Gonyea’s “Mr. Tillerman’s World”: Our Trembling Tyrants Within
Mr Tillerman’s Visage (Photo: Brent Gonyea)
Art is by nature polysemic, the more so the more engrossing. Political art especially needs to pose multiple questions in order to keep our interest. If the questions can be answered by logic alone, the work would not be art; if they can be answered but once, it would not be timeless.
Brent Gonyea’s recycled sculpture “Mr. Tillerman’s World” triggers such a cascade of multi-dimensional questions that make it succeed as art, and as political art. It touches aspects of the human condition that provoke the incessant inquiry that we know precedes enlightenment. We can’t help but be prodded on so and sense a rare aesthetic experience that we hope does not end.
The entire piece consists of wood scraps and found objects. Mr. Tillerman–a futuristic, jangly Conquistador on legs too-skinny, feet too-large, in an angular hat reminiscent of Franco’s Guardia Civil, or George Washington posing as he did crossing the Delaware, chest forward, arms extended, nose in the air, nostrils flaring–stands tall and with one hand casts his fishing line into his own vessel, with the other commands his tiller. His subordinates are all hunched over before him in the sunken deck, ostensibly rowing but armless. They do not look a happy lot–naturally, for they are the objects of their captain’s fishing expedition. The recycled craft seems to be gleaning itself, comically, eerily.
The political dimension slaps us in the face. Is Mr. Tillerman a tyrant? Does he stand for a political culture founded on control, on “governing”? Overseeing the inhabitants of his vessel, all of them below, Captain Tillerman stands secure on large feet of copper tubing that tightly grip the stern. From this commanding position he needs no Panopticon to observe, regulate, or punish the stunted, armless denizens of his world. Everything here is by nature centralized, and the Captain fancies himself Alexander Hamilton on steroids. Nothing can happen below him on deck, without his approval, and he’s not bashful to shout orders like Uncle Stalin, or we imagine, an Antonin Scalia on too much red wine. His posture too suggests the overconfidence of hubris, or rather the intoxication of power, because the pose doesn’t quite fit. Nevertheless, we must admit his community appears rather well governed.
A ship is safe in harbor, but that’s not what ships are for.
The world-traveling Mr. Tillerman’s feet are so firmly planted, we suspect he would only begrudgingly leave his own port and wager he would not leave his ship as it arrived in foreign ports, because we reckon he could not bear to walk on anyone else’s turf. Yet, somehow, he manages to navigate the oceans of the world. That Mr. International Tillerman would not bother to learn a foreign language, or leave his own ship, doesn’t seem to matter to the world, for his ignorance relieves its worries. The world even awards it with a Nobel Prize for peace. Or is it for being tall, good-looking, and nonthreatening to the international status quo? How could he threaten when he’s on his own ship, speaking only his own language, circling only in the water! But Mr. International Tillerman does indeed embrace change, so long as it happens somewhere else and doesn’t rock his own ship. Moreover, he shows great tolerance for what happens on other boats as long as they stay far enough away not to create waves around his own.
And although he’s been awarded for peace, Mr. Tillerman looks surprisingly strong. So strong, he’s been crowned Mr. Universe many times over. Since his school days he’s trained to “fight, fight, win,” to “b-e a-g-g-r-e-s-s-i-v-e.” Fighting hard to “bring it all home” defines leadership for him, and he executes it well. With push ups and bench presses, Mr. Universe Tillerman has built up a hard shell of armor around his sensitive abdomen. And what fine, shiny armor it is!
Indeed, his political, diplomatic, and physical strength are complemented by an equally impressive psychological invulnerability. By avoiding the open water, in casting his line only within his own vessel, Mr. Tillerman maintains unequivocal control. There is nothing unexpected in his world. Nor is there luck. Before he sets his line he knows exactly the type of (armless, misshapen) fish it can bring. He manages to control not only his feelings, but his very thoughts too, by completely shutting out the unconscious, the illogical, the intuitive. This he contrives rather cleverly. Tiny earbud headphones (barely noticeable under his imposing thicket of hair) continually stream his anthem inside his ears; so he hears no rumblings of doubts or murmurings of history. In the meanwhile, he shields himself from other worlds with a flat, thin black mask that covers his face and eyes, as it reflects back his own beliefs, projects, prejudices, and ambitions into his vision. Nothing can get in his way. Only his own laser logic and regimented reason guide him, always onward, always forward, to achieving his ends.
