Not long ago, artist Jerry Vile placed a giant Crisco can in front of the “Monument to Joe Louis,” a giant sculpture of a fist in downtown Detroit, as a lewd but hilarious and spot-on commentary on the city’s bankruptcy. Local media glommed onto the stunt immediately: it was a welcome break from the gloomy shroud of news that’s settled over the Motor City.
Last week, the artist returned to his guerrilla tactics, hanging oversize DayGlo tag-sale signs on landmarks around the city. Working with a crew of collaborators, among them Rick Manore, director of public relations at Detroit’s Music Hall Center for the Performing Arts, designer Dan Armand, painter Jon Parlangeli, graffiti artist Kobie Solomon, and photographer Kim Hoxworth, Vile “tagged” Rodin’s “The Thinker,” which sits outside the embattled Detroit Institute of Arts, the Horace E. Dodge and Son Memorial Fountain at Hart Plaza, designed by Isamu Noguchi, and more. Prices were cheap. Unfortunately, the tags disappeared almost immediately, the Detroit Free Press reported.
This was “The Selling of Detroit,” as Vile called it. Accordingly, the tags included the phrase “Motor City Going Out of Business Sale,” which is also the headline for an ad that Vile and a friend took out in the local Metro Times. Catchy and flashy like a page of the Penny Saver, the ad proclaims “Largest Inventory of Abandoned Property on the Planet!” in a bright yellow bubble; it offers a “fully equipped mayor’s office!” and a “starving artist sale!” (of works from the DIA). Everything from stop signs to police chief uniforms are offered for “CHEAP!” It would seem over the top, if the city’s water works weren’t actually on the bankruptcy chopping block. “The Selling of Detroit” is satire, but it may also prove prescient.
“Everything in Detroit is up for grabs, from Belle Isle to the DIA’s collection — our culture,” Vile told Hyperallergic by email. “Kind of like the Old West, even the water rights could be on the table. So it is pretty obvious. Satire is fun, but it also can be powerful, it can resonate. I have no idea what motivates me, unless you draw a line and tell me not to cross over it. I do like to make people laugh, but I love to piss them off. When you can do both, the gods smile.”
Vile explained that if he had done these projects earlier, before serious issues like pensions and cultural heritage were on the table, it might have been easier to write them off as stunts. But now the situation has taken on an urgency. “Personally I think the message is too dire and situation is too sad to call the pieces I did a prank,” he wrote. “It’s like an op-ed piece.”
Satire isn’t a new area for Vile: he previously published Orbit, which the Detroit Metro Times called “a magazine that poked fun at near-everything and everyone,” and creates paintings and videos that he says “make fun of all the pretension in art, which tends to make people not take me seriously.” Sexually charged art is also familiar territory: he’s the founder of the Dirty Show, now in its 15th year and “considered to be the best-attended erotic art exhibition in the world.”
Returning to those raunchy endeavors, while he was planning Detroit’s going-out-of-business sale, Vile also decided to auction off the enormous Crisco can on eBay. “The Crisco can is a fine piece of pop art all by itself,” Vile said, adding, “(well it was made on the cheap).” Forty-six bids later, it sold for $1,300, all of which will go to a local charity. Vile originally offered the piece as a donation to the city, but for some reason that we can’t understand, they didn’t want it.
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