"I CAME, I SAW, I CONQUERED" (click title to view project)
The following images and video are re-presentations of my thesis exhibition. I created this installation after years of struggling with how my family and I fit into this dilemma. In working through this subject, I have come to the realization that the institutions of farming tobacco and corporate tobacco are distinct, but forced together by an industry that is relentless in its pursuit of profit.
When the viewer approaches the installation, he or she is presented with the following statement that addresses the installations purpose, along with a wall of photographs. These images show a progression starting with my great grandparents, then grand parents, father, and finally my brother, cousins and I. The images were originally small photographs taken by family members, and kept in our family photo albums. Looking at these images, I tried to reconstruct my ancestors way of life. As the images were selected from the albums, my grand parents explained exactly who the people were, their location, and the task each person was performing. No alterations were made to the photographs because they were not meant to be glorified memories of the past, but magnified cultural objects that represent my familys history. In order not to follow suit with tobacco companies that continuously alter their products with additives, I chose to keep these images as close to the original photographs as possible. Through the progression of images, I want the viewer to see the deep relationship that bonds my ancestors with tobacco. The viewer should remember how this aspect of tobacco is presented, because a vastly different representation awaits them around the corner.
"For at least the past four generations, my family has depended on tobacco as a source of income. The values passed down from my ancestors have had a great influence on my development as a person. This being stated, I cannot overlook the consequences that have resulted from tobaccos abuse. Since high school, I tortured myself with thoughts and realizations of this issue. With a better understanding of the politics surrounding tobacco, I am attempting to mediate this subject through art.
The cultivation of tobacco was not a problem in its early stages. However, in the past two centuries, the way in which our western culture has allowed tobacco corporations to function has caused a global pandemic. This is no longer a national problem, but has spread its roots to infect the entire world. I feel these corporations that practice irresponsibly are the cancer that is hurting so much of the world. Through my artwork, I attempt to explore the different institutions our culture allows the tobacco industry to use as a means of reproduction. When the practices of these corporations are examined, they reveal a system built on disregarding human health in the pursuit of profit and reinforce many negative aspects of our American culture."
Once the viewer has finished looking at the final photograph, he or she enters a large dark space. The room feels very ominous because the only light source is focused on an altarpiece at the opposite wall. In between the viewer and the altarpiece is a field of dead tobacco stalks. In constructing this field, my goal was to make the viewer feel that they were part of the installation. They are not merely viewers in this process, but actual participants. The issue addressed in this installation is a real world problem and each person is a participant, whether they choose to acknowledge it or not.
The stalks are spaced about every two feet, just like the spacing used by farmers in an actual tobacco field. Some of the plants still have dried limbs, leaves, and seedpods that crumble and crunch if a viewer makes contact. During the reception, several small children were playing in the field. Some would try to pass through the narrowest places without making contact with the stalks. Others would chase one another through the rows. Running back and forth they would hit the plants causing them to violently shake and shed their dead leaves. Some of their parents would apologize, but I told them not to worry, the kids are a very important to the installation. As a child, I remember running and hiding in the fields of tobacco. I believe seeing these children playing in a field of dead tobacco is a very startling link to my past.
Nearly three decades ago, my family had farmed tobacco in the very field in which these plants had been taken. I searched for the connections between tobacco corporations, my family, and the institutions in between. I found the only link binding my family and the tobacco industry was the plants they raised. The tobacco grown to make cigarettes is an annual plant, which means, at the end of the season, the tobacco leaves are harvested, and the plant dies. The rows of dead plants in the installation represent my family's direct connection to the tobacco industry will end at my generation.
The field has been constructed so that as the viewer is drawn towards the altarpiece, the rows become more concentrated. This was done to suggest a similar focusing I dealt with in trying to mediate my problems with the tobacco industry. These directional cues, along with the dramatic lighting set the viewer up to interact with the altarpiece, which they are lead to.
The altarpiece represents my realization of large tobacco corporations as the disease that is spreading and must be stopped. This installation suggests the difference between the complex internal workings of the industry as opposed to the clean and well-designed façade they put so much money in trying to maintain. My intention is to spark peoples interest, and hopefully cause them to look deeper into this subject. Once the issue is brought to their attention, I hope the viewer will do their own research, so they can make their own assessment of this issue.
The altarpiece is a large-scale model of a Marlboro Box that has been partially deconstructed to reveal the institutional values of the tobacco industry. The Marlboro brand box was used because it is seen as the gold standard for cigarettes throughout the world. It is not by coincidence that The Altria Group, owner of Marlboro, spends the most money for advertising and marketing in the U.S., as well as developing countries. The tobacco industry tries to keep its image very clean and well maintained on the outside, but its internal activities, especially in 3rd world countries, show a side of the industry meant to be kept at a distance from the public.
