Bharati Chaturvedi / New Delhi August 18, 2007
If you walk in the U-street neighbourhood of Washington DC anytime now,
you see this thing. It's a large pink cube in a mesh-like material,
filled with shoes.
Each shoe is labelled. The cube sits on the pavement (which they call
sidewalk) and you are struck by that vaguely nagging thought about what
makes this creation familiar?
You can't place it, but you've seen it. Then you know: it's mimicking
one of the most familiar images from the Holocaust — the shoes of the
victims who were sent to the concentration camps, minutes before they
were showered and gassed. The image has been borrowed for the victims
of the US invasion of Iraq. Some reports put the number of dead at
655,000. The work is about these staggering figures and those who will
join them in the future.
As everyone knows, the question of the US leaving Iraq is hotly debated
with overwhelming numbers in favour of a quick exit. The current
government refuses to commit to this, creating an even more intense
public discussion and outrage.
CODEPINK, which describes itself as “a women-initiated grassroots peace
and social justice movement working to end the war in Iraq, stop new
wars, and redirect our resources into healthcare, education and other
life-affirming activities”, is part of this outrage.
They're channeling their rage into their Walk in Their Shoes campaign,
which wants viewers to imagine the conditions of life, and the lack of
it, in this faraway country. The work you see is part of this evocative
Probing deeper, two fascinating aspects of such artwork were clear.
Firstly, that there was no individual authorship of the works. It was
collective creativity, with the Codepink label and description.
Secondly, it was clear from images that the Codepink work with shoes
was visually totally different in every venue, due to the varying
perspectives of the several campaigners. Pairs of shoes with the tag of
one Iraqi war victim is being distributed to Congressmen via their
In Monterrey, California, shoes were arranged at a venue along with
placards, in a crescent form, all over the green grass. Instead of that
terrifying holocaust image, the shoes seem to have been laid outside a
peaceful place of worship, where the praying living turned to the
In a school, shoes were displayed, starting with just 50 (contrast this
with Washington DC, which displayed 6,500). And of course, the shoes
could not have come all the way from Iraq. That would be too much relic
hunting. There were local donations, reinforcing the tenuous link
between the donors of shoes and the people they come to represent.
So then, is this art? Is putting tags on shoes and then strewing them all over art or is it pretty campaigning?
Let's move for a moment to Gerard Richter's monochromtic paintings of
his relatives with Nazi pasts. Richter was working at a time when his
generation was struggling to belong to a country with the holocaust as
its immediate past.
Using photos to paint people like his Uncle Rudi, Richter was part of
this context of working. If Richter looked inwards, a coalition of
women have been able to look outwards, taking the country (in parts)
They aren't artists but they have used powerful visual imagery in
public spaces, compelling viewers to see them with the same seriousness
as they would a bronze statue.
Like other good art, they share ideas and provoke deeper thinking. That's more than what most bronze statues will ever achieve.