Category: Postmodernism-Remodernism

The Tragedy of Vessel, Staircase to Nowhere

Have you heard about Vessel? It’s a giant climbable sculpture at the center of Hudson Yards, the $25 billion real estate development that masquerades as a neighborhood in the far west-side of midtown Manhattan, New York City. The creation and demise of Vessel is a cautionary tale on the foibles of contemporary art, but it’s also a metaphor for the crisis of American urbanism, and how media passes off unworthy works and individuals as impressive and noteworthy. Vessel is the zeitgeist of postmodern art. Allow me to fill in the details.

Artist’s conception of Vessel. Image/Heatherwick Studio.

Artist’s conception of Vessel. Image/Heatherwick Studio.

The Hudson Yards Redevelopment Project is the brainchild of New York real estate firm The Related Companies. Founded by billionaire Stephen M. Ross, the firm became an inexorable force in developing commercial properties. Hudson Yards is a city unto itself, but it should remind readers of the dystopian story The Hunger Games, where a class of frivolous and diversion obsessed elites attempted to rule over a ruined and fragmented society.

The official opening of Hudson Yards and Vessel took place on March 15, 2019. CNN’s pretend journalist Anderson Cooper moderated the affair. Democrat Senator Chuck Schumer gave a frothy speech, and then Big Bird the anthropomorphic muppet joined with Cooper, Stephen M. Ross, Sen. Schumer, and Thomas Heatherwick (designer of the gigantic staircase to nowhere), to launch Vessel in a flurry of confetti. A gospel choir sang out praises, and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre performed. It was all quite the spectacle, and no one had a clue what awaited them.

The 28-acre Hudson Yards complex is a huge gentrification project that hopes to transform an aging neighborhood into an exclusive enclave for the affluent. In part it offers 16 imposing skyscrapers with classy office space for some 55,000 employees, plus posh apartments and condos for 5,000 au courant swells (apartments go for $9,000 a month and condos start at $2 million). There is an arts center named The Shed for swanks like you, innumerable chic boutiques, cafes, bars, restaurants, an exclusive hotel, plus “public space” and gardens for the voguish to stroll through… et cetera, et cetera. But the center of Hudson Yards is its massive “public square” where Vessel dominates.

The Related Companies felt a bona fide tourist attraction was needed to draw happy shoppers into their Hudson Yards consumer paradise and real estate scheme. You know, a special touch to put a human face on the commercial development, investing in the “public space” and all that. It was essential for the attraction to offer, or at least appear to offer, something for the city’s goldbricks, clock-watchers, and proles to unite around. An iconic object to inspire unlimited selfies and generate free advertising to attract customers like moths to a flame. Enter the celebrated English postmodern designer and architect, Thomas Heatherwick.

Vessel, aka “Chalice of the Privileged.” Image © Raphe Evanoff 2019. Via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Vessel, aka “Chalice of the Privileged.” Image © Raphe Evanoff 2019. Via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Heatherwick was commissioned to create the attraction, and he delivered Vessel, an eight level, sixteen-stories high, tangled labyrinth of 154 connected staircases with eighty landings and 2,500 steps that go nowhere.

The 150-foot-tall structure was envisioned as an immersive design experience where people would socialize while getting a bird’s eye view of the megalopolis. The armature of Vessel is concrete covered with copper-colored steel.

But all of Vessel’s 75 enormous pre-fabricated steel pieces were fabricated in Italy because the miracle of globalism has nearly shut down America’s steel industry. Starting at its base Vessel is 50 feet across, and floor by floor it expands in width until it becomes 150 feet wide at its top level.

Vessel became an irresistible backdrop for selfies, but more than a few detractors rechristened it “the pineapple,” “beehive,” “wastepaper basket,” “pinecone,” “rat’s nest,” “Chalice of the Privileged,” “giant shawarma,” and other ill-favored nicknames.

“Paradoxides Heatherwickis.” Giant extinct marine Trilobite found in Hudson Yards, North America.

“Paradoxides Heatherwickis.” Giant extinct marine Trilobite found in Hudson Yards, North America.

Personally I think it looks like the extinct marine arthropod known as the Trilobite. Some pretentious artsy-fartsy types said it looked like one of those impossible staircases by Dutch artist M.C. Escher (1898-1972). I am certain that suggestion would have displeased Escher.

I discovered Escher as a pre-teen and fell in love with his lithographs, woodcuts, and mezzotint prints. I studied them not for their impossible perspectives but for their technique and off-kilter realism. He inflamed my passion for printmaking. Escher considered himself not an artist but a mathematician. It speaks volumes that the art world basically ignored him his entire life; his first retrospective came when he was 70-years old (he would die at age 73). Who will Thomas Heatherwick inspire? Certainly not me.

Heatherwick’s whimsical joke of a building cost $200 million to construct, but no one is laughing. I realize pseudo-intellectuals and the terminally trendy say he is the new Leonardo da Vinci of design, but few noticed Leonardo’s Vessel had, shall we say… design flaws. For instance, those damnable stairs.

“Relativity.” Lithograph. M.C. Escher. 1953.

“Relativity.” Lithograph. M.C. Escher. 1953.

I was privileged to visit Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France before some idiot burned it down. Since medievalist engineers did not equip churches with elevators, I climbed up and down its stone steps to visit the rooftop gargoyles; those 774 steps were a real workout.

I visited the Cologne Cathedral in Germany, it was exhausting to climb up and down its 1,066 rough hewn steps to gain access to the rooftop view of the city. It goes without saying that the history of those two Cathedrals was more than awe inspiring.

Now imagine the Vessel’s labyrinth of 2,500 steps, and the herculean task of climbing all 5,000 to go up and down this “interactive” cardio nightmare of a sculpture. What is the point of all that marching up and down? Heatherwick must surely despise the elderly. Worse, the structure offers not a single bench or place to sit, and its one tiny elevator is exclusively for people with disabilities; nonetheless, the elevator only stops on floors 5, 7, and 8.

Interior view of Vessel. Oops... that’s a still of David Bowie from the 1986 movie titled, “Labyrinth.”

Interior view of Vessel. Oops... that’s a still of David Bowie from the 1986 movie titled, “Labyrinth.”

Climbing Notre Dame Cathedral and Cologne Cathedral were well worth the effort, but the giant shawarma? I have visited authentic tourist attractions around the world, places like the Maya ruins of Chichen Itza in Yucatán, Mexico, the ancient Roman Colosseum in Rome, Italy, and the 17th century home of American patriot Paul Revere in Boston, Massachusetts.

These and other attractions I sojourned to are steeped in history and meaning; they are stirring points of interest. But what profundity does Vessel extend, aside from being a backdrop for smartphone photos?

However, Vessel has a much bigger problem than its steps. It is cursed by its railings. They are only 4-feet-high, even at its 150-foot-high eighth level. They are low enough for your average teen or adult to jump over—and jump they did.

The first suicide took place in Feb. 2020, when a 19-year-old man leapt from the Vessel’s uppermost deck. The second suicide occurred in Dec. 2020 when a 24-year-old woman also hopped over the railings at the eighth-floor to meet her demise. The third suicide happened in Jan. 2021 when a 21-year-old-man on the eighth-floor bounded over the railings to his death.

Interior view of Vessel. Image © Raphe Evanoff 2019. Via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Interior view of Vessel. Image © Raphe Evanoff 2019. Via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

A day after the third suicide Vessel was closed to the public so that “safety measures” could be instituted to prevent further deaths. Suicide prevention signs were mounted on the building and affixed to the railings. More security personnel were hired. Visitors were banned from entering Vessel alone, and though entry was once free visitants now had to pay a $10 entry fee (as if paying admission would prevent suicide). The National Suicide Prevention Hotline number was printed on the admission tickets. Everything was done to insure safety… except for raising the height of the railings, which is something The Related Companies refused to do, despite pleas from suicide prevention specialists. A “safer” Vessel reopened on May 28, 2021.

