Last weekend, at the DUMBO Arts Festival, artist Kyle Goen debuted his newest installation entitled “Who Is Chelsea Manning?” The larger-than-life portrait is comprised of 50 strands of mylar flags strung together to form the smiling face of Chelsea Manning. It took home the award for Best Project at the festival.
The 1600 red flags, a reference to the White House’s 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue address in D.C., were wrapped up and labeled in manila envelopes before installation. They were cut to the appropriate length, raised up, and strung between two buildings on the day of the installation.
“I hadn’t even thought about it as being that grand,” Goen said, referring to a writer who called Chelsea Manning’s sentencing “the hugest story of the year.” “[It] becomes this huge piece [and] it has to be a lot of different parts from a lot of different angles.” That’s true both literally and figuratively, as the installation changes form as you walk around and under it — and only comes together as a clear portrait when you stand far enough away to take in the entire piece at once.
The sound was also a disarming — and unexpected — part of the piece. The two buildings formed a wind tunnel that blew the flags against each other, adding another dynamic to the experience. In addition, the wind blew the flags in such a way that only when the wind was completely still could you easily see Chelsea’s face.
Goen was pleased to see that his installation was generating conversations about transgender identity and rights. “That’s the space I was hoping to create […] those kinds of moments happen where you’re able to talk about those things. Everybody has their own level of how much they know, […] and it’s so confusing to people[…] It’s actually not that complicated. It’s just really about respect and understanding. So that was this really beautiful space that — so I’m hoping that more of those kinds of moments happen, once the piece is up and people see it and it kind of goes out there and starts living by itself.”
Manning’s identity as a trans woman has sparked an ongoing debate in the media about language but Goen also thinks it’s a matter of respect. “When you approach it from respect, then addressing with the right pronoun, or not a pronoun at all, or no gender-specific pronoun, it actually becomes not that big of a deal — it becomes easy. And so I think a lot of people just approached it very disrespectfully. That I think was the disservice.”
Goen also believes part of his work is just to create a conversation, and to invite others to participate. “As an artist, you just create these moments, […] and I don’t try to act like I’m an expert on all these issues, but it really is an artist trying to create a space that allows all these other voices to come in, so reaching out to CCR (Center for Constitutional Rights) and I just reached out to the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, trying to get other voices that have more knowledge than myself, to come in and actually add to the conversation is important for me, so as many voices that can come in and make the story bigger and bigger, I think that’s brilliant.”
He also thinks of the installation as a gesture of support or comfort for Manning: “I really hope that a piece this big, when it’s up — just the beauty of the piece alone, I’m hoping that Chelsea will see it, or know word of it, and that will just be some light and some comfort in her darkness, you know?”
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