For the past seven days, I have been sitting for upwards of an hour or two in front of an altar for a dead soldier, in Times Square, in the middle of "the beating heart of skyscraper America" as Lawrence Ferlinghetti might call it. Today is the midpoint of this ongoing window installation, "Send A Salami To Your Boy In The Army" which will be up till the end of the month.
In this window, passersby encounter an altar in which a soldier who died in Iraq is installed, in front of ritual objects, such as a candle, sandalwood & stone, incense, sage, etc. On one side is a scoreboard featuring the latest numbers of dead in Iraq, both American & Iraqis. On the other side sits an empty frame with a red fabric hanging out of it.
Everyday between 5 & 6 PM (and usually longer) I become a part of the installation, animating it with my rituals, and mourning, or being still with it in meditation and contemplation of the lives lost, and the lives that stay uninformed or uncaring of the lives lost in the name of war & terror.
I am not a performance artist, per se, and this is no performance, either. This exposure to elements and potentialities comes out of a deep seated need to mark the dead in a personal way, and also penetrate through the layers of New York & American living that insulates the individual from the realities of war - justified or unjustified.
"Send A Salami To Your Boy In The Army" is a 'famous' WWII slogan from New York's Katz Deli that somehow penetrated through my Indian consciousness when I realized this project. The main thrust of the project is this:
"For each US soldier dead in the theatre of war yesterday, a meal is given up by the artist today. It is proffered here in the altar of the dead soldier in honor of the soldier as a human.
You are welcome to take the food for your consumption if you are hungry. You are welcome to ritual offer your own meal to honor the dead.
You are invited to take a moment to meditate on the soldier, or the food, death itself, or the death of the soldier, or on the faceless people who remain as numbers in their death, or merely numbers."
In offering a meal that otherwise would have become a part of me, I am able to give a part of myself, to the wasted lives in the name of freedom & democracy. Wasted Lives, because to me, each soldier is a representation of herself as well as that of the 20 odd Iraqis who die for each American death. In listing the meal forfeited I list the ingredients of the meal I gave up, and the last ingredient in every meal that was given up, is 20 Iraqis. And that is why I cannot eat my meal.
In drawing the people's attention to an American soldier, I have now irrevocably drawn their attention to the 20 or so Iraqis that die for each American soldier. It is simple math. And a very conservative ratio, by all estimates.
I sit there on a window box in 42nd street, crying quietly for the soldier or with all the gut-wrenching futility of an Iraqi mother of a tattered young child.
Passersby racing from one end of the window to another slowly but invariable seem to come to a grounding halt. I have been so amazed and revitalized by the willingness of New Yorkers to stop and pause and stay with me, in the bitter cold that has been blighting New York this past week. Friends amongst audiences remark with wonder how many people sob with me, or take the time to figure out the tangled connections that lie existing amongst the various parts of the installation. Sure enough, one or two people have tried to interfere with my meditation, and the minute I open my eyes and I look at them, give the attention that they seem to want, their aggression diffuses in the face of the silent dead soldier in front of us, and they walk away. This is New York! Anything could happen in the 'mean' streets of New York. Could still happen. However, what I have witnessed so far is people's willingness to be drawn towards their own humanity and that of others, living and dead. It truly gives me hope in humanity, when I see people stay with me in an automatic vigil and leave reluctantly after paying their respects.
The warmongers are lying to us repeatedly in their claim that Americans clamor for war and retribution. We need to counter act the lies at every turn and counter turn, reiterating the truth of peace and understanding. We need to act. Act now in ways big and small, be our natural selves of peace and understanding.
The militaristic coterie in Washington is stoking aggression by invoking FEAR. The opposite of Fear is LOVE. As clichéd as it may sound, we have no other refuge but in love, for ourselves, and all fellow beings. That is why I mourn for the killers and the killed.
Vennila nr Kain (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an actor, poet and yogini. She may be found at www.vennila.net. For information about Vennila's installation, please visit www.sendasalami.com