On July 29, 2021, a 14-year-old boy jumped to his death from the top floor of Vessel. That same day the building was closed, perhaps forevermore.

So there you have it, all that effort come to naught. London’s Royal College of Art (RCA), educated Thomas Heatherwick. That institute also boasts Tracey Emin and Jake and Dinos Chapman as alumni. How can a prestigious institution of art and design like the RCA cultivate, encourage, and champion such charlatans? It’s simple really. Postmodernist dogma with its aesthetics of ugly, superficial, kitsch, reigns supreme in universities and art academies; museums, galleries, and art critics are also spellbound by the doctrine. Critiques of Heatherwick and his postmodern cohorts are negligible because they are favored by the ruling elites. Even though Vessel has proven to be a literal deathtrap, its designer is viewed as blameless. The art world reaps what it sows.

From the top floor, a glance over those 4-feet-high railings... it sure is a long way down. Image © Raphe Evanoff 2019. Via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

From the top floor, a glance over those 4-feet-high railings... it sure is a long way down. Image © Raphe Evanoff 2019. Via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

One of the quagmires facing the contemporary art world—with its steady stream of horrid, silly, incomprehensible, and frightfully expensive thingamajigs, is its having become contemptuous of the public. Witness those workday-world New Yorkers who mocked Vessel as a “wastepaper basket,” “rat’s nest,” and “Chalice of the Privileged.” They were ignored by sophisticates who regarded them as uncultivated and artless. The corps d’elite simply doubled down on their Vessel nonsense. And the big payoff? Four tragic suicides, traumatized families, the $200 million Vessel closed indefinitely, and calls for it to be torn down.

I do not write the following to cast aspersions on the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, but since they promoted Vessel in a video and performed at its official opening they are open to critique. I had the pleasure of seeing them perform in Los Angeles years ago, and it is widely acknowledged the troupe has had an impact on modern dance. Still, I found their Vessel promo film to be regretful.

For the task of glorifying Vessel the dance company abandoned their autonomy and took money from The Related Companies, the multi-billion dollar real estate firm behind Vessel’s creation. The firm hired visual effects studio MILL+ to produce the Alvin Ailey film. The effects studio specializes in producing “immersive experiences” for entertainment franchises and product promotions. I hate to break it to the dance troupe but this is not art, it’s advertising. Related Companies has left its imprimatur on the legacy of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, and that’s a shame.

The MILL+ production with the Alvin Ailey troupe is titled The Film, and it opens with a morning scene in New York City. Troupe members are shown dancing their way through the cosmopolis; they undulate over cobblestone streets, and with fluid free-style steps glide through the subway, leaping up stairs and down avenues on a journey to an unknown destination. Eyes lift from sidewalks to tall buildings to see strange shadows of the climbable sculpture cast upon the edifices. Reaching Hudson Yards the group dances triumphantly; presumably they are dancing at the feet of the gigantic Vessel, even though it is never seen. In the final frames the troupe is observed from above gathered in a loose circle, arms thrust skyward as if in spiritual exaltation. Their bodies cast a growing shadow, the eerie penumbra taking on the shape of the Vessel.

The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre cast the shadow of Vessel. Screen grab from “The Film” video by MILL+ (Creative Commons).

The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre cast the shadow of Vessel. Screen grab from “The Film” video by MILL+ (Creative Commons).

Though not shown in the video, all I could see were ghostlike figures jumping from the top of the shadowy Vessel, they were leaping into suicidal oblivion. That is what the Vessel has become… a grave marker for postmodernism.

None of this comes as a surprise, I have long felt darkness was falling over the art world. I was 19-years-old in 1972 when an unfamiliar character named Christo spent $700,000 hanging orange nylon fabric across Rifle Gap in Colorado. It wasn’t the first time I despaired for art, and it wouldn’t be the last. I felt the gloom when wrecking cranes destroyed the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2020-2021, and when mobs began defacing and pulling down historic classical sculptures in public places during the summer of 2020 and beyond. Graffiti finding a home in art museums didn’t help any. But the implosion of Vessel was the last straw, it was akin to watching the final curtain coming down on the theater of postmodernism—and there was no applause.

It is said “art is a reflection of society,” but who shapes society? The people of NYC didn’t ask for a $200 million “wastepaper basket,” it was imposed upon them by a giant real estate firm and the city’s ruling Democrats. Society, such as it is, had nothing to do with it. But then again… New York City’s newly elected Mayor Eric Adams (D) approved legislation in January 2022 giving nearly a million non-citizens the right to vote in city elections. And the just elected District Attorney for Manhattan, Alvin Bragg (D), has downgraded armed robbery to a misdemeanor, making it a non-jailable offense. And that is why the city is called Gotham.

Perhaps Heatherwick’s $200 million “rat’s nest” really is the appropriate icon for New York City. As the Rolling Stones sang in their 1978 song titled Shattered, “Go ahead, bite the Big Apple, don’t mind the maggots.”

Hunter Biden’s very first art exhibit.

When speaking of banality in twenty-first century art, many names come to mind, but now there is a new dim star flaming out across the murky and corrupted skies of contempo art heaven. That not so bright heavenly body is named Hunter Biden.

“Rain #1.” Alcohol ink on paper. Hunter Biden. 2019. Source: Instagram

“Rain #1.” Alcohol ink on paper. Hunter Biden. 2019. Source: Instagram

On Oct 1, 2021, 51-year-old Hunter Biden held his very first art exhibit. The show was arranged by Georges Bergès, the New York gallerist representing Hunter. The invitation-only exhibit took place at Milk Studios in Hollywood, California, and continues until November.

Roughly 200 gawkers, glitterati and gullible buyers attended the opening. With sushi hors d’oeuvres and champaign, it was your typical ritzy Los Angeles art world soirée—but with a twist, a secret service man was in every corner!

A handful of celebrities showed up at the exhibit, goodness knows why. The gallery required proof of vaccination for entry, and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti wandered around in a Covid mask to set the proper mood for the paparazzi—though most attendees did not wear masks. Garcetti was of course the former national co-chair of Joe Biden’s 2020 campaign.

A handful of art world “luminaries” also attended; Millie Brown the “performance artist” waltzed in. She is lauded by postmodern sophisticates as the newest YBA (that’s “Young British Artist” to you unchic yobs). Millie has literally made a splash on the art scene; she drinks soy milk mixed with food dye, sticks her finger down her throat, and vomits up the mess onto canvas. No, I am not kidding.

Painting with Millie. I don’t make mistakes, just happy little accidents. There’s a happy little tree and a happy little Sun.

Painting with Millie. I don’t make mistakes, just happy little accidents. There’s a happy little tree and a happy little Sun.

Of course, Millie tossing her cookies is highly derivative of YBA Martin Creed and his 2006 era vomit video performances like Work No. 610, but plagiarism is a crown worn with pride by postmodern artists.

One can see similarities between Millie’s “vomit paintings” and Hunter’s vomitous watercolors. While Hunter’s paintings are astronomically priced, you can still pick up a pleasant little Millie barf canvas for under $3,000. However, don’t wait too long, Millie disgorges works at a nauseating pace and aficionados line up to spew cash in her direction.

For his watercolors Hunter Biden “paints” alcohol inks onto Japanese Yupo paper, a synthetic nonporous paper made of thermoplastic polymer that alcohol inks bond to. To apply the ink he uses traditional watercolor brushes and sometimes a wok brush—the bamboo kitchen tool used to clean the rounded bottom steel cooking pans of China. Hunter knows a few things about China, but that is another story.

