable but rather contingent upon our determination to make change. I felt it was crucial that this work, as the culminating piece, encourage viewers to absorb both the grave complexity of our present-day situation and the need for action, and I hope they left on a contemplative note.
What your work demonstrates is that art, in some ways, is the stealth messenger that makes difficult ideas easier to digest or at the very least to contemplate. What would you like viewers to take away from your Lamentations series (Fig. 16)?
I hope it incites a dialogue. I would like to see people actually spending time with each of the individual works in the series and attempting to draw out the multiple layers of meanings embedded in them. Some of the works are intended to encourage viewers to reflect on the motivations of government leaders and their use of war to gain advantage or to settle disagreements. Others aim to inspire individuals to recognize the historical antecedents and evolution of military power or to sort through the reality and issues associated with nuclear weapons and what is called deterrence. Finally, I hope that viewers will apply what they’ve learned from their experience with these works to examine the current [End Page 69] state of global stability and provoke further debate and discussion. In short, I want them to look, to think, and to engage.
BRIAN DAILEY received his MFA from Otis Art Institute and a PhD in International Relations from the University of Southern California. Throughout the 1970s, he worked and exhibited in Los Angeles, staging performance, installation, and conceptual art that defied traditional models of fine art as commodity objects. In 1981, he transitioned into a career in arms control and international security policy, including positions with the White House’s National Space Council and the Senate Armed Services Committee. He returned to art full time in 2008 and has studios in Woodstock, VA and Washington D.C. Using a range of media, including photography, film, installations, and painting, his work draws on his multifaceted life experiences and engages with the social, political, and cultural issues of our times. He was recently honored with a midcareer retrospective exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Sofia, Bulgaria. His 2014 publication America in Color is a deluxe photographic compilation of paired portraits from his two-year journey across the country to capture the uncelebrated American electorate.
MARTHA BARI is an assistant professor of art history in the art and archaeology department at Hood College, where she teaches classes in European, American, and Asian art. She also acts as the director of First-Year Experience, managing the First-Year Seminar, Living Learning Communities, and First-Year Read programs. She earned a bachelor of arts degree in art history from George Washington University and master of arts and doctoral degrees in art history from the University of Maryland, College Park. Her current research focuses on the highly complex events of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s 1969 Year of Peace. Her published work concentrates on American and Japanese women artists.
WENDY A. GROSSMAN is a Curatorial Associate at The Phillips Collection and lecturer in art history at the Washington DC program of New York University and at the University of Maryland, College Park. She is an art and photo historian with expertise in the history of photography, European and American Modernisms, the intersections between non-Western and Western art, Surrealism, and the artist Man Ray. She has authored numerous publications, including the 2009 award-winning exhibition catalogue Man Ray, African Art, and the Modernist Lens. She is also author of “Coloring the American Electorate” and “Conversation with the Artist,” in Brian Dailey, America in Color (2014).
2. Jackson Pollock, “Interview with William Wright (1958),” in Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artist’s Writings, ed. Kristine Stiles and Peter Selz (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1996), 22. [End Page 70]