Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Appreciating Sole Food: A Reflection on “The Politics of Shoes”

Appreciating Sole Food: A Reflection on “The Politics of Shoes”
The Politics of Shoes Exhibit @mobius – May 23 through May 31th, 2009
Mobius – 725 Harrison Avenue, Boston MA –

By G. Jeffrey MacDonald

I thought I had a clear idea about the political nature of footwear when I arrived at “The Politics of Shoes” at Mobius in Boston on a muggy night at the end of May 2009. Seared among my preconceptions was the infamous shoe-throwing incident of 2008, when then-President George W. Bush ducked to dodge a pair of projectile insults that had, moments earlier, wrapped the feet of a Baghdad reporter. Shoes, I thought, were by definition the lowest of the low. They shield the skins of our feet from spit, spillage and everything else that ends up on the streets. To use a shoe in a political statement is to express unmitigated disgust, I assumed. I arrived ready to see what was making Boston’s artists angry enough to take aim with their shoes and fire.

At first, I got a taste of what I’d expected from Milan Kohout’s installation: "The Politics of Shoes". Shoes photographed on a flag-draped doormat took a swipe at America’s national symbol. Another sequence of photos depicted the Baghdad shoe-throwing episode. Shoes equal insults, I thought. What other targets have these presenters lined up?

But by the time I’d finished going through the exhibit, I was seeing shoes as instruments with much more to say than: “I loathe what you represent.” I came to appreciate how shoes are deeply personal items. Hence when they’re politicized, they pack a person’s identity – frailties and passions alike – into their punch. My coming to see shoes as multi-layered vessels with subtleties to speak was a testimony, I think, to the artists’ individual and collective success at presenting installations that stretched the mind into some unexpected territory.

Sam Tan’s
"63 in ’08" pushed me to a new place, even though I learned later that I hadn’t quite grasped the project. Since I visited at night, I couldn’t see the 63 Boston murder victims’ names listed on the window. I also thought the footprints in the chalk on the floor were supposed to be those of people killed (they were actually those of previous visitors to the show). But pondering the written message and studying the markings of soles in chalk, I got a strong and arguably rightful impression that a footprint – especially one of a person now deceased – is very personal, almost sacred sign. It seems to deserve protection of its integrity as an act of reverence for the one who left it. I imagined I was looking at actual footprints of young, imaginative people who’d been gunned down. Their footprints, at least figuratively speaking, were all they’d really left on this earth. How intimate it is to regard a person’s footprint, and by extension, the shoe that makes it! Perhaps a shoe isn’t merely a cold vessel of disdain and repulsion.

In the adjacent corner, my line of thinking about shoes-as-intimates found more fuel. "I dream of boots and an army of women" by Leigh Waldron-Taylor showed a semi-circle of paired shoes, all pointed at a loosely hanging ladder. Aha, I thought: a statement about social climbing. Women amass shoe collections, I inferred from the display, as a means to appear that they’re making progress up a ladder of social status. That’s so sad, I thought, but also so human. Later Jane Wang, who’d invited me to the show, noted offhandedly that these shoes had belonged to women who are now dead. That insight made the display all the more poignant to me. These women had donned what were in most cases fancy shoes. They tried to climb, never reaching the top, and then died. Now the casings that had wrapped their feet for years and protected them from the elements of New England weather were alone in this space to make a final statement. Again the intimacy, even the vulnerability, of the shoe form was palpable. These weren’t screams of insult; these were whispers of longing. Both, it seems, are woven into the power of shoes to make political statements.

As I made my way around the exhibit, I got a sense that the artists behind these artworks were in tune with the close bonds that people feel with certain favorite shoes. Lauren McCarthy’s "Dress Shoes for Spontaneous Departure" spoke of how important a shoe can be. She rendered these sneakers as her freedom, her ability to run at any second. If fashion demands heels, she seemed to suggest tongue-in-cheek, then she would absurdly weld them onto the sneakers that give her autonomy in a world rife with threats and constraints. Along the wall, David Chin’s "The People’s Shoes" conveyed how much people love their old, well-worn, simple shoes – and how ambivalent they are toward the rest. Captions to some of his 20 or so photographs of shoes worn by Mobius visitors during a SoWa Art Walk spoke to the contrast. “These are my favorites. I can wear them without socks,” said one. “These are new and don’t make me feel any different,” said another. Shoes, when loved, become a part of you and me, I gathered. Nothing the well-worn ones say – in any assemblage or act of defiance – can be divorced from the earnest aspirations of those who’ve given them a unique shape and contour.

My new appreciation for the intimacy of shoe-packaged statements made the rest of what I saw resonate on a deeper level. J. Ellis Coleman’s
"Stay in Your Own Backyard" depicted oversized footprints in a suggestively enclosed space. They stood on sheet music with such racist lyrics as “a coon like you” should stay in his own backyard. I saw these footprints as a symbol of one person’s deep longings to be free, to explore and to achieve. Perhaps I would have seen them in a similar light had this installation been my first stop at the show, but the other artists’ works had sensitized me to just how inseparable are a person’s footprints from his or her being. To confine mobility, either literally or figuratively, is perhaps to muffle humanity.

It seems I don’t see shoes in quite the same way as I did before this show. More importantly, I think I appreciate the frailty of human existence more than I did before. Even the most coarse and blunt of instruments for delivering insults is apparently inextricably connected to an individual’s personal story and deep longings. And if a weapon can have such a tender human dimension, then perhaps human beings too are capable of more than a little humaneness.

G. Jeffrey MacDonald is an independent journalist specializing in religion, ethics and social responsibility. His articles have appeared in TIME magazine, USA Today, MS. magazine, American Executive, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post and The Christian Science Monitor among others. His stories in USA Today are archived here:

Jeff is a recipient of religion journalism’s top award, the Templeton Reporter of the Year prize from the Religion Newswriters Association. The American Academy of Religion has also honored him four times for his in-depth reporting on religion. He holds a Master of Divinity degree from Yale University and Bachelor of Arts in American history from Brown University.

His forthcoming book, “Thieves in the Temple: The Christian Church and the Selling of the American Soul,” will be published by Basic Books in Spring 2010.

1 comment:

  1. Such a poignant commentary. I saw the pieces MacDonald writes about in the Mobius exhibit, but I now "see" them even more.
    Margaret Bellafiore