“Rain #1.” Alcohol ink on paper. Hunter Biden. 2019. Source: Instagram

“Over the years he has acquired great skill in the use of a straw." The master at work, 2019. Source: Instagram

An ordinary straw is the preferred tool Hunter uses to manipulate the inks in his paintings. Over the years he has acquired great skill in the use of a straw. His challenge today as an artist is to resist the habit of sniffing through the straw, and instead blowing through the straw with his lips to push colorful alcohol inks around on paper.

Amusingly, when you type “alcohol inks” into a search engine’s image bank, you will find artworks that look remarkably like Hunter’s ink painting “masterworks.” It’s just that no one is brazen enough to ask $500,000 for one.

The problem with Hunter’s first exhibit are the prices of his original works, they start at $75,000 they go up to half a million. Those are unheard of prices for an unknown artist who never sold an art piece or had an exhibition, not just unlikely prices but impossible ones. However, since the single entry in Hunter’s catalogue of artistic achievements is listed as “Son of the President,” there is good reason to suspect something else besides art is being offered for purchase.

Hunter made his first sale of art at his very first exhibit when five of his art prints were sold by the Georges Bergès Gallery in LA, just prior to opening its Milk Studios showing. The prints were purchased by an anonymous buyer at $75,000 each, for a total of $375,000. It is not known if the prints were reproductions of Hunter’s original works, or if the prints were a signed and numbered edition. At any rate, it is an enormous sum for an emerging artist. By comparison signed prints by Pop Art icon Ed Ruscha can go for as little as $2,500, and he is a legend of the 20th century California art scene.

Think about this for a moment. Recently a small painting by Pablo Picasso was found in a closet where it had been stored for 50 years. On June 26, 2021, the painting was sold at auction for $150,000. In the same timeframe we are told that five Hunter Biden prints are worth $375,000. Is this a joke, Hunter’s art worth more than Pablo Picasso’s? There is not a shred of sanity left in the art world, nor in the sycophantic press that goes along with this nonsense.

“Untitled #4.” Alcohol ink on paper. Hunter Biden. Source: Instagram

“Untitled #4.” Alcohol ink on paper. Hunter Biden. Source: Instagram

Many voices both in and out of the art world expressed concerns that Hunter’s high priced artworks were part of a pay-for-play scheme; meaning, spend $500,000 on a painting by Hunter and you get a meeting with Lunchbox Joe from Scranton! Alarmed, the Biden White House and gallery owner Georges Bergès crafted a plan to keep the identities of buyers secret from the press, Hunter, the president, and society at large. Only Bergès will know the identities of buyers, that way—wink wink nudge nudge, “ethical issues” will be avoided.

But there is a giant hole in the White House/Bergès pact to keep the names of buyers from Hunter. The “artist” attended the show’s opening and rubbed elbows with potential purchasers; he conversed with them, posed for photos with them, and drank champaign with them. Ever been to a large art opening? What do you suppose Hunter discussed with his audience?

Richard Painter was the former chief White House ethics lawyer that served under the George W. Bush administration from 2005 to 2007. Yeah I know, Dubya had an ethics lawyer? Keep laughing, but when you stop to catch your breath, Painter said Hunter showing up at his own exhibit “illustrates how this veil of secrecy idea is not happening. It shows the deal is not going to be secret. I think the White House needs to go to Plan B.” Painter went on to say: “Buyers tend to be rich people, and rich people come to their houses and it tends to get around. Everyone’s going to be talking about it and everyone’s going to know.”

OK, so you are a liberal that thinks an establishment Republican like Mr. Painter has no credibility. Well, that is correct, so here is the opinion of an establishment Democrat that has no credibility, Walter Shaub. He was the Obama White House director of the Office of Government Ethics. Here is what Shaub said about the White House/Bergès deal:

“They’ve put an art dealer in charge of keeping a secret, and really what he’s doing is keeping a secret from the public because eventually Hunter Biden or people in the White House will learn who it’s going to be. In fact, Hunter Biden, we now know, is going to be at two art showings where he will meet the universe of bidders on his art. So, they left that detail out when they told us he had no way of knowing who was buying his art.

So there’s no intrinsic value to the art. It’s whatever anybody says they want to pay for it. The problem is, they’re buying it from the President’s son at prices that you would never see for a first-time art sale. There is a local artist collective in Alexandria, Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C., where if you go, really well-established artists who have been doing this for years and have quite a following, are selling for $2,000 to $5,000. And he’s not even at that level because this is his first sale.

So it really doesn’t matter whether anyone likes his art or not, the question is can you find anyone other than a president’s son, who showed up on the scene and started selling for the cost of a house and a half, because $295,000 was the price of the average home sale last year, and he’s selling for up to $500,000.

So ideally Hunter Biden wouldn’t be doing this because it sure looks like profiting off the presidency. But if they couldn’t talk him out of doing it, there is something that’s within their control. They could promise us today, that if they happen to learn who any of the buyers are, they will notify us immediately, and they will tell us again, if any of those buyers get a meeting with the White House or any other political appointee.”

Here is how the art world actually works. In the 1960s New York art collector Robert Scull purchased works from starving artists who could barely feed themselves; he purchased a Robert Rauschenberg painting for $2,500 and an Andy Warhol painting for $2,500. In 1973 Scull turned around and sold the Rauschenberg for $90,000 and the Warhol for $135,000. Repeat the process over and over. Today a Warhol costs millions. That unfortunate dynamic remains today, though it has grown even more rapacious and ridiculous.

Hunter is no Warhol, not even a Thomas Kinkade. He belongs to the ungifted celebrity circle of paint-slinging daubers Jim Carrey is affiliated with. If there is one thing I find annoying, it is the talentless “celebrity artist.” We are plagued by these insipid finger painters. The movie and music industries in Hollywood are lousy with them. Now Hunter Biden joins their ranks. Corporate media have taken seriously the claims that Hunter is a genuine artist. I believe it was the New York Times that first heralded that falsehood.

On July 29, 2021, Hunter Biden was the special guest on Nota Bene: This Week in the Art World, a podcast that shares art world gossip. Latin for “note well,” Nota Bene is not my cup of tea, but in his interview Hunter likely made his only truthful public statement concerning his art:

“I never said my art was going to cost what it was going to cost, or how much it would be priced at. I would be amazed, you know, if my art was sold, for you know, for, umm… for ten dollars.”

Soon after the opening of Hunter’s Hollywood exhibition, a new controversy began to plague the Georges Bergès Gallery. Last year the gallery, which only employs two people, applied for a Covid disaster assistance loan from the Small Business Administration (SBA); they received a $150,000 grant. Six months into the Biden presidency a second grant was dispensed, the allocation had skyrocketed to $350,000. The gallery also received two Paycheck Protection Program loans, bringing its total Covid relief payment to $580,000. Some two months later the gallery was selling Hunter Biden’s art in Hollywood, with plans for a larger exhibit of Hunter’s art in a springtime show at the Georges Bergès Gallery in New York.

Alcohol ink on paper. Hunter Biden. 2019. Courtesy of Georges Bergès Gallery.

Alcohol ink on paper. Hunter Biden. 2019. Courtesy of Georges Bergès Gallery.

Gallerist Georges Bergès claims he applied for the grants during the Trump years before the gallery represented Hunter. However, it is undeniable that taxpayer-funded Covid relief money now sustains a gallery that promotes and sells the artworks of the president’s son.

