Earlier this week, the Whitney Museum announced that artist Annette Lemieux had asked that her 1995 work, Left Right Left Right, be reinstalled upside down, so that its 30 photographs of raised fists mounted on wooden stakes now point toward the ground.
The reinstallment was a response to Donald Trump’s election—a gesture that “suggests a commitment to individual agency, the continuing power of protest, and a feeling, in her words, that the ‘world has turned upside down,’” the Whitney wrote in a statement.
Lemieux’s work is more ambiguous than the images alone suggest: While one of the fists belongs to Richard Nixon, another is Martin Luther King Jr.’s, which is to say that it’s not simply a uniform reflection of solidarity and protest.
But Lemieux’s recent gesture is a straightforward response to, as the artist said herself, our upside down world under President-elect Donald Trump—and the first high-profile art commentary since his shocking victory last Tuesday.
It’s also an indication that we’ll likely see much more political and protest art in response to Trump’s election. Artists throughout history have reacted to cultural and political discourse, with art often serving as a powerful political weapon.
As Nina Simone, the jazz musician and civil rights activist, once put it: “How can you be an artist and not reflect the times?”
Indeed, we’ve seen plenty of art that’s done just that during Trump’s campaign, from Portland-based artist Sarah Levy’s painting of the grimacing candidate made with her own menstrual blood (a response to his “blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever” comment suggesting that Megyn Kelly criticized him during the first debate because she was on her period) to Los Angeles artist Illma Gore’s depiction of a nude Trump with micropenis-sized genitalia.
In the most mainstream satire of the president-elect, Alec Baldwin continues to play Trump on NBC’s SNL, itself criticized for allowing Trump to once host the show.
In August and September, statues of a naked, testes-bereft Trump were erected in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Seattle, Cleveland, and Miami by the anarchist collective Indecline. The internet was mesmerized by photos of the effigies—part of an aptly titled project, The Emperor Has No Balls—and amused passersby inspecting the statues’ folds of veiny, yellowish-pink flesh and tiny genitalia.
Many were removed within hours of going up, though one of them reportedly sold for $22,000 at auction in October.
Some of the most prominent election art, including these works, wouldn’t have garnered as much attention had they not gone viral on social media. But one group of anonymous, anti-Trump guerilla artists called the Birch Reincliff Art Collective has recently been engaging the public in different ways.
Last week, the Chicago-based collective installed 6-foot-tall golden elephant sculptures around the city, each one emblazoned with the question, “What would a Trump presidency look like?”
More than 1,000 people wrote or illustrated their responses on the sculptures, which the collective declared “public bulletin boards to create the opportunity to have a voice” in a statement, writing that “overwhelmingly, people were horrified at the idea of Trump’s future presidency.”
In October, the collective decorated the city with 25 gold toilets in public locations, their lids graffitied with the names of Trump surrogates and allies (“Putin Was Here”; “David Duke Was Here”).
Inside each one were the collective’s “Donnie The Poo” dog toys, and postcards addressed to the RNC. The $14 toys are also available for purchase online, with the collective promising to donate $5 for every toy purchased to organizations like Disabled American Veteran, Planned Parenthood, and the Human Rights Campaign.
In a phone conversation with The Daily Beast, one of Birch’s anonymous artists said they’re currently in the “blueprint stages” of planning more interactive, anti-Trump art (“none of us expected that he would win”) with the goal of forcing people to engage one another in conversation.
“Giving people the opportunity to write on our elephants got them out of their echo chambers and even inspired arguments,” he said, speaking on behalf of the collective and noting that posting their art online wouldn’t have the same effect. “So we decided our work needs to be out in public where people will actually communicate face-to-face. It’s important to get people who don’t agree to talk to one another—that’s the whole purpose.”
He also criticized arguments in mainstream media that echo chambers exist as much on the left as they do on the right.
“To say that these are equally recursive echo chambers filtering the same information isn’t true,” he said, adding that right-wing media outlets like Breitbart and Fox News “intentionally censor facts” and that the media has created a “false equivalence” by suggesting these echo chambers are problematic on both sides of the political spectrum.
“We have to report the facts as they are and to get the Rush Limbaughs and Ann Coulters of the world out of their echo chambers and to start engaging in reality,” he said.
Birch is currently in the early planning stages with members in New York City to launch projects there, their representative said, though he declined to reveal the total number of artists in the collective. “We started out as [a group of] five, but Birch Reincliff has made a lot of new friends since then,” he said, clarifying that, while its members have known each other for some time, the collective formed during the election.
The collective is named after a friend of several members, who they claim had become disenchanted with society when, roughly a year ago, he had an outburst one night when they were together.
“We knew he had been dealing with a lot of stress at home with his family and job, but as weeks went by it seemed more likely he’d had an extreme mental breakdown,” the collective’s representative artist told me, adding that the group was formed in Reincliff’s honor and that they haven’t seen or heard from him since.
The collective doesn’t necessarily believe great art is more likely to emerge from communities of marginalized groups or climates with less socio-political stability.
“It’s easy to say that suffering inspires art, but there’s a bit of romanticism there,” he said, alluding to the cliché of the tortured artist. “I think it’s more true great art just strives and exists in spite of adversity.”
He argued that lack of resources can prevent people who aren’t privileged from making art. People who have a safety net to fall back on—whether it’s money or a supportive family—“can afford to see the benefits of their work without the same risks of someone who is working poor, for whom the risk might be homelessness.”
Indeed, many prominent political protest artists of our times have risked their lives, from Ai Weiwei to Pussy Riot.
Unlike China and Russia, America has long been a free society where political protesters are protected by the First Amendment.
But Trump’s alignment with Putin and fascist rhetoric has led many people to believe that, once he’s moved into the White House, he just might crack down on dissidents.
It’s hardly surprising that people fear a Trump administration, considering that its incoming “chief strategist” Steve Bannon has been accused of being a white nationalist (today, he claimed he was a “nationalist,” who said that he hopes to build a political movement similar to “Andrew Jackson’s populism,” referring to the Democratic president whose legacy is associated with the mass death of Native Americans).
“We think he’s a monster,” Birch said of the president-elect—all the more incentive for the collective to storm cities like Chicago and New York with anti-Trump art.