If you follow the I-55 highway over the Mississippi River, past the St Louis Arch, and turn right past a row of strip clubs and petrol stations, you’ll arrive at Camp Jackson Road in Cahokia, Illinois. Barren car parks surround an archipelago of fast-food restaurants: this could be anywhere in the US that politicians keep declaring has been ‘left behind’. But here you’ll find the artist Eric Wesley in an abandoned Taco Bell (the largest Mexican fast-food chain in the US), keeping company with his paintings of burrito cross-sections and a variety of bronze and glass sculptures. You can almost detect the lingering scent of synthetic nacho cheese.
Wesley came across the building in early 2015. After being quoted a ‘ridiculously low’ rental price, he decided to lease the building and embark on a year-long site-specific project, titled The Bell, which would weave together strands of his practice from the past decade, beginning with his 2002 Endless Burrito sculpture at Meyer Riegger in Karlsruhe, Germany.
Wesley grew up in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles, where much of its flat expanse is carved up by stucco strip malls and fast-food restaurants. Dominating the area are carbon-copy ‘tract’ homes, many designed in the neocolonial ‘Spanish Revival’ style, perhaps in a nod to the nearby San Fernando Mission, founded in 1797. The Bell – with its terracotta roof and ersatz belfry – is a bastard child of this history, the kiddie-meal version of California’s period architectural exotica. In contrast, Wesley considers the Pizza Hut across the street from The Bell to be an example of ‘fascist or brutalist’ architecture, with the building’s 1950s ‘Googie’ features signifying the corporate America of the atomic age.
The aesthetics of California, though, are fairly foreign to a Midwestern audience. To most people in Cahokia, art is an inaccessible interest for the wealthy residents of St Louis. The Bell is the second project of Artist/City, an initiative launched by Bortolami Gallery in New York, which obtains unusual spaces for gallery artists outside the traditional art-world circuit. (Daniel Buren started the programme in Miami in December 2015.) Wesley’s art-world status is mostly met with indifference in Cahokia. However, his sincere attempts to collaborate with local construction workers and other residents could resonate, when the cultural divide – between urban and rural, liberal and conservative, elite and uneducated – has widened so severely it threatens to swallow the country whole. The culture of the ‘middle’ – middleclass, middlebrow – lends Wesley’s work its pop sensibility, and also its absurdist humour; through his clashing references, we take notice of the banal comedy in bad food, tacky advertising and strip-mall architecture.
Along with his installation of sculptures and paintings, Wesley has planted a corn maze according to the golden ratio; he plans to use the harvested ears of golden corn to produce high-fructose syrup, the industrial sweetener partly responsible for national obesity levels. A taxidermied crow rests on a branch in a back pantry, visible through a peephole Wesley drilled in The Bell’s cheap plaster walls. The bird’s name, Heseeus (literally ‘He-see-us’), refers to the remarkable skill at facial recognition that crows possess; with his eye locked on a glory hole, Heseeus is also an uncomfortable sexual reference to the surveillance systems found in fast-food restaurants. CCTV contributes to worker safety, but it also feeds information to a nebulous (and perhaps voyeuristic) corporate machine.
Fast food is a loaded class signifier; in many poor communities, it is one of the few affordable dining options. Visitors to the US are often shocked to find produce in supermarkets priced higher than items on a McDonald’s menu; this cost disparity exacerbates the country’s obesity crisis. For inner-city and suburban communities of colour, who may be unable to afford healthier dining options, the class signifier of fast food acquires a racial dimension, too. This is especially true in the suburbs of St Louis, which include both Cahokia and Ferguson – the latter the location of the 2014 police killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, and the site of greatest resonance in the current battle for black lives.
What could be more American than cultural appropriation as fast food – or profiting from its sale? The country’s new, orange soda-coloured president is the proud purveyor, at his Trump Grill, of a US$19 ‘taco bowl’ (even as he spouts racist remarks against Mexicans). Politics aside, Wesley’s experiment celebrates the poetry in cheap burritos and the formalist beauty in this hard-scrabble landscape of car parks and drive-thrus. This is thinking outside the box – and the bun.
Main image: The Bell, 2017, video still. Courtesy: the artist.
First published in Issue 185