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State of Surveillance: Ajay Kurian’s Polyphemus at Goucher College

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I am greeted by a frog holding aloft a serving tray. Its head is cocked a bit to the side, elbow bent and hand on the hip. Less ready to please, more this again? The image is surreal, but it’s no escapist fantasy. The figure calls to mind a lawn jockey or a blackamoor—both statues of servitude with histories steeped in racism. Welcome to Ajay Kurian’s world of Polyphemus.

Polyphemus, on view at Goucher College’s Silber Art Gallery, is an installation that takes its title from Homer’s Odyssey. In the Odyssey, Polyphemus is the name of the giant one-eyed cyclops who terrorizes—and eats—Odysseus’s men. In the Silber Gallery, Baltimore-born Kurian recreates the cyclops as an oscillating fan, mounted high on the wall, painted to echo the pupil, iris, and white of the eye. Floating by wire in front of the eye is a toothy smile made of LEDs, casting an ominous glow in the darkened space like the mischievous grin of the Cheshire Cat. Six of these cyclopes are spaced evenly throughout the room, oscillating and scanning, giving the distinct impression that we are being watched at all times, that we are operating within a surveillance state.

 

In the midst of months of Black Lives Matter protests and calls to defund the police (and, in Baltimore, the much-contested surveillance plane program which ended last week), the cyclops-as-police-monitor feels especially poignant—and “Cyclops” is in fact a title used by the Ku Klux Klan.

In Damon Lindelof’s TV series Watchmen, Cyclops is explicitly an alternative name for the KKK, which is integrated into the police force and uses hypnosis to inflict violence on Black people. In the television show, the “OK” hand gesture is adopted by Cyclops as a secret sign to demonstrate affiliation with the group, a real-world white power hand gesture that Trump makes while speaking to the public with some regularity. The hand gesture is also one displayed by another of Kurian’s sculptures in Polyphemus—an enormous gorilla mounted to the back wall that reminds me of the type of mascots often employed by used car lots. (We are, after all, being sold a Master Narrative.) This racial caricature is winking to the viewer, one eye closed and one eye open over a menacing grin. The entire head rotates 360 degrees, marking no corner safe from its watch. Kurian paradoxically titles this sculpture “Welcome to World Peace.”

There are two figures in the middle of the room who seem oblivious to the state of surveillance. They have fans for heads, though the effect is distinctly different than that of the cyclopes. One figure has her fan head fixed on her phone; the other’s fan head is oscillating, in search of a point he seems unable to locate beyond the horizon of his French fry. They stand at a bar table, drinks at the dregs, attention divided, below a hanging Tiffany lamp with one of its two lightbulbs burned out—yet another cyclops hidden in plain sight. These figures, titled “The Citizens,” seem to stand in for the general public. They stand together but they are not communicating; they are centered in the spotlight yet seemingly unaware of the danger lurking all around. With their lack of awareness, the citizens are complicit in their part.

 

What goes on while we are not paying attention? What happens to justice when the public is consumed by glowing screens and deep-fried potatoes?
Laurence Ross

The imagery of Polyphemus is dense. There is a lot to take in, even standing alone in the gallery, and the sculptures reveal themselves in slow layers. I can feel the air from the cyclopes blowing around me even though I can’t see it. It is impossible to look at all of the cyclopes at the same time. Though with time and attention, I see more than I did in the beginning. For example, the female figure in the center of the room is holding an iPhone, the circular “home” button now resembling yet another eye, another way of both monitoring us and keeping us distracted.

This relationship between attention and understanding seems to be at the heart of the matter. The more we pay attention, the more we understand—a principle that showed itself clearly this spring as demonstrations against police brutality coincided with the country’s heightened focus during the pandemic lockdown. What goes on while we are not paying attention? What happens to justice when the public is consumed by glowing screens and deep-fried potatoes? The ketchup is splattered like blood on the to-go container’s lid; the violence we see becomes casual, banal.

The final figure in Polyphemus leans casually against the chair rail with his arms folded, watching from the sidelines. His fan head is oscillating, signaling that he is a member of the surveillance rather than its subject. His bright orange suit creates a hybrid image of the businessman (or the politician) and a prison uniform. If the institution itself is an inmate, we are left to ask: How do we break free? Giving our full attention seems a good place to begin.

 

Polyphemus is on view at Goucher College’s Silber Art Gallery through December 4.

 

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