Saturday, September 12, 2009

Big Lectric Fan

I'm back in Houston, and it's hot. The air conditioner runs pretty much all night to keep us cool while we sleep. I have thought a lot about what it must have been like to live here before air conditioning was everywhere. I guess people had Big Lectric Fans.

Wayne White has been thinking about this too. He's a Tennessee-born artist who has made a career out of making puppets, for PeeWee's Playhouse and the Weird Al Show. Now he's made a huge puppet head of George Jones, one of his heroes and one of mine. George Jones recorded the old song, "Ragged but Right," in the 1950s. The lyrics mention a "big electric fan to keep me cool while I sleep." It's a great song in its original old-time music incarnation. It was cleaned up a bit for George Jones's recording; the persona in his recording is much more of a family man than the persona in the original song, and much more of a family man than George Jones himself was for most of his life.

The fifteen-foot puppet head is in the Rice Gallery at Rice University. This gallery specializes in site-specific installations built especially for the gallery. Wayne White visited the gallery in June of this summer, when the temperature outside was 102. He says that he was lying in his air-conditioned hotel room, thinking about what it was like to live in Houston before everybody had air conditioning everywhere, and the George Jones song, "Ragged but Right," kept running through his head, especially the line about the big electric fan. He remembered that he had a small puppet head of George Jones that he had never made into a puppet. When he got home, he made a small macquette of the Rice Gallery and placed the head in it. Voila! That would be his installation.

When you enter the foyer of the gallery, you see the huge fifteen-foot head lying on its side. The eyes rotate so that sometimes they're open and sometimes they're closed:

Also, there's a rope in front of the piece that allows the viewer to open and close the mouth. When the mouth opens, a snoring noise comes out.

Walking around to the back of the head, you walk past George's flat-top crew cut, which is made out of hollow tubes. Then you see a little hole in the back of his head. Why not look inside? Why, there he is! A puppet of George Jones, inside George Jones's head! A dancing, string puppet, apparently inside a low-rent honky tonk.

Finally, at the base of the head is the eponymous Big Lectric Fan:

There's also a room off to the side called The Ice House. It has a big carved piece of white styrofoam in it, bathed in a bluish light.

The whole effect is fun, funny, and a bit mysterious. There is a video in the foyer in which Wayne White talks about the piece and shows the process of building it. It's basically made out of carved and painted styrofoam. He says that the head reminds him of a relic of a lost civilization that worshiped country music stars. I suppose he means that it looks like an Easter Island head, and it does. And, our society, particularly Houston, does seem a lot like Easter Island: we're consuming ourselves out of existence, and building huge, wasteful monuments to ourselves that require enormous amounts of energy, just as the Easter Islanders did.

The irony is that back in the days of Big Lectric Fans, and at the time George Jones recorded "Ragged but Right" in the 1950s, Houston was still on the cusp of its explosion as a megalopolis devoted to the wasting of energy. In the 1950s, the US consumed about a third of the energy that we do now, and we still were big producers of energy, according to the DOE.
(But, I bet it was hot at night.)

In the brochure accompanying the show, Wayne White writes, "The sleeping figure is one of the great subjects of art....My big puppet head also references Goya's 'The Sleep of Reason.' The peep show inside the head is the unleashed demons." Goya's print read, "The sleep of reason produces monsters." One could say that, again, this puppet head is thus a perfect metaphor for Houston: our ability to reason about where the energy will come from to drive our Big Lectric Fans (which are now Big Lectric Air Conditioners and Factories and Light Rails) has gone to sleep. We think we can invent our way out of the end of peak oil, but we are possessed by the demons of wasteful consumption, those dancing, manic puppets in our heads that are manipulated by advertising and Big Energy.

Wayne White goes on to say, "An all-night, unstopping fan is the merciless and eternal cycle of everything. The puppet head has a moving fan appendage which morphs man and machine into a surrealistic symbol of anxious existence."

At first I thought this was just more artistic bloviating. But wait a minute. Houston DOES feel like an all-night, unstopping fan. I can hear it whirring all night long: trains, planes, and automobiles roar by and vibrate the house. The refineries never stop refining. People never stop moving. The city feels like a machine, and we humans feel like small parts--appendages--in this giant machine. The fan on the puppet is where its body should be; all that's left of the human is the head. The machine IS the body: in Houston, all our bodily needs and functions are fulfilled by machines. We don't grow food; we drive to the grocery store and buy food that has been produced by machines. We don't have to take care of our wastes; we flush them away with a machine. We don't walk anywhere; our car machines take us places. We don't sing or play music; our tv and computer machines entertain us.

And then, for some of us, even our heads and our thinking are controlled by machines. They pull the rope; our mouths open and close. The machine whirrs; we open and close our eyes. Inside our heads, somebody pulls the strings that make our inner demons dance.

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