In military parlance, Atlanta artist Joseph Guay‘s latest piece — titled The Cost of War — was FUBAR (f**ked up beyond all recognition) beyond his control.
The sculpture was to be the centerpiece for PULSE Art Fair’s 15th-anniversary celebration at Art Basel Miami Beach earlier this month, with 20 percent of its $70,000 list price earmarked for veterans’ charities in the Southeast and an orphanage in Afghanistan.
You could, unfortunately, retitle it Mission Aborted.
As a mixed-media artist, Guay often employs bullets, gunpowder, motor oil, shattered glass and byproducts of weapons, terrorism and destruction. The point, he says, “is to create objects that will influence their environment . . . not merely decorate it.”
The Border Wall, his 2017 public art installation in West Midtown, for instance, was intended to provoke conversations about immigration policy. Missed Attendance in 2018 was his response to the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida. The Cost of War — a military Humvee covered with 28,000 tiny green toy soldiers — was created to honor the 4,400 American troops and 480,000 Iraqi and Afghan soldiers and civilians who have died in the ongoing wars in the Middle East.
The military introduced Humvees in the 1980s, but following the War on Terror, they became synonymous with U.S. occupation, domination and power in the Middle East. According to Guay, the Pentagon spends millions on vehicles used to invade and patrol foreign territories, but once troops withdraw, the trucks are abandoned. After going through extensive background checks and a six-month waiting period, Guay was able to acquire a used Humvee shipped from Iraq to a Naval base Stateside.
He didn’t alter the Humvee’s mangled engine block, shattered windshield or charred driver’s seat, because he wanted the piece to convey the intensity of combat. He deployed the toy soldiers to evoke a sense of childhood, nostalgia and loss. And he nickel-plated the gas cap, gas can, oil dipstick and a soldier’s helmet to symbolize America’s agenda to control oil in the region at any cost.
So far, so good. To get the Humvee from his Atlanta studio to Miami, he hired a government-bonded shipping company, then learned the job had been outsourced to a third party. That driver removed all 2,000 feet of heavy-duty pressure wrap from the in-transit installation because, he told Guay, “It was flapping in the wind on the highway.” Despite the driver’s assurance that “We lost, like, a handful of soldiers, but it’s not a big deal. It’ll all be OK,” Guay was concerned enough to ask for visual documentation.
As the snapshots hit his camera phone, Guay couldn’t reconcile what he saw with the driver’s claims. Generously speaking, all but about 5,000 of the tiny green army men were gone.
“I felt like I was going to black out,” Guay says. “I’d spent more money on this thing and worked on it longer than any other piece of art I’ve ever made, and it was demolished. How the hell did you do this? And at what point did [the driver] not see the need to tell me? If I hadn’t called him ahead of time, he was going to pull up to Art Basel like this.”
With less than 48 hours before the international art fair opened, artists in Miami offered to stage a group session to help Guay repair the damage. They understood what was at stake — from the lost potential revenue for veterans’ groups to the game-changing opportunity that being featured at Art Basel Miami represented for Guay.
Guay decided to pick up the pieces, return to Atlanta and take time to figure out his next step. He’s still obviously shaken by the setback, but — big picture — mostly appalled that the casualties of war no longer dominate headlines or presidential debates.
“The cost of war has been lost lives, lost money and lost property,” Guay says. “More than $7 trillion has been spent on the War on Terror in seven conflicts . . . but the world is not any safer than the day after the [Twin] Towers fell. We have killed 450,000 people in the Middle East in retaliation for the 3,000 people who were killed on 9/11. We, as a country, point the finger at terrorist organizations when we actually deploy more soldiers and kill more civilians in foreign territories than any other country in the world.”
Of his Humvee experience, he says, “I felt so robbed and damaged that I felt like I would never make art again. But then I checked myself and realized, ‘It’s just a piece of artwork. Imagine parents whose kids come back missing a leg? Or, worse, their child dies?’ What happened to me is nothing compared to what is happening in real life. It took me a minute to pull it together, but it’s been really interesting . . . I’m trying to make art to teach people things, and I’m the one who ended up learning the biggest lesson.”