HOST Intro: The French painter and sculptor Edgar Degas once said, "Art is a battle." But one Birmingham man's current art project is a battleFIELD...one that's symbolic of a real battle being fought almost seven thousand miles away. Reporter Dale Short has the story… (AUDIO open: Street sounds, under)
NAR: In downtown Birmingham there’s a group of old brick office buildings that have been remodeled into trendy loft apartments, and one of those buildings...called The Phoenix...has an unusual display in its street-level picture window. The apartment window, more than 20 feet long, is almost entirely filled with thousands of miniature soldiers in full battle gear. At first glance, the installation resembles the kind of scale-model diorama of historic battlefields often seen in Civil War museums. But a closer look reveals that these soldiers are more modern than that. They’re the familiar olive-green plastic figures, a couple of inches tall, that you can buy by the package at most any toy store. The artist who created the display, a dark-haired young man named Feizal Valli, explains that the work is a commentary on America’s war in Iraq:
(AUDIO under, Valli lowering the hinged plywood backing of the display)
VALLI: Basically, the space itself is about two feet by 22 feet. And the soldiers...there are as many different toy soldiers as I could find. And marked along the way is, I guess, the big numbers. One thousand, two thousand...deaths, total. And somewhere early on in the piece there’s a sign that says ‘Mission Accomplished.’ It’s around the time that we declared...or at least our president declared...that the mission was accomplished. And as the piece points out, that’s clearly about one-eighth of the way to where we are right now. There’s a number at the end that changes as the soldiers die. It’s sitting at 2-3-1-8, right now.
NAR: Valli, who moved to Birmingham from New Orleans after his French Quarter apartment was damaged by Hurricane Katrina, says the idea for the installation piece--which he titles ‘Mission Accomplished’--had been germinating in his mind for a long time.
VALLI: I was always against the war, was always against this administration. And one day, probably seven months ago, flying, I picked up a copy of USA Today. They had a pie chart of the U.S. soldiers that had been killed in Iraq. And it was ridiculous numbers, two thousand one hundred something, and it was the size of a quarter. I think part of the reason people become so numbed to the war and the losses of the war is that they’re not given a chance to look at each individual life that it’s cost. Because, of course, 30,000 Iraqis have died. This is just ‘our’ soldiers. So that was the impetus. I had the image in my head of these toy soldiers that we all play with, that we’re familiar with, and it being viable to have a single soldier to represent a single life lost.
NAR: Although opinion polls continue to show that Americans are passionately divided on the subject of the Iraq War and the decisions leading up to it, Valli says that so far none of the feedback he’s received about ‘Mission Accomplished’ has been negative.
VALLI: I often come into the complex and find, you know, some people out there looking at it. We live in kind of a derelict neighborhood, so there’s all kinds of different people that come by. Everything from the homeless guy who stops and just goes, ‘Damn!’ to the business-suited sort of guy who just nods and walks away. I’ve seen some college kids stop, and I’ve asked them what they thought about it and they’re really blown away by it.
NAR: As the death toll of the war continues to climb steadily, Valli is facing some logistical problems in updating his toy-soldier display.
VALLI: I ran out of soldiers in Birmingham. I went from store to store to store, and I eventually just tapped out all the soldiers. So I went to visit my mom in Florida and I hit a few stores there. I had a friend in Mobile, I actually hit some stores there.
NAR: Not only is he almost out of soldiers, he’s almost out of window space.
VALLI: It will fill up, I think, probably in the next two months, at this rate. There’s probably room for another...maybe 75, tops? We’re losing two soldiers a day. We’ve had as many as seven deaths per day. And the very luckiest we’ve gotten out is a death a day. There’s not much space in the rest of the piece, because they’re sitting pretty much on top of one another. Realistically, there is no ‘best’ outcome. We’re looking at basically the same thing for the next few years. So I guess it’s just a matter of...the windowsill? Out on the street, maybe? Who knows?
(AUDIO under of street sounds; cross-fade to TV ANNOUNCER giving Iraq War casualty report. Music close: ‘Mars, the Bringer of War’ by Gustav Holst.)