Photos By Chris Pilaro
Art that depicts human conflict has been around nearly as long as warfare itself. After centuries of battlefield glory scenes, modern artists started questioning the humanity of war. From Goya to Picasso and M*A*S*H to Neil Young, protest work is no new thing. But in sleepy Sun Valley, where many come to escape the trouble and noise of politics and history, provocative public art is a rare find.
Valley sculptor Robert Kantor’s local career was once distinguished by bright, whimsical mobiles. The multi-faceted Kantor—his many past lives include Grateful Dead consiglieri, art-activist attorney, movie producer and Idaho real estate developer—has accented various Wood River Valley spaces with his metal works. Some were public, others sold to private collectors or were shown in Ketchum’s Ochi Gallery. Over the years, Kantor’s sculptures played within the strictly aesthetic realms of modernist sensibilities. Provoking conversation about the world’s most fraught current events was not an ostensible goal.
TheHope Series changed all that.
The emotive, oftentimes difficult pieces were first shown at Seattle’s Center on Contemporary Art in 2006 and are currently on display at Boise State University’s Visual Arts Center. All deal with questions of war. Camp Hope, one of the most successful and arresting pieces, depicts 18 butterflies affixed to a tangle of concentration camp barbed wire. Beyond the overt message—can beauty and hope exist amid devastating brutality?—there is a deeper symbolism. In Hebrew, 18 is a sacred number, itself a symbolic amalgam of ancient numerology and linguistics.
Line of Hope 2 is part of the series and Kantor’s newest public work in the valley. Driving by it on Highway 75, the guns are the first thing you notice. Even at 40 mph, the point is clear; this is art to get you thinking.
From the side of Highway 75, just south of Ketchum, Line of Hope 2 asks the tough questions.
A gravel driveway invites closer inspection. The 20-foot tall steel assault rifles are not twins, but towering replicas of an M-16 and an AK-47, iconic weaponry of the allied West and the Soviet East, respectively. They recall not only countless Cold War-era conflicts, but contemporary spin-offs in the Middle East, Latin America and Asia, anywhere rebel or terrorist factions armed with Kalishnikovs threaten peaceful democratic societies.
Or is it the other way round? The questions begin. Is one violence justified when another is not?
Kantor’s guns are connected at their sights by a rope-cum-clothesline. From it hang the uniforms, banners and insignia of various national and non-state fighting forces. Everyone with a weapon gets a nod, from U.N. peacekeepers to Hezbollah. The green banner of Hamas hangs in eerie, wind-tossed peace alongside Israeli Army fatigues. The collection of violent garb is as exhaustive in scope as it is exhausting to contemplate.
But Kantor leaves us no choice.
The ghost-white butterflies perched atop the guns’ skyward muzzles punctuate his point. All of these fighters, he seems to say, have lofty ideals in mind, the "hope that each squeeze of the trigger will be the last," Kantor writes in an artist’s statement. At the end of the bullet’s flight waits the elusive promise of peace, or paradise, or something.
There is a dangerous moral equivocation here. When Palestinian suicide bombers kill Israeli women and children in the hope of Jewish eradication, is it an act of optimism? Does a murderous vision even merit the word Hope?
According to Daniel Kany, Kantor "is making a subtle distinction." Kany, a former valley resident and current gallery owner in Portland, Maine, curated the series’ Seattle exhibition and wrote the show’s catalogue.Line of Hope assumes the implicit difference, Kany said, between countries that fight for peace and factions that fight to destroy others.
If so, there is a troubling disparity between the work’s intended and visual meanings. The artist may believe that some violence is justified and some is not. But to the uninitiated viewer seeing the terrorist’s mask hanging next to the Union Jack, moral relativism is inescapable.
Kantor describes his creative process as visionary. "The inspiration often comes to me while I am dreaming at night or just waking up." He said he madeLine of Hope 2 without a specific message in mind. His goal was only to affect people, to stir emotions.
"It’s provocative, to say the least," Kany said. "What it says to me is: Right now, we need to think about war. It is a sad but vital statement. It is a pressing issue. This is now. We have to think about terrorism, about our troops in danger, about our own safety. We are a country at war. If we forget this, we’re screwed."
These are not questions most valley visitors expect to confront en route to a dip in the Sun Valley Lodge pool. Nor does the morning commute along Highway 75 invite heavy discussion on international affairs.
Public art serves many purposes. Pleasing the senses is only one among many. With his newest work, Bob Kantor has ensures none of us are asleep at the wheel.