This might be disconcerting even to those who think Hunter and Georges Bergès are not involved in unethical behavior. On Oct. 9, 2021, the New York Post reported on the loan question, stating: “While there is no evidence President Biden helped secure the additional $350,000 loan, a watchdog group found that of the more than 100 galleries in New York City’s 10th congressional district, which includes SoHo, TriBeCa and Chelsea, the Georges Berges Gallery received ‘by far’ the largest SBA disaster loan windfall.”

If only a small portion of that “relief” money promoted the Hunter Biden exhibition and sale of his works, someone could be in very hot water over the president’s son directly benefiting from taxpayer-funded loans. Nevertheless, I have no expectations that Attorney General Merrick Garland and the entire Biden Department of Justice, including the FBI, will be delving into the matter.

In the unregulated art industry, you can sell anything to anyone at any price; it is a backdrop for corruption and money laundering. The humming sound coming from the drones is for gaudy and graceless contemporary art—an investment vehicle and method for moving hugh amounts of currency around. If you think the art press would be interested in such a story, think again.

Alcohol ink on paper. Hunter Biden. 2019. Courtesy of Georges Bergès Gallery.

Alcohol ink on paper. Hunter Biden. 2019. Courtesy of Georges Bergès Gallery.

As I see it, contemporary art has been stripped of technical skill and narrative power. Craft has been tossed out the window. Beauty and truth are mirages, nothing more than cultural and political constructs to be avoided.

Consider the successful artists of today. Jeff Koons creates giant balloon animals out of polished stainless steel. His net worth is $500 million. Marina Abramović sat in motionless silence for 2 months at a table during her The Artist Is Present performance at New York’s MOMA. Her net worth is $10 million. Damien Hirst is best know for The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, a 14-foot-long dead shark in an aquarium filled with formaldehyde. His net worth is $1 Billion.

The aesthetics of Koons, Abramović, and Hirst are the norm, and so the fatuous work of Hunter fits right in. Welcome to the art world, circa 2021.

More than a few critics of Hunter’s art have said his works do not convey excellence like those of a virtuoso artist. True but imprecise. Likewise, those who look at Hunter’s paintings and say, “My kid could do that,” are unaware of the actual state of the art world. Contemporary postmodern art practice asserts painting cannot be done on its own, it should be “in conversation” with video, performance, installation, and conceptual art—this is referred to as “pluralism” in art. In that purview painting is a “residual form” of art, meaning, it is from the past and should not be allowed to dominate.

Hunter Biden has said painting “is literally keeping me sane.” It is good to hear he uses art to center himself. With his history of cocaine and crack abuse, and a reckless addiction to prostitutes, he is indeed a troubled man. His art is a form of self-treatment, but he should contact a bonified art therapist for help. We should all be grateful that Art Therapy, a practice rooted in the field of Psychology, brings real healing to distressed individuals. Be that as it may, let us not confuse Hunter’s self-therapy as a contribution to the history of art.

I have been a working artist in Los Angeles most of my life, and deeply involved in the city’s art community. In past decades I have seen LA as a seedbed for creativity and a fountainhead of greatness. I can trace the excellence and distinction of art in Los Angeles going back to the 1900s, when LA artists began to make unique contributions to Modernism and Impressionism.

In 1912 Los Angeles was a center for Synchromism, America’s first foray into abstraction—the movement blended fiery Fauvist color with Cubist and Futurist energy. We had our own “Group of Eight” painters to match Robert Henri and The Eight in New York. The Art Students League, Otis Art Institute, and Chouinard School of Art were top-notch art schools that advanced new directions while teaching basic traditions and methods of painting and draftsmanship. In the 1930s California artists contributed heavily to the American Scene Painting movement; paintings that focused on the land, its people, and the social realities of the time. Closely aligned to the American Scene painters were the Social Realists, whose forte was social commentary. Los Angeles was ground zero for those two art movements that profoundly influenced me.

“Telescope #1.” Alcohol ink on paper. Hunter Biden. 2019. Source: Instagram

“Telescope #1.” Alcohol ink on paper. Hunter Biden. 2019. Source: Instagram

What I am so very sad to report is that I no longer see this greatness in Los Angeles. I see Hunter Biden and Millie Brown, I see plagiarists masquerading as artists. I see spray-paint vandalism praised by vaunted art institutions. I see entropy and cynicism instead of fecundity and joyous creation. With the second-rate and mediocre being continuously rewarded, it appears that greatness rented a U-Haul to flee the once great City of the Angels—not to mention the rest of the world. But where exactly did greatness go?

For many, being an artist is not a lucrative career, it is a hand to mouth existence. Still, the profession has its rewards, riches that are intangible and etherial. Creating and offering gifts of beauty to humanity is no small affair; some have tried to make it a business, but it has always been a spiritual calling. One creates, not for money or celebrity, but because it needs to be done. I have known ingenious artists blessed with Promethean talent, who made and shared sublime creations. Yet, they passed away unnoticed by the gatekeepers of culture, a fiefdom that assures you will know the likes of “artists” like Hunter Biden.

The 19th century American painter John Sloan perhaps said it best: “Art enriches life. It makes life worth living. But to make a living at it—that idea is incompatible with making art.” The way I see it, if someone is baffled by Sloan’s thoughtful reflection then they have no real understanding of art.

The words of art critic Robert Hughes (1938-2012) continue to ring in my head. The following statement from Hughes came from his 2008 documentary on contemporary art, The Mona Lisa Curse. It perhaps best sums up the spectacle of Hunter Biden’s entry into the art world, and so it makes the perfect closing to my uncharitable essay:

“The entanglement of big money with art has become a curse on how art is made, controlled, and above all, in the way that it’s experienced. And this curse has affected the entire art world. Apart from drugs, art is the biggest unregulated market in the world, with contemporary art sales estimated at around $18 billion a year. Boosted by regiments of nouveau riche collectors, and serviced by a growing army of advisors, dealers and auctioneers. As Andy Warhol once observed, ‘Good business is the best art.’”

A Simulacrum Looking-Glass World

“You may have noticed, I’m not all there myself.” Cheshire Cat, from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

“You may have noticed, I’m not all there myself.” The Cheshire Cat, from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

On Sept, 27, 2021, “the Big Guy” was speaking at the White House about his Covid-19 vaccination efforts. However, the real focus of the event was his receiving a third nRNA Covid vaccine shot live on camera. You undoubtedly saw photos of the black-masked Biden sitting in the White House with his sleeve rolled up, a nurse giving him the inoculation. But nothing is quite as it seems in the Looking-Glass world.

Mainstream news broadcasts aired a brief snippet of film showing Biden in the White House being vaccinated. Still photos of the event were published by online corporate news sources. Those photos circulated on the internet and people began to notice some oddities.

While it was reported that Biden was inoculated at the White House, viewers noted that from the windows of the room where he was vaccinated, one could see the White House. People began to wonder, “where was this filmed?” The event took on the aura of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland when observers noted the tree boughs and branchlets outside of the windowed room didn’t move in the breeze. Some said it was a giveaway that out of three windows, two suns blazed above the executive mansion, or so it appeared.

“I knew who I was this morning, but I’ve changed a few times since then.” Alice, from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

“I knew who I was this morning, but I’ve changed a few times since then.” Alice, from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

A day later other photos began to circulate, and down the rabbit hole we all tumbled. Like an exploded-view drawing, the photos showed various characters and props. At center stage sat Scranton Joe and his trusted doctor, together they were surrounded by the trappings of power—Presidential Seal, US Flag, a peek at the White House outside the fake windows. Off-stage, journalists silently sat in the dark, documenting the performance to present a Potemkin on the Potomac to the unsuspecting. Curiouser and curiouser!

“Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” The Queen, from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

“Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” The Queen, from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Many suspected the photographs were “doctored images,” but video of the event appeared online. The Los Angeles Times and CBS News are but two of the corporate media entities that published video. The rumor mill blazed and churned. Biden was not in the White House, he was on a stage! It was a phony White House room constructed for the occasion! The motionless tree branches were fake, what else was a sham? It was all theatrics, a mock nurse vaccinating a pretend president! The rumbling continues, and for good reason—there are seeds of truth in the rumoring.

For reasons unknown, Biden did not hold his publicity stunt vaccination in the White House. It was conducted at the South Court Auditorium of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building (EEOB), just west of the White House. In video of the event, when Biden ended his pro-vaccine speech, he introduced “the Major,” a “nurse with the White House Medical Unit” (according to the administration), who administered the vaccination.

But why not hold the vaccination event in the Oval Office, the president’s formal workspace? You cannot say it is less sanitary than the stage in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. Why not have the official physician to the president, Dr. Kevin O’Connor, administer the vaccination instead of an anonymous nurse? These two things would have conferred gravitas to the event. A small press pool could have provided photos and accounts to the national and international media.

The Eisenhower Executive Office Building houses the majority of offices for White House staff, and its South Court Auditorium has in the past hosted events by President Obama and President Trump. Photos of these events can be found on the Alamy Stock Photo agency, where I also confirmed that Biden used the EEOB auditorium for his Sept, 27, 2021 televised vaccination.

The EEOB auditorium has a stage with interchangeable backdrops, walls, and digital displays. The three windowed backdrop with artificial views of the White House has been seen at other Biden events in the auditorium. Backstage is situated behind the backdrop. The ceiling is equipped with track lighting that uses square LED lighting panels.

During the Biden inoculation, light from two backstage fixtures can be seen through the semi-opaque images framed in the fake windows; hence the confusion over two suns. The stage, facing seats for approximately 200, is only slightly elevated above the floor. The day of the Biden jab, press photographers with telephoto lenses crammed the seating area.

“I wonder if I’ve changed in the night? Let me think. Was I the same when I got up this morning?” Alice, from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

“I wonder if I’ve changed in the night? Let me think. Was I the same when I got up this morning?” Alice, from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

What did Biden gain by holding his publicity stunt at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building? As an event meant to attract attention and sway public opinion, it was about as successful as his withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The EEOB affair was so ineffectual that it left in its wake doubt and rumors of skulduggery. Marketers, celebrities, politicians, and others have used stunts as a way to garner publicity, likewise, propagandistic communication manipulates the attitudes of targeted audiences. Regardless, Lunchbox Joe’s communications team proved unskilled on both counts… but it was not for lack of trying.

Joe’s stagecraft or lack thereof, was not the inspiration for this essay, I give Lewis Carroll’s 1865 classic Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland credit for that. Watching the televised inoculation I thought of the Cheshire Cat’s words, “we’re all mad here.” That a stage production replete with props can be taken for reality reminded me of the cliché some use to describe real world events“It was just like a movie!” We have slid into the madness of postmodern culture.

Well trained moderns are not able to discern the real from a simulation, but hey, artificiality is as good, if not better, than the real thing. Or so it is said. Simulacra replacing reality is found everywhere; think of Auto-Tune displacing the human voice in pop music, or CGI Cinematography superseding our understanding of color, depth perception and perspective. Mobile phones and laptops give you nothing but simulacra. The art world has glommed onto “appropriation art” and other postmodern tragedies. What passes for journalism is now little more than pre-packaged falsehoods. Heck, even the doings of politicians have become vague semblances of action; Biden’s imitation White House for example.

As an artist I always appreciated the late 1950s French artist’s group, the Situationist International (SI). They described our social order as the “spectacle commodity” society; a daily parade of consumerist culture, not a reflection of the real world—but a media spectacle we are conditioned to favor through an endless stream of manufactured events and desirable commodities.

Situationists thought the ruling class culture machine intentionally reduced everything to simulacrum, in part because representing the real with symbols gave ultimate power to those who produced the ideograms. Ruling clique media was not for imparting information, it was for interpreting our private selves and selling our desires back to us. Simulacrum became a method of social control, certainly this is what today’s Tech-Lords have done with Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Tik Tok. The only thing that changed in the interim was the packaging.

Jean Baudrillard, the French cultural theorist associated with the SI, once said: “It is no longer a question of imitation, nor duplication, nor even parody. It is a question of substituting the signs of the real, for the real.”

Today’s postmoderns give credit to the Situationists for inaugurating performance art, conceptual art, and installation art, which is nonsense of course. Postmodern art is just an updated app in the ruling class culture machine. If the SI were active today (they disbanded in 1972), they would go after the art establishment with hammer and tongs.

Here is another example of our willing acceptance of artificiality. In 1962 the Louvre in Paris loaned Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa to US museums for exhibit. When informed the painting was coming to America, Andy Warhol quipped, “Why don’t they have someone copy it and send the copy, no one would know the difference.” And they call that guy a genius. Things have only gotten worse—today Non Fungible Tokens are a big thing for the so-called “art market.”

If the French neo-Marxists of the Situationist International are not your cup of tea, then read the words of Václav Havel (1936-2011), which could have been written yesterday. Havel was a Czech playwright, poet, and opponent of Soviet rule over his nation. When communism collapsed in Czechoslovakia in 1989, Havel was elected president. In 1993, when Czechoslovakia split into the Czech Republic and the nation state of Slovakia, Havel became the Czech president.

Havel was forced into the role of dissident when, during the 1970s and ‘80s, the communist regime censored and banned his plays, confiscated his passport, and repeatedly arrested him. The Stalinist government put him in prison for four years. Havel’s words from those dark days have an unnerving familiarity to them:

“Life in the system is so thoroughly permeated with hypocrisy and lies, because the regime is captive to its own lies, it must falsify everything. It falsifies the past. It falsifies the present, and it falsifies the future. It falsifies statistics.”

The realities expressed in the above paragraph loom large in Havel’s works; Americans concerned with totalitarianism should read his satirical writings. His 1965 The Memorandum tells the tale of a large office where bureaucrats saddle the employees with Ptydepean ungraspable pseudo language designed, presumably, to increase communication and productivity. Everyone is ordered to speak the language, but no one knows how. Rifts open up in the workforce and productivity goes down.

Bureaucrats provide a classroom to teach Ptydepe, but it is much too difficult to learn. Mayhem reigns until the workplace officials manufacture the solution… a different artificial language called Chorukor is mandated.

In closing, just keep in mind that the totalitarian stranglehold that plagued and tortured the people of Czechoslovakia, was swept away in 1989 by the non-violent “Velvet Revolution.” With smiles on their faces and poems in their hearts, the love, solidarity, and national unity of the people defeated the tyrannizers.

My final words offer cautionary advice about gulping down the toxic lies you are offered everyday. The admonition actually comes from Lewis Carroll’s Alice. The sweet child said: “If you drink much from a bottle marked ‘poison’ it is certain to disagree with you sooner or later.”

“Alice down the rabbit hole.” This illustration by British artist David Hall depicts a terrified Alice tumbling down the burrow of the White Rabbit. The art comes from the 1939 proposed draft for the Disney animated film “Alice in Wonderland.” It was reject by Disney for being too dark and frightening, and too detailed to animate. Some of Hall’s amazing concept art for Alice in Wonderland can be found online, but the demo reel produced for Disney has been lost to history.

“Alice down the rabbit hole.” This illustration by British artist David Hall depicts a terrified Alice tumbling down the burrow of the White Rabbit. The art comes from the 1939 proposed draft for the Disney animated film “Alice in Wonderland.” It was rejected by Disney for being too dark and frightening, and too detailed to animate. Some of Hall’s amazing concept art for Alice in Wonderland can be found online, but the demo reel produced for Disney has been lost to history.

