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Lancaster University’s Peter Scott Gallery is hosting ‘Ben Turnbull: Truth, Justice and the American Way’ up until the 24th November 2012. Turnbull’s muse is America. Interestingly, the artist’s cult collection of American iconography and memorabilia is not translated onto mere collages, which pays homage to the greatness of the nation. The almost obsessive-compulsive collecting of American ideologies are instead utilised by Turnbull to create a far stronger message than that of a simple worship of the American Dream.
At immediate glance, his work appears punchy, glossy and pop arty, yet it is laced with political depths. The child-like utopia associated with cult comic-strip heroes is essentially shattered in Turnbull’s manipulation of such well known images in order to make satirical comments on what seem to be the weaknesses of American society. Standing up to deliver a speech to students gathered at Lancaster University’s Nuffield Centre, Turnbull re-considered, and stated – ‘I’m going to sit down ‘cus I’ve got a hangover.’ I think I was most shocked by Turnbull’s normality; his lack of pretentiousness and brutal frankness. Such honesty is translated into Turnbull’s examination of global politics, war, violence and guns – he is not afraid to take what we know and are comfortable with, such as the iconic comic book hero, and twist this image into a satirical critique of terrorism. This manipulation of semiotics and social ideologies is razor-sharp and unnerving.
The fireman’s face (Hero III, 2011), made up of the faces of fantastical super-heroes, pays homage to the bravery of the 9/11 fire fighters. The figure is an icon, created from hundreds of faces of cartoon heroes. Turnbull blurs the boundaries between fantasy and reality, by juxtaposing child-like utopia memorabilia with the harsh reality that we really do need heroes in this world. The real-life hero is created from non-real heroes. Perhaps this is a reference to the surreal atrocities surrounding terrorism; the fire fighters acted in a way that surpassed realistic human expectations of bravery, and so have gained a super-hero status. Or this bridge between fantasy and reality may a commentary on superhero ideology – the concept that superheroes are created as a result of our desire for a better world. When asked by Flamingo Magazine ‘What do you think will be the defining influence of the 21st century?’ Turnbull responded; ‘Terrorism.’ ‘Now it’s all about counteracting terrorism.’ This bleak and depressive outlook is a terrifyingly calm plea to raise awareness and caution, as well as to commemorate those who have fought for America.
Turnbull’s desk carvings of guns are particularly sinister because they take a symbol of childhood and therefore innocence, (the school desk) and mark it explicitly with brutality. By etching violence into the very frameworks of innocence, the re-representation of childhood desks are showcases for Turnbull’s critique of the contemporary American political system; ‘Force fed on violence, abused by a controlling superpower and blackmailed through patriotism, the public are ultimately as disposable as the toys they once played with.’ His work is, for want of other words, sad. The use of superheroes to ‘symbolise an authority figure, a father figure’ (as he told yatzer.com) comes with a sense of mournful regret. Humans should never have to become idealised super-heroes; superheroes should remain in comic strips. Hero III is a commemoration, but one bound up with a horror of moral evil. Turnbull’s reaction to terrorism is one of disgust; he seems to abhor the fact that men are forced to become real-life super-heroes. He carves a sort of warning into the desks of school children, whilst simultaneously pointing to the fearful idea that American society, encompassing all ages, are brought up on a doctrine of violence and warfare – America will either always be a target or a cause of violence.
When I heard Turnbull speak, I noted that he made many contradictions. When asked why he makes a career out of art rather than using his skills of interiors and film, he responded; ‘I make more money from it.’ Yet he was keen to assure us that the political messages associated with his work mean more than money; claiming that when he was offered money to re-create another fire fighter he responded ‘my integrity is worth more than 40 grand.’ He also maintains that ‘you need to be socially very out there’, whilst also stating ‘I only work for myself.’ Turnbull seems to be a man of many contradictions, which may stem from his love of America, verses his almost horrified critique of the American political and military system. The binaries of love and hate are demonstrated beautifully in his work, through further juxtapositions of innocence and violence, fantasy and reality, and the ideological and the ideal.