Salt Lake City
Car crashes and forest fires, school shootings and terrorist attacks all make our world more violent. As such events continue to increase, we will need tools to comprehend and mourn such events. The works collected in Frank McEntire’s recent exhibition “First Response,” which honored the servicemen and women who yank us from harm’s way and pry us from the wreckage, offer some possibilities. McEntire combines the emergency equipment used by these professionals with other found objects to form assemblages that blend the reverent with the didactic. We come face to face with fireproof coveralls and hardhats, wye valves and battering rams, crowbars and crane hooks.
Bringing these objects into a gallery is not without its complexities. On one hand, getting close and personal with used rescue equipment is unsettling. Breath, for instance, displays a spent oxygen tank within a Plexiglas case. With the mouthpiece lying limp beside the tank, one can’t help imagining it being used by someone gasping for air. Nicks and scuffs bear witness to a real world of danger, not the dramatized scenarios on our television screens. These objects, which once played a critical role in life-saving rescue operations, possess near-magical properties and an inherent gravitas.
On the other hand, these same objects are at risk of fetishization. Such is the case with RAM in which McEntire has welded an old (and admittedly beautiful) battering ram onto a car jack. Initially, the work invites reflection about its original function, but it soon asks viewers to consider it as an aesthetic object. Here, the materiality of the object—the sexiness of its battered surface and suggestive shape—leads viewers down the Sebastião Salgado rabbit hole. The rich surfaces of classical columns and vintage wooden boxes also feel like guilty pleasures.
McEntire sidesteps such distractions when he ties small paper tags around the objects, each tag covered with a fragment of an obituary. Though splattered with clichéd red-paint-as-blood, they are also cropped to the point of obfuscation and hint at lives lost, stories abbreviated. Elsewhere, McEntire raises the heat with political commentary. A banner cites “the Bush Administration’s rush into the Iraq War.” In Rapid Response, a copy of Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan’s 2015 book about ISIS sits on a domestic console table lined with rubber boots. Three scuffed fireman’s hats and framed portraits of 9/11 responders hung on the wall above. The photos, bruised and battered, echo the abused negatives of the Starn Brothers and Joel-Peter Witkin.
This political discourse was particularly brave in a state that sacrifices its fair share of servicemen to senseless causes, yet shrouds them in enough ceremony so as to stifle real change. McEntire’s assemblages have the potential to interrupt these meta-narratives and raise the question of whether victims died in vain. McEntire saved the zenith of this inquiry for a more tongue-in-cheek piece that equates the “first responses” of the current administration with malfeasance and ineptitude.
Writers such as Walter Benjamin and Paul Virilio have warned against the perils of aestheticizing war and violence. We are already seeing the commodification of these subjects in video games and reality shows. As climate change and military excess continue to raise the number of both natural and manmade catastrophes, our ability to comprehend and prevent them will take on greater urgency. Though not without their flaws, the assemblages of “First Response” can help us think outside the box by exploring alternative visual languages that might slow us down for just a moment, inching us toward a safer, more deliberate world.