Year Zero: Converting from VICE to Virtue

VICE

Just another corporate media platform.

On April 9, 2021, VICE, the digital media and broadcasting company that touts itself as “the definitive guide to enlightening information,” published a ghastly interview with Matt Loughrey, a successful 42-year-old Irish photo restorer who developed a lucrative career colorizing historic photos. The article was titled, These People Were Arrested by the Khmer Rouge and Never Seen Again. It was subtitled, These portraits, recently colorized, humanize that tragedy. But that was all a lie. VICE and Loughrey’s efforts only “humanized” barbarism. In June of 2021 I stumbled upon this report quite by accident. Perhaps this essay can bring the story to a wider audience.

The VICE interview presented Loughrey’s colorized and digitally altered photos of prisoners held by the genocidal communist regime of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge (Red Khmers), the radical Maoists who seized power and tormented the country from 1975 to 1979. Some two million Cambodians perished under the harsh rule of the Khmer Rouge; they died of preventable disease, starvation, torture, and a campaign of mass execution. As an artist, I have always felt unease concerning the colorization of historic black and white photos. That is because I also have a great interest in, and respect for history; attempts at rewriting history raises my ire. But what VICE and Loughrey did was outside the bounds of good judgement and decency.

Cell block at Security Prison 21, circa 1979. Photo: Tuoi Sleng Genocide Museum.

Cell block at Security Prison 21, circa 1979. Photo: Tuoi Sleng Genocide Museum.

Loughrey based his altered colorized portraits on actual black and white prison induction photos the communists took of their captives before locking them up in Security Prison 21. Also known as S-21, the prison was located in Cambodia’s capital of Phnom Penh.

Inside the prison starvation, interrogation, torture, and execution was the daily regimen. It held 20,000 prisoners, but only 7 left the building alive in 1979. There were 150 such camps across Cambodia, though Security Prison 21 was certainly the largest.

S-21 was not a mass execution center per se. When masses of detainees were marked for liquidation, they were trucked to Choeung Ek, a large “killing field” outside of Phnom Penh. Still, hundreds of innocent victims were dumped into unmarked graves on the grounds of S-21.

When the Khmer Rouge government was driven from power in 1979 by an invasion of the army of Vietnam, the S-21 death camp was transformed into the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. It continues to maintain an extensive archival collection documenting the genocide conducted by the Khmer Rouge. Part of that collection includes the S-21 prisoner photographs and the forced confessions detainees made under torture.

In his VICE interview Loughrey made the dubious claim that he colorized three S-21 photos for “a person in Cambodia” that had contacted him with the request; Loughrey offered no verification of such an appeal. VICE indicated that once Loughrey saw the size of the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum photo archives, he decided to download and colorize even more images from the online source. In the interview he was quoted as saying: “The more I looked into it and the more images I saw, I thought, well, this has to be done.” VICE did not report he did so without permission from the museum. It is unknown how many images he filched.

Making things worse, and this is key, Loughrey went far beyond colorizing the photos, he changed the entire facial expressions of the prisoners by digitally painting smiles on their faces! The corners of their mouths curved upwards showing smile lines, their eyes were brightened, their cheeks were glowing. From their faux beaming smiles the prisoners looked as if they were attending a festive occasion rather than being shoved into a death camp. While VICE published Loughrey’ altered smiling photos, they did not publish the original photographs.

Unidentified men in Security Prison 21 are bound with rope and shackled together. Photo: Tuoi Sleng Genocide Museum.

Unidentified men in Security Prison 21 are bound with rope and shackled together. Photograph taken sometime between 1975-79. Photo: Tuoi Sleng Genocide Museum.

Without institutional backing, Loughrey colorized photos he lifted from the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum website. That alone was a violation of the museum’s terms and conditions, which states its historic images must never be altered or modified. But painting smiles on the faces of innocent people who were tortured before they were executed… that is hard to fathom.

One reason for Loughrey’s chilly indifference as an “artist” is that, consciously or not, he is part of the postmodern art world, where spectacle and shock carry more weight than substance, and truth is just a social construct. His insensitivity reflects postmodern art stars like Jake and Dinos Chapman, who once clothed ghoulish Nazi mannequins in SS uniforms, replacing their swastika armbands with smiley faces, and exhibited the entire mess at the White Cube gallery in London. Loughrey’s act of painting smiles on the faces of Khmer Rouge victims was pure Chapman brothers—though liberal art institutions will likely receive Loughrey less favorably than they did the “brilliant” Jake and Dinos.

Loughrey’s postmodernist ethics are evident in his obsession with “restoring” historic black and white photographs by way of colorization. He has made a career out of “re-imagining” the past. As a visual artist who has intentionally created many artworks in glorious black and white, I would hate to see a technician in the future colorize my works. Likewise, when I view a photo of Paris taken by Louis Daguerre in 1830, I want to see the world as he and his colleagues saw it. I do not want his vision to be “restored” or “re-imagined.” Colorizing Daguerre’s unique photos would be a crime against art and history.

Imagine the outrage if someone painted smiley faces on the photos of those who died in Nazi extermination camps like Auschwitz. In point of fact, Loughrey did something very close to that, provoking an angry response from the Auschwitz Museum (you will find the details if you continue reading). Most importantly, Loughrey and VICE committed an affront against the dignity of all Cambodian people, an abusive blow equal to a racist attack. The oh so progressive VICE did this, and it should never be forgotten.

Unidentified female prisoner in Security Prison 21. Photograph taken sometime between 1975-79. Photo: Tuoi Sleng Genocide Museum.

Unidentified female prisoner in Security Prison 21. Photograph taken sometime between 1975-79. Photo: Tuoi Sleng Genocide Museum.

The unaltered, black and white prisoner photos from S-21 are haunting. Looking through those photos archived online by the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, one young woman caught my eye. She is unidentified. Museum records state only that she was held in cell number 16 (indicated by the tags on her blouse), and that she was prisoner 3,753 (hand written on the photo by a Khmer Rouge guard). Aside from the fact that she died, everything else about her is a mystery.

It is difficult to interpret her expression; to me the young women looks as if she had seen too much evil and it no longer fazed her. That, or it was the demeanor of a woman who knew she was doomed. Before I discovered that Matt Loughrey had transformed Prisoner 3,753 into a gussied-up glamour doll, I chose to use the original unaltered photo to illustrate my essay. The altered photo reminds me of a lyric from a 1981 song by UK punk band, Crass: “Like a glamour billboard in a battlefield. At least the bloody-red poppy was of nature’s will.” Out of respect for the deceased, I will not post that altered colorized abomination to my article.

After VICE published Loughrey’s photos on April 9, 2021, Cambodian nationals and those in diaspora began to inveigh against the cruel racist provocation. April 10, 2021, the National Cambodian Heritage Museum and Killing Fields Memorial in Chicago, Illinois, issued a statement that read in part: “We do not endorse those that seek to profit and benefit from the violent and lived traumas of our past and current history. Minimizing the pain and trauma of our community from those who are not connected to the experience is not only revising and erasing history, it’s a violent act.”

On April 11, 2021, Cambodia’s Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts (MCFA) located in Phnom Penh, Kingdom of Cambodia, issued a statement that read in part: “MCFA does not accept this kind of manipulation, and considers this work of Matt Loughrey to seriously affect the dignity of the victims, the reality of Cambodia’s history, and in violation of the rights of the Museum as the lawful owners and custodians of these photographs.”

