Those willing to make the trip to Koenig & Clinton Gallery in Bushwick, Brooklyn will be rewarded with a courageous exhibition: I’m Blue (If I Was █████ I Would Die) by American Artist. (That’s the artist’s legal name.)
Entering the bright, spacious gallery, visitors find themselves in a classroom setup. Bisecting the room is a row of six school desk sculptures, called “I’m Blue 1-6” (2019), rigged with riot shields wrapped entirely in a navy blue fabric resembling that of police uniforms. Six abreast, they form a hostile barricade — a familiar image from news footage of protests. Other educational devices adorn the gallery: up front, a television plays a video, which the riot shields prevent those sitting at the desks from seeing; on the back wall hangs a blackboard, also wrapped in navy blue fabric.
The Blue Lives Matter movement is the central curriculum in this imaginary classroom. Widely criticized for characterizing law enforcement officers as a “protected class,” and positing that acts of violence against officers should be considered hate crimes, this contentious, reactionary countermovement further weaponizes an already racially biased system.
“I’ve been thinking about pedagogy’s role in the spread and reinforcement of ideology,” American Artist told Hyperallergic. “In the context of this show, it’s specifically addressing the mindset of law enforcement officers. The Blue Lives Matter movement began with cops who felt they were being targeted because they are cops, and who identified ‘blue’ as a means of solidarity and defense against an imagined enemy.” Strewn across the desks in the exhibit are various books, which were selected based on algorithmic suggestions of writings related to Blue Lives Matter; among their disconcerting titles are The War on Cops, Black Lies Matter: Why Lies Matter to the Race Grievance Industry, and 365 Daily Devotions for Law Enforcement.
The title of the exhibition, I’m Blue (If I Was █████ I Would Die) — with a censor bar symbolizing blackness — is derived from Europop group Eiffel 65’s ‘90s hit, “Blue (Da Ba Dee),” the chorus of which many mistakenly hear as “I’m blue, if I were green I would die.” In the context of this exhibit, these lyrics are reframed as a kind of rallying chant for the Blue Lives Matter movement: we’re Blue and invincible; any other color must die.
“The Superman exists, and he’s American!” This quote from Watchmen, the cult graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, came to mind after watching around 20 minutes of “Blue Life Seminar” (2019), a video that serves as the exhibit’s centerpiece. It features an animated figure with blue skin and spherical white eyes, based in part on Dr. Manhattan, Watchmen’s blue-skinned, godlike superman protagonist, whose frustration with the U.S. military’s attempts to weaponize his superpowers leads him to leave Earth for Mars.
“I read Watchmen several years ago,” Artist told Hyperallergic. “I’ve been thinking about Dr. Manhattan ever since. His indifference towards time, his inability to react in the way anyone expects him to. It gives an Ellisonian tone to his character. I had a desire for Dr. Manhattan to have been Black in his past life, to write that into existence.”
In the video, Artist connects Watchmen’s sci-fi world to the stark realities of 21st century America: the hybrid protagonist’s facial features are based on those of Christopher Dorner, a fired Los Angeles Police Department officer who sought revenge on the same force he once stood for. In 2013, after writing a 6,000-word manifesto in which he implied that his dismissal from the LAPD was motivated by racism, Dorner shot and killed four people, including two law enforcement officers, and wounded three others. He died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound during a final standoff with the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Deputies. Here, Artist presents Dorner and Dr. Manhattan as parallel figures, drawing connections between their rage against law enforcement systems. Artist’s digitally-rendered Dr. Manhattan/Dorner character voices their disillusionment with chilling detachment. Direct quotes from Dorner’s manifesto, such as “I’m not an aspiring rapper, I’m not a gang member,” intensify the ominous monologue.
Unlike some contemporary artists tackling topical political issues, Artist avoids conspicuous displays of brutality and injustice in favor of taking a cerebral approach, citing David Hammon and Kevin Beasley as influences. Through grim satire, this conceptual presentation triggers somber meditations on the pervasive violence that stems from 21st-century America’s impossibly complicated relationships with color — blue and black in particular.
American Artist: I’m Blue (If I Was █████ I Would Die), continues at Koenig & Clinton Gallery (1329 Willoughby Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11237) through April 20.