Donald Trump, cockroaches and bat guano — all part of David Snyder’s work on view at the Galveston Artist’s Residency. Trump’s voice is center stage in “Knock-off Oracle, Undecider’s -Anthem…And a Disaster, After,” Snyder’s sprawling installation in the main gallery, curated by the GAR in collaboration with Rice Gallery’s Joshua Fischer. The bat guano and roaches are part of Snyder’s video The Guano (2016) which, screened in the back gallery, presents an absurdist yet quasi-plausible repurposing of old Blockbuster video stores. Snyder has a penchant for American dreck.
Walking into the main gallery, you see a mass of haphazard wooden constructions while you hear the whirring of a motor and the clunking of wood. Underneath the sounds is an ominously distorted voice, the kind of electronic vocal camouflage news stations use when interviewing a hit man in silhouette. The voice is Donald Trump’s, emanating from an old boxy television suspended in the air from a wooden beam. Its screen points to the floor, displaying video that melds the molten orange surface of the sun with a glazed doughnut. Could that roiling orangey-ness and the nutrition-bereft fried food be a Trump reference? Surely not!
The video monitor is in the center of the gallery, moving up and down over a spider-like construction that appears to be made from scrap wood — one-by-twos and random chunks of plywood. Sticky-looking accretions of sawdust cling to the pieces. Strange robot-like figures surround the structure, with boxy “heads” and glowing eyes, turned down as if in reverent obeisance. Their bodies are made from old shutters and strips of wood plastered with blue-green shop towels. Their box heads are stuccoed and open-sided, revealing lit table or ceiling lights embedded within them. Their lights illuminate plastic bottles of soda in unnatural shades of blue, green and red that protrude from the boxes to create the “bulging eyes” of the creatures.
It feels like some postapocalyptic worship site, the materials looted from homes and scavenged from Home Depot and Family Dollar after the Trump nuclear holocaust. Behind the circle of “worshippers” are three old couches turned on end and reading like couch-potato versions of the megaliths of Stonehenge.
Snyder is definitely a proponent of the Rube Goldbergian school of sculpture. An old ice cream freezer motor creates the clunking sound of the wood. It moves a lever that knocks into articulated wood pieces connected to the beam from which the TV hangs. A grotty ceramic bathroom sink scavenged from a demolished crack house counterweights the TV. The ice cream freezer motor was apparently a garage sale find; old masking tape is still stuck to it with the Sharpie-scrawled message “Motor works, rust in container, as is, $5.00 ice cream.” There are other notations on the structures — carpenter measurements and notes-to-self scribbles from the artist that say things like “bad idea” and “big mistake.”
You can stand under the video, in the center of the spider-like hut structure, and view it by looking up through a plastic tray filled with circulating water. The ice cream motor mechanism moves it up and down overhead in a vaguely hypnotic manner, the sun burns, the glazed doughnut fades in and out and Trump’s voice intones, “I am the messenger.” And if that isn’t unsettling enough, a viewer has the vague feeling that Snyder’s structure isn’t especially structurally sound. The TV might just fall on your freaking face as you gaze transfixed at the fiery Trump-doughnut-orb. And maybe that’s a fitting fate.
As you move to the back gallery, don headphones and sit down to watch The Guano, the video’s defunct Blockbuster stores, bat guano and roaches feel like a variation on a theme. The 12-minute 44-second video opens like a cross between a political ad and a late-night get-rich-quick infomercial. The voice-over lays out grim statistics — seven million unemployed, deficits and waning industry. It notes that Blockbuster made $5.9 billion in profits in 2004 and shut down stores in 2014, leaving 1,700 vacant stores of 5,500 square feet each. The narrator dubs the stores the “waste product of a faster, lighter entertainment industry.”
As in all good infomercials, the terrible problem is presented and followed by the amazing solution — in this case, bat shit. The video proposes retrofitting the old Blockbusters into high-yield bat shit factories. With bat shit, i.e., guano fertilizer, retailing, as it does, at $8 a pound, the profit potential and job opportunities are amazing! The ecological advantages of bat shit versus industrial fertilizers are laid out. The feeding of the bats is described, and animations show proposed “roach cannons” to turn the symbiotic supply of cockroaches moving through the bat shit into “dynamic food bait” because apparently bats have to eat stuff that’s moving.
It’s a goofy-ass video with a lot of research, spiffy 3-D animation and found clips of things like American flags, bats peeing, people at business meetings, roach larvae, factories, old Blockbuster commercials, Mel Gibson in The Patriot and hyenas tearing apart a carcass. When the voice says, “There aren’t concerns about flooding the market with bat shit,” we see new footage of a woman wading through rushing brown floodwaters. It parodies the style of persuasive videos with an idea that sounds plausible and ridiculous at the same time.
The video wraps up by waxing lyrical about America and its resilience, giving as an example the Donner party’s “rebranding” for survival. It closes with that stilted video of Ted Cruz and his wife and children. Cruz’s wife, to quote Samantha Bee, looks as if she’s being held hostage. The ending image is a still of Paul Ryan in a muscle shirt, lifting weights. The announcer asks the question “As a nation can we afford not to go bat shit?”
Snyder takes the castoff, objectionable and absurd and turns it into witty and provocative work. Just like turning shit to gold…