On a dry breezy November Saturday morning I was greeted at the door of Gallery Askew by Stewart Goldman, creator of “War Zone.” The exhibit had opened October 10th during Camp Washington open studios and gallery day. Attendance had been minimal as it has been for most gallery exhibits during the pandemic. Indeed, I was the only visitor at the time and the rest of the building was quiet.
The installation covered the entire gallery with a massive table, electronic equipment, and projected videos on each of the three walls. Goldman had assembled a seven-person team of students and artists to assist him in the construction. Some built the table on which artists painted a map of the United States. Goldman painted state flowers for each state, framed them, and placed each within its state’s boundaries. He also laid track for two miniature trains to chug across America. Team members installed video cameras and electronics at the top of a beam to run looping videos projected on three separate walls. Artists hand painted frames to create screens. Alongside the table, they placed more equipment to run the trains. It was a busy set. Overall, Goldman’s goal, he told me, was for viewers to “Just look at these events, tally them up, and think of how you relate to them.”
Video players project two nonstop rolling lists and streaming news reports on the walls surrounding the map of America. The lists’ topics include mass shootings that have taken place since the 1999 Columbine tragedy and the increasing number of COVID-19 deaths in the fifty states and protectorates. The third video is a composition of protest marches from across the country in the summer of 2020 and President Obama’s eulogy at the Methodist church where a 2015 mass shooting took place.
The video listing the mass shootings begins in 1999 with the notorious Columbine High School tragedy. The names of these tragedies go on and on. As I stood there watching, different places jogged my memory of the past 20 years. Shootings have taken place in Cincinnati to Dayton to Pike County in Ohio, and beyond to Alaska and Florida and more. They take place in houses of worship, post offices, malls, military bases, and in villages and cities. On a handout which Goldman wrote to accompany the show, he reflects on the joy he felt during his childhood each holiday season. He would run to the basement to find miniature trains surrounding a landscape of lit houses, a grand station, and store displays. However, in recent years he began to think about the surviving parents of children who were killed, and other children of parents killed in mass shootings. He sees them forever missing special times like the holiday trains brought to him. He expresses empathy for the families and further concern and frustration about gun violence in America.
The second video illustrates the increasing numbers of COVID-19 deaths per state. It is a rolling list whose numbers Goldman updates weekly. As I watched the counts roll by, my memory did not need to be tapped. These increasing deaths were taking place in real time. During November 2020, we were witnessing rising COVID deaths daily in the news as the pandemic grew across the U.S. On the handout Goldman expresses sharp criticism about the current President and his administration’s behavior relative to these numbers. This emotion was clearly part of his motivation to produce the exhibit and hopefully increase awareness and action to resolve it.
The third video has a somewhat different take. It shows news reels of protests taking place in different cities across America in 2020. Hundreds and thousands of protestors. These protests took place internationally as well. Goldman questions “Police and Black murders” in his paper that sparked the global response. The video includes President Obama singing Amazing Grace during his eulogy to the Methodist congregation in Charleston, South Carolina. I recalled how powerful of a moment it was.
During the time that one views the videos, the sound of two miniature trains rolling across the map of America and meandering through state flowers is constant. This sound represents lost joy. The videos demonstrate that mass shootings, police brutality toward African Americans, and questionable government response to a deadly virus is constant. Goldman reminds us that these tragedies are not over. If it were not for the pandemic, perhaps more viewers could have been witness to “Just look at these events, tally them up, and think of how you relate to them.” He and his team certainly put in the effort.