Impressed by this spectacular toughness we ask ourselves, “What for?” To what end is Mr. Tillerman so driven? We wonder, “What if he were pointed in the wrong direction, how could anyone warn him?” We bet he would not hear (if at all) until it were too late. Then we muse, “Isn’t this all overkill?”
A true community needs few governing laws because it organically orders itself. The Globe is round, and Mr. Tillerman must get on land somewhere. The shiny armor seems fragile still; after all a rock, solid through and through, needs no protective shell. As for psychological control, courage (with no muffle nor mask) faces change within and peril without. Finally, we ask, “In what ways are we all ‘Tillermen,’ in what ways are we unaware?”
Gonyea’s work, of earthly materials found strewn in dirt, manages to raise inexhaustible, heady questions just the same. But the authenticity, humanity, universality of these questions reflect the small-town earth on which they were found–questions we would ask of our leaders, our systems, and ultimately, ourselves when we have time to reflect. In the end, the work makes us feel special, more than mere observers, that in the course of inquiry we’ve somehow been transported into the very act of making art.
This article was re-published April 25, 2013 on openDemocracy.net under the unfortunate title “Reading Sculpture.”
[“Mr. Tillerman’s World” was on display during the month of February at the Raw Deal in Menonomonie, Wisconsin. I am working on getting a picture of the entire piece and of sufficient quality to upload. In the meantime, please use your imagination.]
very insightfull. You are artful at choreography and casting as you interpret Mr Tillerman in global roles and various guises. I like that he becomes a pliable metaphor for geopolitical considerations.
You have a very articulate and informed writing style
I feel that the writing that accompanied the piece @ the raw deal is pertinant to your critique.
Here it is…
“Mr Tillerman sat as the stern of his vessel. He had long ago stopped casting into the open waters around and under him. All of his casting was now into the vesswel he Captained. This way he regulated his own quarry and was not restricted to the samer boundaries that existed outside the walls of his vessel.
He had a matron who provided a flow to his appetite of carnage. He simply tossed aside any waste or corruption. He picked who he wanted from their unsuspecting backside.
He simply smiled and chuckled.”
A strange irony is that Mr Tillerman is in a joyfull bliss. He is satisfied and empowered (at the expense of his shipmates).
I think you described him well when you said “his ignorance relieves its worries’.
Thanks Brent. I hadn’t read the label because it had fallen off, I believe, before I had a chance to. Although we’re always free to make our own interpretations, it’s nice that mine wasn’t far from the author’s.
Thinking about Mr Tillerman made me reevaluate the word government. http://bit.ly/XXIpolD Perhaps we need a word less associated with coercion and more linked to our ideals.
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Mr Tillerman never ceases to amaze me, here from a Wikipedia entry on Greg Bateson:
“Bateson presents Occidental epistemology as a method of thinking that leads to a mindset in which man exerts an autocratic rule over all cybernetic systems. In exerting his autocratic rule man changes the environment to suit him and in doing so he unbalances the natural cybernetic system of controlled competition and mutual dependency. The purpose-driven accumulation of knowledge ignores the supreme cybernetic system and leads to the eventual breakdown of the entire system. Bateson claims that man will never be able to control the whole system because it does not operate in a linear fashion and if man creates his own rules for the system, he opens himself up to becoming a slave to the self-made system due to the non-linear nature of cybernetics. Lastly, man’s technological prowess combined with his scientific hubris gives him the potential to irrevocably damage and destroy the supreme cybernetic system, instead of just disrupting the system temporally until the system can self-correct.
Bateson argues for a position of humility and acceptance of the natural cybernetic system instead of scientific arrogance as a solution. He believes that humility can come about by abandoning the view of operating through consciousness alone. Consciousness is only one way in which to obtain knowledge and without complete knowledge of the entire cybernetic system disaster is inevitable. The limited conscious must be combined with the unconscious in complete synthesis. Only when thought and emotion are combined in whole is man able to obtain complete knowledge. He believed that religion and art are some of the few areas in which a man is acting as a whole individual in complete consciousness. By acting with this greater wisdom of the supreme cybernetic system as a whole man can change his relationship to Mind from one of schism, in which he is endlessly tied up in constant competition, to one of complementarity. Bateson argues for a culture that promotes the most general wisdom and is able to flexibly change within the supreme cybernetic system.”