April 11, 2021 statement from the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, Kingdom of Cambodia.

April 11, 2021 statement from the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, Kingdom of Cambodia.

On April 16, 2021, the Auschwitz Museum located on the grounds of the former Nazi concentration camp in Poland, tweeted a message of solidarity with the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. In that dispatch the Auschwitz Museum made known they had contacted Matt Loughrey and asked him to remove from his Instagram account, a color animation he created of Czesława Kwoka. He refused. Kwoka was a 14-year-old girl who died in Auschwitz on March 12, 1943. She was a Polish Catholic and one of the approximately 230,000 children the Nazis sent to the camp for extermination. Only around 650 children survived Auschwitz.

Tweets from the Auschwitz Museum and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, April, 2021.

Tweets from the Auschwitz Museum and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, April, 2021.

Not surprisingly, without permission Matt Loughrey made his animation of Kwoka with images owned by the Auschwitz Museum. He used an imaging technique he developed called X-Oculi, arrogantly describing it as “a combination of unrivaled artistry and cutting edge orbital motion-tracking.” After refusing the reasonable request of the Auschwitz Museum, the pretentious Loughrey no doubt received a tidal wave of negative criticism. On April 16, 2021, the offending animation was taken down from Instagram without comment or fanfare.

A petition demanding that Matt Loughrey apologize “for the theft, manipulation and appropriation of these photographs,” and that VICE apologize for “publication and support of Matt Loughrey’s work” was initiated by Dany Pen and 7 other Cambodians. Pen lost her family members at the S-21 death camp, she had biting words for VICE:

“I strongly implore VICE to take down these photos that are promoting white supremacy, cultural appropriation, cultural erasure, and victim dismissal. It promotes harm and brings on psychological and emotional violence towards my Cambodian community.”

It is troubling that our time has produced characters like Matt Loughrey, as well as sensationalist rags like VICE. Loughrey’s website touts his “ambitious photo colorization project” as “an option for museums and libraries to upgrade and re-imagine their own visitor experiences.” With no sense of irony his website bears a masthead reading “Bridging a gap between history & art.” He dared to write, “we find ourselves in an age of image obsolescence,” and that his digital skills are “a form of visual defense against this.” He spouted even more rubbish with, “collections are being rescued, detail and character that could never be seen in the original images is being uncovered.” All while the ne’er-do-well erased history and painted a happy face on genocide.

Loughrey’s website makes no mention of insulting and hurting the Cambodian people. He does however brag that “current and previous clients include: DELL, 21st Century Fox, National Parks Service, BBC, ABC Australia, The New York Post, The Guardian, The Times, National Geographic and more.” If they had any principles these supporting companies would wash their hands of Loughrey. He should delete his websites and slink away, hoping no one will recall his depravity.

On April 11, 2021, the “editorial leadership” of VICE issued a short and confused statement that they were taking down the Loughrey photos and interview. Saying the photos were “manipulated beyond colorization” and the “story did not meet the editorial standards of VICE,” they called publishing the materials an “error.” VICE did not have an editor informed enough to realize at first glance that the photos were drastically altered. If the interview and photos did not meet the lofty editorial standards of VICE why publish them in the first place? The genocide committed by the Khmer Rouge remains a historically earth shaking story, but the vacant millennials running the show at VICE have blank memories. The remarks from VICE “leadership” is an admission the company has absolutely failed as a legitimate news organization. On April 16, 2021, they released an updated statement that was closer to an apology—but still worthless. I have entirely lost my patience with poseurs who feign humanitarianism.

On April, 17, 1975, the Khmer Rouge seized Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Photo, AP.

On April, 17, 1975, the Khmer Rouge seized Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Photo, AP.

I was 21-years-old when the Khmer Rouge seized Cambodia’s capital of Phnom Penh on the morning of April 17, 1975. That same day they ordered the complete evacuation of Phnom Penh and other cities. By force of arms they marched everyone into the countryside to undertake the building of an agrarian utopia. In doing so they closed schools, factories, and hospitals; the sick and infirmed were forced to march, so too children and the elderly—thousands died along the way as food, water, and medical care were not provided. At the time, reports coming out of Phnom Penh were unsettling. When I saw the photo of a Khmer Rouge soldier pointing his 1911 pistol at shop owners, demanding they abandon their businesses and leave the city, I knew Cambodia was doomed. Because of the Vietnam war, I had been following politics in Southeast Asia since the mid-60s as an idealistic pre-Teen, so I knew of the Khmer Rouge. But they were about to give me, and the world, a lesson in medievalist savagery.

The leader of the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot, who was referred to as “Brother Number One,” declared the communist takeover to be “Year Zero,” the beginning of an era when all vestiges of the past would be destroyed. Straight away, all money, banking, private property, and religions were abolished. The liquidation of the regime’s enemies started. Anyone who represented the past—educated middle-class professionals, technicians, artists, writers, filmmakers, musicians, were all exterminated. Wearing eyeglasses or speaking a foreign language could identify a person as an intellectual to be executed. Everyone in Year Zero Cambodia was forced to wear Khmer black pajamas and the traditional red and white gingham Krama scarf. To do otherwise was dangerous.

The “Marxists” of the Khmer Rouge envisioned the country’s peasants building communism through collective labor and people’s communes. They applied Mao Zedong’s “Great Leap Forward” and “Cultural Revolution” to their nation. In fact the Chinese Communist Party backed the Khmer Rouge, giving them political support and endless military supplies. But the Red Khmers also viewed the ancient 12th century Angkor Empire of Cambodia as an agrarian utopia to be replicated. They called their nation “Kampuchea,” using the Khmer pronunciation of Cambodia. They referred to their leaders as “The Angkar” (The Organization). And on Jan. 5, 1976, they presented the official red flag of “Democratic Kampuchea,” which incorporated a stylized Angkor Wat symbol in yellow. The Khmer Rouge were nothing if not ethnic and national supremacists.

The Khmer Rouge red flag of “Democratic Kampuchea,” incorporating a stylized Angkor Wat symbol in yellow.

The Khmer Rouge red flag of “Democratic Kampuchea,” incorporating a stylized Angkor Wat symbol in yellow.

Once taking power the intolerant Khmer Rouge began to annihilate 1000s of ethnic Vietnamese, Thai, Chinese, and Cham people. Condemning religion as “detrimental,” the Khmer Rouge targeted Christians, Catholics, Muslims, and Buddhists for extermination.

In 1975 they destroyed the Roman Catholic Cathedral of Phnom Penh, taking it apart stone by stone until there was nothing left. It was one of 73 Catholic churches destroyed in Year Zero.

In 1975 there were 66,000 Buddhist monks and 4,000 Buddhist temples. Before the Khmer Rouge were driven from power, they murdered more than 25,000 monks and obliterated 1,968 temples.

Two reporters were working together in Phnom Penh when the Khmer Rouge surrounded the capital—Cambodian photojournalist and interpreter Dith Pran (1942-2008), and NYTimes reporter Sydney Schanberg (1934-2016). Schanberg was one of the last Western journalists to stay in the city. The two witnessed the communist army take the city. In his last dispatch Schanberg wrote: “Most of the soldiers are teenagers. They are universally grim, robot-like, brutal. Weapons drip from them like fruit from trees… grenades, pistols, rifles, rockets.”

The Khmer Rouge wasted no time in unleashing large scale looting and executions. The two reporters were captured by guerrillas Schanberg described as “maniacal.” The two were threatened with death, and only the pleas of Pran saved them from being executed in the street. They took refuge in the French embassy compound along with a throng of desperate foreigners. Being Cambodian Pran was dragged from the embassy by the Khmer Rouge and marched into the countryside; they expelled Schanberg and the other Westerners from the embassy and trucked them to Thailand. As Schanberg noted: “With this act, Cambodia was sealed. The world could not look in. The killing could begin.”

