Two decades ago, a guy came up to Cheryl Meeker at her grandfather's funeral. The man had been estranged from her family for years. One of the first things he said to her was, "You look like a leftist."
"I laughed, and said, 'Okay,'" Meeker recounts, still bemused by the incident. "Then the guy said, 'I have something to tell you that I think the left needs to know about. Since I last saw you, I became an arms dealer. I've been traveling all over the world to these trade shows where arms are dealt. What I think the left should know about is that we've been testing depleted uranium weaponry in Israel.'"
Meeker, who said she was "probably in art school at the time," was completely baffled. She had never heard of depleted uranium, but the strange nature of the event made the term stick in her mind. Seventeen years later, Meeker, an established local artist, heard a radio interview with an Oakland doctor working in a hospital in southern Iraq. "He had personally witnessed a large quantity of children born with birth defects," she says. "It was his viewpoint that this was due to the heavy bombardment in the area of depleted uranium. Even some babies born with no eyes."
Depleted uranium is a byproduct of nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons. It is extremely dense — so dense that munitions made from it can penetrate tank armor and thick battlements. It is also weakly radioactive. In munitions, it tends to incinerate on contact and turn into a fine dust. Just what constitutes safe exposure to depleted uranium has been an ongoing debate in the United Nations General Assembly and the European Parliament, a debate made more urgent by the fact that Iraq is now full of such dust. The U.S., U.K., and France, all of which use weapons containing depleted uranium, support studies by the Rand Corporation denying any negative health effects.
It's one of those issues, as Meeker says, that is simultaneously so inflammatory and so hard to get any real information about that bringing it up can be seen as counterproductive. But she couldn't forget about it. It was as if some cosmic newspaper kept delivering the same headline to her door. She figured the only way to make sense of it was through art.
"Depleted Selves" is the resulting photographic project, a show featuring large portraits of people with their faces obscured by hands, objects, or, in one case, by a blur. The portrait subjects in the show are mostly artist friends of Meeker's, whom she photographed using her 4-by-5-inch camera, but there's also a digital photo studio set up in the middle of the gallery. The idea is that visitors can add their portraits to the show after they read an article describing the problem of depleted uranium. "I thought because of the subject matter, it was important that it be an educational project, and as such it was important that there be some participatory elements because that's important in education," Meeker says.
Even in the photographs she took in her own studio, Meeker allowed the subjects to choose their own outfits and poses; as a result, the portraits vary wildly. In one, a man in a white button-down shirt sits primly in a chair, his face covered by a sheet of paper on which someone has sketched a male face. In another, a large naked man is sprawled out, his eyes covered by a gray mask, his scrotum in the foreground. Yet another shows a man and woman wearing their clothes backwards, displaying the backs of their heads where their faces should be.
The deal Meeker strikes with participants — that they read the article and learn about depleted uranium before contributing a photo — defines the symbolism of the portraits narrowly. In fact, she says the impulse behind her instructions was fairly literal, arising from the stories about children born without eyes. But like all successful issues-based art, "Depleted Selves" lends itself to larger readings: that we shy away from learning about difficult issues, literally hiding our eyes, or that we are being purposefully averted from knowledge about depleted uranium through government intervention. The fact that we can acknowledge our complicity, whether intentional or not, allows for the kind of release that participatory art feeds on.
Art that solicits participation is the genre of the moment. There's SFMOMA's current survey, "The Art of Participation: 1950 to Now," which features more than 40 artists. SF Camerawork recently closed "I Feel I Am Free But I Know I Am Not," which included events in which gallerygoers sat for one-hour pinhole camera photos and posed in costumed tableaux vivants. There are virtual events in Second Life, parties where audiences drink beer as art, and jam-making get-togethers (at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts).
As indicated by the SFMOMA exhibit title, participatory art has a half-century history. Yet it still strikes most people as fresh and trangressive. This may be because we remain a culture of passive consumers, and it shocks us by asking us to actively contribute. The problem is that what we contribute often ends up being merely another consumable item. And it's often not very good art. Throw a social or political agenda in the mix, and you run the risk of alienating both potential participants and viewers — which is why, I'd guess, most of the SFMOMA artists eschew anything partisan.
"Depleted Selves" gets the balance right. There's just enough mystery in the story, and meat in the metaphor, to get us to open our eyes.