- Fear and Loathing in Ecuador
In August 1999 artist Douglas Fishbone mounted an interactive installation in the Banco Central in Cuenca, Ecuador, that consisted of a mound of about twenty-five thousand bananas. The bananas were piled up in the center of the bank’s plaza and then given away to the crowd; within an hour the work had vanished completely.
Fishbone got the idea from a similar mound of bananas he saw for sale by the roadside at the marketplace in Cuenca. As a purely organic and unintentional work of sculpture, this pile, in texture and color, was strangely beautiful. Fishbone wanted the installation to be a critique of globalization. Its main visual reference was to the mountains of stolen Jewish possessions amassed in the Nazi death camps, and the arrangement of the bananas—golden and somewhat geometric—calls to mind the heaps of gold bars stored in Western banks. The artist’s objective was to turn these bananas into a symbol of the fragility of economies like that of Ecuador, a banana republic that depends entirely on natural resources for survival.
Considering politics as a continuum of institutionalized greed and violence, and the banana, in some ways, as a resource looted from an abused population, the installation quietly asked: Is the control of the developing world by the United States and Western Europe today somehow similar to the Nazi domination of Europe? Can one draw a reasonable comparison between a forced-labor camp, for instance, and a multinational manufacturing or agribusiness facility paying starvation wages? There is clearly a difference, but in light of the devastating effects of International Monetary Fund and World Bank initiatives on the rural poor in the developing world, the comparison is hardly unwarranted.
By inviting people to eat the bananas, Fishbone asked them to consider for a moment their personal involvement in these issues. Through the metaphor of consumption as complicity, he intended to shed light on the murky ethics of global capitalism. It is one thing to decry the behavior of greedy corporations and governments, but the greatest responsibility falls on the consumer, whose purchases finance the entire system, and the voter, who elects and tolerates disgraceful administrations. After all, Nike would not enslave children in Indonesian sweatshops, and the Indonesian army could not finance its own crackdowns so readily, if no one bought Air Jordans. As an enormous source of revenue to agribusiness and the corrupt regimes it props up, the banana is an excellent symbol of this dynamic.
After the plaza in Cuenca had been picked clean of bananas, all that remained was the steel armature, a lonely skeleton amid the shambles.
Douglas Fishbone is a sculptor and conceptual artist based in New York City. The banana project was staged in both Cuenca, Ecuador, and San José, Costa Rica, in 2000.