Shoes for a cause- ARTWALK India

August 18th, 2007

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 approach.

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 offices.

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 praying dead.

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) with them.

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.