The trophy in this case is an aluminum cast of my own head, meant to represent my past beliefs and ideas in support of tobacco. Through many years of not realizing the magnitude of power and corruption that had been veiled by the tobacco industry, I had been the exact non-smoking supporter the corporations need. Many other people find themselves in a similar situation. Though never a smoker, I refused to listen to people when they criticized the industry. Refusing to listen to the criticisms that had been linked to the tobacco industry, I supported the industry both directly and indirectly. The tobacco industry needs supporters who do not smoke to sustain their agenda. Being unaware of how these corporations harm our nation and its reputation creates problems and often makes responsible decision making impossible. The head is mounted on a plaque, much like a hunter would display a wild game trophy. The plaque is based on the Marlboro insignia of two rampant horses. The plaque reads "VENI, VIDI, VICI", a Latin phrase when translated reads, "I came, I saw, I conquered". This motto was used by Philip Morris and is more than just a catchy slogan. It is a mission statement driven by the sole pursuit of power through profit.
As a result of the trophy and industry practices being exposed, flagpoles with tobacco leaf spearheads have sprung forward to protect its contents. Each flagpole is wrapped with the currency of the country the corporation is based in. The bills are stained with actual tobacco juice, which will deteriorate the paper over time. The spearheads along with the flags act as a defense mechanism to keep all viewers at a distance. The flags represent the worlds most powerful tobacco corporations that are trying to keep their global activities out of public view. This defense system is meant to keep the viewers at a distance. The spears and flags are protecting a map that shows the operations of these tobacco corporations throughout the world.
There is a great deal of competition between these corporations, but when organizations oppose tobacco legislation they unite in an effort to fight a common enemy. The largest privately owned tobacco corporations include Philip Morris, which is owned by the Altria Group. The other flags represented are those of RJ Reynolds, British American Tobacco, Japan Tobacco International, Imperial Tobacco, and Hongta Group. The largest tobacco producer in the world is the China National Tobacco Company, but it is a state run monopoly. These corporations, along with other organizations, and powerful officials influence tobacco control policies throughout the world.
A coffin serves as the, predella, or base for this altarpiece. The predella of Matthias Grünewald's "Isenheim Altarpiece" depicts The Lamentation of Christ. While trying to decide on the appropriate base, I realized the coffin would be perfect because it is a symbol of lamentation. Many people do not realize the lethal consequences of smoking until someone they care for dies as a result of chronic tobacco abuse. The interior of the coffin is a collage of cigarette boxes, coupons, and magazine ads. These images depicting fun and good times while smoking are stained with tobacco juice and shellac. The acidic juices of the tobacco will eventually cause the collage to break down.
The two putti represent small children of developing countries who are dealing with the consequences of smoking family members. They look unfinished because their future is yet to be determined. A closed coffin has kept the values of the cigarette industry concealed. They have freed themselves and are trying to reveal the content of the coffin to the people whose culture has brought this disease upon them. The quote Our Values guide our behavior as we pursue our Mission and our business strategies, is taken directly from the Philip Morris USA website. In an attempt to bring awareness to these corporations Values, the putti are exposing the details that we as Americans do not see. This quote is a powerful and ethical statement when taken at face value, but the viewer must realize the values that guide these corporations are their profits and stock values. With financial profit as their guiding value, they disregard peoples health, destroy the environment, and exploit people and resources in developing countries. Everything else is disregarded in the sole pursuit of their Mission.
The way these national and international tobacco corporations practice business is not healthy. It is a very costly and destructive institution that our culture has allowed to develop. It has become so deeply rooted, that there will never be a way to completely heal its effects. I believe our states and nation are taking positive steps towards fighting the tobacco industry at a national level, but we must see to it that corporations who represent some of the worst aspects of our culture do not spread to the rest of the world. As tobacco companies continue to lose smokers in the U.S., their focus is shifting toward less developed countries. These countries are limited to what they can do against tobacco companies because of lower budgets and weak infrastructures. Companies that have been established by our cultural values must not be able to exploit other nations without consequence. These companies severely damage our reputation and reinforce many negative characteristics associated with our culture
My goal is to bring more awareness to issues people might not be aware of, and promote a positive change in the way we conduct ourselves as a culture. People are free to make their own decisions when it comes to these issues, but they must be aware of the tobacco industry's values, or lack thereof, how it functions, and take responsibility for what they support. Being raised in an environment where smoking is a social norm makes it much more difficult to reject smoking, or to be successful in attempting to quit. We have already experienced this as a nation and are now seeing the long-term affects. I have many friends and family members who smoke, and hopefully they will take what I have to say into consideration for their health and for the future of our nation. If American based or supported industries hurt people in other parts of the world, we must be held accountable for being part of the solution. We are a nation based on freedom, but with great freedom, comes even greater responsibility.