The Peopled World is a series of catalogue essays on the Works of Elizabeth Demaray. The collection features essays by:
Robert C. Morgan
Jean Marie Wasilik
The Nike Missile Cozy Project
Whether it is a large ant farm connected to MacDonald’s Happy Meal or a sweater for a plant, the art of Elizabeth Demaray never fails to surprise the viewer. Its novel concepts and unexpected juxtapositions of normally unrelated things defy many of our preconceived notions. Her intention in presenting such incongruities however, is not at all surrealist. Having studied Neuroscience and Cognitive Psychology at UC Berkeley, Demaray’s art is often informed by recent scientific research in these disciplines, as well as in Ecology and History. Rather than exploring the unconscious through art, she is seems more interested in forging actual connections between the named world and the real through tangible objects. Her interdisciplinary background allows her to go back and forth freely between the two worlds with ease. With an observant eye, she is able to identify previously overlooked subjects quickly, and execute her ideas in an artful and compelling way.
The Nike Missile Cozy Project (2001) (Peopled World, Pgs 34-39), Demaray’s largest work to date, fully demonstrates the afore-mentioned points. This work directly developed from her earlier sculptures, such as Good Baseball Rocks (1998) (Peopled World, Pgs 74-77) and Upholstered Stone (2000 – ongoing) (Peopled World, Pgs 71-73), which hid stones within leather or fabric upholstery. While she was staying at the Headlands Center for the Arts in Sausalito, California for its artist in residence program, Demaray became so intrigued by the adjacent decommissioned missile site that she ventured to visit there one day and talk with some war veterans. After explaining to them what kind of art she creates, she convinced them to provide her access to one of the Nike Hercules missiles in order to make a cozy for it. After donning a uniform, taking careful measurements, and spending numerous hours on-site, Demaray upholstered a ten-ton warhead with eighty-eight yards of quilted, light-blue satin. The missile and cozy remained on display at the launching pad for two weeks.
The beautiful documentary photographs of the upholstered missile, taken by her fellow artist resident, Annie Sprinkle, seem to make the whole endeavor innocent and benign. The act of emasculating the phallic weapon, however, is utterly subversive and echoes the found objects covered with fabric phalli forms created by Yayoi Kusama during the 1960s.
Furthermore, the project commemorates the decommissioning of nuclear and conventional missiles through the 1972 SALT I Treaty with the Soviet Union, anticipating the end of the Cold War. In this anti-war context, the work also relates to Christo’s Wrapped Reichstag, Project for Berlin (1971-1995), in which the artist wrapped the symbol of the Third Reich with white fabric, making its dark history disappear for two weeks.
The accompanying video, Missile Talk (2000), offers Demaray’s interview of a volunteer war veteran who works at the Nike Missile Site.
Also known as SF-88, the site is the only restored Nike missile site in the United States after the 1972 SALT I Treaty demanded the decommissioning of all these missiles and the closure of their sites. During the height of the Cold War, from the early 1950s to the early 1970s, there were as many as 280 Nike missile firing sites built by the United States as the defense against Soviet bombers. Today, in partnership with the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, many war veteran volunteers are engaged in the restoration, upkeep, and education efforts offered to the public about the Cold War at the site.
Accustomed to talking to the public, Demaray’s subject answered her questions about the missile with ease, even with some humor. In the video, the casual tone of their conversation contrasts oddly with the cold and menacing presence of the missile in the background.
Since being removed from the missile, Demaray’s cozy has assumed a life of its own. Because it is 25 feet long, most gallery spaces have not been able to show it. After lying dormant for several months, the cozy reemerged as a soft, lumpy version of the original, stuffed with foam and newspapers, and supported underneath by wooden struts titled Effigy, from the Nike Missile Cozy Project (2001) (Peopled World, Pg 138). This flaccid version is clearly another phase in critiquing the phallic warhead. By appropriating a symbol of the military-industrial complex, the cozy shares similarities with the work of a Japanese artist, Katsushige Nakahashi’s and their work – Zero Projects (2000 – ongo- ing). At various locations, in- cluding Hawaii, Nakanishi involved volunteers in the assembly and sub- sequent destruction by fire of the Zero. This shared experience served as a catharsis and allowed partici- pants’ to share their thoughts and memories of the war. Preserved as a cozy, Demaray’s sculpture is a haunting phantom of the missile and brings to mind the devastation and horror that these instruments can cause. Its intended uselessness and impotence prompts the viewer to ask questions about the history of warfare as well as raising awareness about current political realities regarding nuclear disarmament. Is it merely a relic of the past? Have we made any real progress in making this planet safer from nuclear annihilation?
Demaray has gone on to create many other projects – with some involving small creatures, such as, ants, hermit crabs, and birds. Her work is invested with concern about the environment and humanity’s place within it. Addressing issues of ecology, sustainability, and the future of our planet, her work promises to remain current and relevant. Where will she go from here? We have to hold our breath and watch her next move.