The perilous journey of Dith Pran had just begun. He ended up in a Khmer Rouge work camp as a slave laborer—all for the good of the new “Democratic Kampuchea.” His captors fed him a tablespoon of rice a day, he supplemented his ration with an occasional beetle or small lizard he would secretly catch. He experienced beatings, torture, starvation, and witnessed endless executions. Pran endured four years of this, and when Vietnam overthrew the Khmer Rouge in 1979 he broke out of the camp and escaped over the Thai border. His 60 mile flight to freedom had him slogging through muddy fields filled with decomposing human corpses. These were the execution grounds where the Khmer Rouge slaughtered over a million people. Pran dubbed them the “killing fields.”

Excavated grave pit at Security Prison 21, circa 1979. Photo: Tuoi Sleng Genocide Museum.

Excavated grave pit at Security Prison 21, circa 1979. Photo: Tuoi Sleng Genocide Museum.

Today the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center stands outside Phnom Penh, it is built on one of the largest Khmer Rouge killing fields. Once an orchard before it was turned into a death camp, there are 129 mass graves in Choeung Ek. Heavy rains still uncover human teeth, bone fragments, and bits of clothing. A Buddhist “stupa” monument commemorating the dead stands in the middle of the killing field. Its plexiglass walls are filled with more than 8,000 skulls found onsite. Many of the skulls show evidence of having been bashed. To save ammunition the Khmer Rouge made victims kneel at the edge of a large pit, then clubbed their heads with steel bars or agricultural hoes; victims fell into the mass grave.

A “killing tree” is also found at Choeung Ek. Whole families were murdered at the camp, including babies. Khmer Rouge guards held toddlers by the ankles, then swung their heads into the tree. The tiny smashed bodies were tossed into a nearby open pit. Despite the communist aim of totally eradicating Buddhist “leeches and worms,” today the tree is covered in Buddhist string bracelets left by visitors as spiritual gifts to the slain little ones.

In 1980 Sydney Schanberg published his book The Death and Life of Dith Pran. The book served as the basis for the 1984 movie The Killing Fields, which depicted the agonies of Cambodia as seen through the experiences of Dith Pran and Sydney Schanberg. The book and the film brought international attention to the tragedy that had befallen Cambodia. If VICE really wanted to “restore” the history of Cambodia and “humanize” the tragedy, they would have recited the tale of Dith Pran to an audience completely unfamiliar with his saga. Instead, VICE published the vulgarities of braggart Matt Loughrey.

Unidentified female prisoner in Security Prison 21. Photograph taken sometime between 1975-79. Photo: Tuoi Sleng Genocide Museum.

Unidentified female prisoner in Security Prison 21. Photograph taken sometime between 1975-79. Photo: Tuoi Sleng Genocide Museum.

Cambodians were not the only ones tortured and murdered at the S-21 death camp. In 1978 the Khmer Rouge “navy” captured two hapless young Americans who were sailing off the coast of Cambodia. Michael Deeds and Chris Delance were sent to S-21 where they were tortured for 40 days. The Khmer Rouge were sadistic torturers who employed a variety of techniques in their “interrogations.” They forced prisoners to eat human feces, ripped out fingernails, burned detainees with hot wires or cigarettes, used electric shock, pushed needles under fingernails, administered beatings with sticks or electric wire, used water-boarding and other methods of drowning detainees, and covered victims with centipedes and scorpions.

Michael Deeds and Chris Delance were tortured until they signed “confessions” that they were CIA agents. The commander of S-21 was Kaing Guek Eav, aka “Duch.” After the fall of the Khmer Rouge, Duch testified at his trial that he was given orders by Pol Pot’s right hand man to “destroy all human beings from S-21” before the army of Vietnam arrived. That included Americans Deeds and Delance. They were bound, wrapped in gasoline soaked tires, and set on fire. They were gruesomely executed two days before Vietnamese soldiers liberated the camp. The Vietnamese discovered the prison by following the stench of the many burned bodies left to rot and decompose in the tropical heat. Perhaps Matt Loughrey will digitally paint the two Americans with happy smiling faces.

It is an irony that Cambodian artist Vann Nath (1946-2011) occupied the cell next to where Michael Deeds was locked up. The artist was one of 7 detainees who survived Security Prison 21. Prior to 1975 he made a living painting landscapes and film posters, but in 1977 he ran afoul of the Khmer Rouge and they put him in S-21. Every evening Vann Nath would watch guards pull Deeds from his cell, dragging him elsewhere for “interrogation.” The artist would see the guards return hours later to dump their tortured victim into his cell, where he would forlornly sing to himself. Today, the paintings of Vann Nath are permanently displayed at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Each a depiction of unspeakable brutality, each a condemnation of tyranny. VICE never did a story about Vann Nath, no, they chose to interview the no account Matt Loughrey.

A prisoner interrogated by the Khmer Rouge. Oil painting by Cambodian artist Vann Nath. The painting is in the Tuoi Sleng Genocide Museum collection

A prisoner interrogated by the Khmer Rouge. Oil painting by Cambodian artist Vann Nath. The painting is in the Tuoi Sleng Genocide Museum collection

In the end, the excesses of the Khmer Rouge sealed their fate. Their xenophobic hatred of ethnic Vietnamese—who settled in Cambodia long ago, caused the Khmer Rouge to massacre them by the thousands. By 1977 the Khmer Rouge were crossing into Vietnam with troops and artillery to attack Vietnamese towns and villages. The last straw came when a large force of heavily armed Khmer Rouge marched four miles into Vietnam and slaughtered over 3,000 Vietnamese civilians in the Ba Chúc massacre on April 18, 1978. On Dec. 25, 1978, Vietnam launched the invasion of “Democratic Kampuchea,” rapidly crushing the lion’s share of Khmer Rouge fighters and overthrowing the Pol Pot regime. On Jan. 7, 1979 Vietnam rolled into Phnom Penh, effectively putting an end to the genocide.

Remnant Khmer Rouge dead enders retreated to jungle enclaves near the Thai border and continued their fight (which of course was backed by Communist China). In 1998 a Khmer Rouge officer put the ailing Pol Pot under house arrest, but Brother Number One died that same year. In 2006 the Cambodian government and the UN established the “Khmer Rouge Tribunal,” where the remaining three Khmer Rouge leaders were tried and sentenced. In 2012 Duch was jailed for life for having run the S-21 death camp. In 2014 Nuon Chea (Brother Number Two) and Khieu Samphan (Khmer Rouge head of state) were sentenced to life for crimes against humanity for their roles in the Year Zero forced evacuations. In 2018 Chea and Samphan were found guilty of genocide for the mass extermination of Vietnamese Cambodians.

VICE supposedly captured the millennial focused market in 2015 with its “alternative” approach to news. Needless to say, I always perceived VICE as just another corporate media platform to be avoided. Now, with their self-inflicted Khmer Rouge wound destroying their carefully constructed “progressive” image, my viewpoint has been vindicated. As for VICE being “the definitive guide to enlightening information,” that pretense was destroyed in a Year Zero of their own making. It is long overdue that journalists convert from a life of vice, to a life of virtue. After all, dictionaries define “vice” as a “wicked, immoral, corrupt, and depraved” practice.

Unidentified male prisoner in Security Prison 21. Photograph taken sometime between 1975-79. Photo: Tuoi Sleng Genocide Museum.

Unidentified male prisoner in Security Prison 21. Photograph taken sometime between 1975-79. Photo: Tuoi Sleng Genocide Museum.