Horsepower Hubris presents hand-painted digital prints that examine vehicles as both weapons and targets of war. Painted motifs and passages borrowed primarily from Persian miniatures combine with contemporary media images of wartime destruction, exposing what has been lost, offering a tentative restitution, and evoking empathic unsettlement. Images of warrior steeds and more contemporary vehicles of violence reflect our aggressive impulses and their consequences, revealing sad continuities between ancient and ongoing armed conflicts.
While the automobile and its many-wheeled cousins were instrumental to the industrial transformation of the twentieth century, their role in the twenty-first century continues to grow more complicated. The initial promise of mobility, status, and power has been offset by an insatiable hunger for oil, resulting in recurring corporate and manufacturing crises, spurring dependencies that threaten national autonomy and world peace, as well as the environment. Machines on wheels can be seen variously as benign or malignant, as emblems, enforcers, or enemies of “freedom.” They may indulge our sense of leisure and luxury or function simply as conveyors. They protect us but also terrorize us during wartime. Alternately seductive and destructive, the automotive vehicle is exploited as both weapon and target in strategies of violence as a means to an end. Blown up, burned, or pieced back together, these vehicles are at the center of Horsepower Hubris, my series of works on paper that present the arrogance of power, dishonest rationales, and tragic follies of wars0001- 0006.
Six years ago, I began working with contemporary images of wartime destruction found on the Internet: images posted on blogs, news feeds, and photo-sharing sites like Flickr and Webshots. My resulting series, titled R&R(…&R), tweaked the military abbreviation for “rest and relaxation,” converting it to words like “regret” and “regenerate.” I constructed these works by first digitally manipulating found photographs of devastation from across the former Islamic empire—Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan, and elsewhere—and then recombining them with a layer of hand-painted scenes drawn from Islamic art and architecture, mostly from the workshops of Persian miniaturist Bihzâd and the court arts of Safavid Iran.
Several images in R&R(…&R) focus on vehicles, both animal and mechanical. A painted caravan of sixteenth-century camels saunters behind the charred carcass of a bombed vehicle, oblivious to the human penchant for killing (Roam: Riding on Remorse, Figure 3). This process of altering violent images by hand is my attempt at “empathic unsettlement,” and at offering a tentative symbolic restitution that recognizes what has been decimated and replaces the anonymous, ashen monochrome of rubble with scenes of revival and cultivation.1
The R&R(…&R) project led me to a new series, Horsepower Hubris, which hones in on the sad machinery of war, from rocking horse to military transport (see Rocking Horse, Figure 6). In Replenish (Figure 5), a thirsty horse from a mid-sixteenth-century illumination for the twelfth-century Persian poet Nizâmî's Khamsa (Quintet, or Five Poems) stands on the edge of a crater of a bombed bridge in Mosul, Iraq. Its empty saddle suggests a fallen warrior; its tail flows into the cavity like a river of blood. In another work, Headlong (Figure 4), I combine digitally collaged and hand-painted warriors based on an illustration in Firdawsī's Shãhnãmeh, or Book of Kings. This poetic epic of nearly sixty thousand verses tells the mythical and historical story of Greater Iran from the creation of the world up through the Islamic conquest of Persia in the seventh century. Dick Davis (2007: xv, xvi), in the introduction to his translation of the Shãhnãmeh, describes how it speaks to the nature of “the good man, the good hero…[who asks] not, ‘How do I win?’ but ‘How do I act well?’…[It ends as] a tragedy, the record of a deeply mourned civilization whose loss is seen as a disaster.” In the Shãhnãmeh illumination, the warriors accompany the hero Faramurz in scattering the troops of the king of Kabul. Headlong rearranges these figures to race around a contemporary image of a bombed car in Sri Lanka, another disaster where no one wins or acts well.
Stretch (Figure 2), which is perhaps the most complex and yet explicit piece from the series, sutures together the remains of bombed vehicles from multiple locations, creating a macabre version of a stretch limo. The angels floating above are similar to those in an illustration for Nizâmî's Tale of the Turquoise Pavilion, where they struggle with a seven-headed dragon in an allegory of the soul's journey through the lower world. In my image, the bullet-ridden, incinerated, and twisted wreckage replaces the dragon, while the weightless angels grip ropes taut and straining from their exertion at hoisting this massive mechanical corpse. They exhibit no hubris—only humility, signaling that we must persist and overcome even our best efforts to destroy. Perhaps their struggle mirrors our own in dealing with the proliferation and aftermath of violence.
“Empathic unsettlement” is Dominick LaCapra's term as discussed in Bennett 2005: 8.