There’s nothing quite as inviting as a table with white linens, clean plates and shiny silverware. It makes the stomach growl and mouth water. In The Dairy’s latest exhibit, Signature, there are three neat rows of 27 tables, all daintily set with plates and cutlery. The dishes are full, but the meal isn’t appetizing.
On each plate lie bones — broken, gray, gritty — with writing on them: Australia 1900-1969, Nazi-Germany Controlled Europe 1933-1945, Rwanda 1994, Bosnia & Herzegovina 1992-1995, Darfur 2003-Present, Northern Iraq and Syria 2014-Present… Each plate representing a genocide of the last century.
“When people come in, they think, ‘Oh, it’s a dinner party,’” says Signature’s artist Larry “Bug” Franklin. “And then all of a sudden it twists around.”
Showing through April 9, Signature is the latest installation from Bug. He’s spent more than two decades as an installation artist, exhibiting his work in Denver and around the country. With no agenda in mind, he mostly deals with social issues.
“I’m trying to say something more socially about living in the world we are today and trying to make that connection with what we all feel and sense,” he says.
The off-putting “food” he serves in his show speaks to the regularity of a crisis as horrifying as genocide. As the only beings who exhibit such behavior, Bug says, it might be the “signature” of humanity.
“The bigger idea is that we seem to have this insatiable appetite for this,” he says. “As time is going on, we have this more and more.”
This is not the first iteration of this piece. The first showing was in 2007 and since then, Bug’s added five tables to the installation.
“It’s creepy,” he says. “But you feel in some respects you have to do it, because it’s something that has to be stated.”
The Dairy’s McMahon Gallery, which is displaying Signature, is 1,050 square feet. While not the biggest space, it comfortably holds all 27 of Bug’s current tables. But he acknowledges that won’t always be the case.
“The sad thing about this piece is it just continues to grow,” Bug says. “So I imagine in about another dozen years or so, this space will not be big enough to even house this amount of tables. That’s really kind of weird as an artist, because most times when you do a piece and you show it again, it’s done, and you just do the same thing over again. But with this, every time I show it, I have to construct more tables, more bones. And so it’s just a weird piece; it’ll never be finished.”
The inspiration for Signature came about naturally, stemming from his Jewish heritage. As he grew up, he learned about the Holocaust, and he says many of the older people in his life had identification tattoos.
“So to me, that’s part of my history,” he says. “So when you start seeing more of it around the world, you’re more in tune to it. I never went through it myself, but you’re just more aware of it.”
Genocide is an intimidating topic, but Signature captures the sorrow and destruction in a straightforward manner. It doesn’t overinflate the heaviness of the issue, but boils it down to the bare bones: death and misery.
Bug purposefully designed the show so the audience has to interact with the pieces, walking between the tables, unable to skirt around the suffering. The simplicity garners a visceral reaction from the viewer.
The piece also features video projections on the wall. One video shows pictures from German concentration camps in occupied Poland, which serve as a common link between multiple events.
“You can put any image up on this wall, and I would assume that somebody who lived through one of these other genocides would [relate],” he says.
The other two videos are loops of various people. In one, multiple people are shaking their heads back and forth. Bug says this represents the insanity and confusion of the ongoing nature of these tragedies.
In the other, people cover their ears, eyes and mouths. This video, he says, symbolizes the people in these regions who hear, see and speak about the genocides, yet are hesitant to rise up to fight against them, in fear of their own safety. While the picture montage and the tables are black and white, the two other videos are in color — a deliberate choice in order to depict the past and present.
The individual elements of the exhibit are compelling on their own, and while Bug’s intentions and inspirations are clear, the work remains vague enough for the audience to project their own ideas onto it. For one alternate explanation, the subjects in the videos could symbolize the denial that outsiders go through in wanting to stay ignorant to the suffering in other nations.
“[That] response is as authentic as mine,” Bug says. “Because really, as an artist, what I don’t want to do is [necessitate] that you have to [interpret] it exactly this way. I want to leave it open-ended. I want people to approach it the way they see it and how they feel about it.
“Art is really powerful when you can fill in those gaps,” he continues. “If I go to the museum and I have to read a big artist statement to figure out what in the world I’m looking at, to me that’s really missing the boat. But if they would give me an insight or a doorway into it, that’s much more powerful.”
Bug provides a look into genocide, but stops short of providing a reason or a remedy. He’s just as confused as anyone as to why this keeps happening, especially in today’s modern world.
“We’re the only species that has ever lived on this planet that’s ever done this,” he says. “And I don’t know if more intellect means more hostile. I don’t know what it is, but you almost think it would be the reverse. This would be primal man, and we’d be much more evolved in not dealing with this.”
The current political atmosphere cast Bug’s piece in a new light for him. He gained insight into the seeds of these occurrences.
“To be honest, I think of how much hatred would it take for a society or group of people to do this… But then you look at the news, especially after the election and the inauguration and then you start seeing, ‘Oh, well this is maybe how it starts,’” he says. “Where people are just truly polar opposites and they just yell at each other and they cannot seem to get along, and eventually… and I’m not saying it would happen here, but maybe this is how it starts.”
Arguably, the most moving piece in the show resides at the upper corner of the exhibit. There sits a table dressed with linens, silverware and an empty plate.
Initially, Bug says, he wrestled with the idea of including the vacant table in the installation. But he ultimately decided it was necessary — an open-ended finish to an ongoing tragedy.
“If this table was removed, it would read differently,” he says. “It would read more as a historical piece, but now it reads more as current.”
While Signature might seem grim, Bug sees it as a “somewhat upbeat” show. Hopefully, this is humanity’s rock bottom and the future will be brighter.
And maybe one day, Bug’s piece will be finished and he’ll be able to pack up the waiting table.
“Boy, that would be really nice,” he says with a laugh.
But until then, the final plate sits empty, ready for its next meal.
On the Bill: Signature — Bug. The Dairy Arts Center, 2590 Walnut St., Boulder, 303-440-7826. Through April 9.
Clarification: The above article has been updated to clarify the concentration camps in occupied Poland were German and not Polish.