"We are fighting for the freedom of the planet," proclaims a mural by German artist Benedikt Ender at North Portland's Rocksbox gallery. "The freedom of mankind," it continues, "and the freedom of art." This hand-scrawled rallying cry hovers next to a drawing of a reclining nude, who parts her labia for a presumably liberating moment of female ejaculation.
Welcome to WWIII: The General of Freedom, an ambitious, profane, and sprawling exhibition that will assault your eyes, ears, and most likely, your sense of decency. Hardcore porn and a war-mongering mentality dominate Ender's installation, which lays waste to the tepid conventions of craft, halting ambitions, and politeness that dominate and deaden a dismayingly large percentage of art shown in Portland.
In WWIII, traditional craft is rebuked by miles of goopy, black, hot glue that covers everything in sight like a hardened, diseased bodily fluid; halting ambitions could certainly never fill every square inch of Rocksbox's three separate galleries with murals, sculptures, drawings, collages, videos, tents, pickled vegetables, an air compressor, strobe light, and costumed performance; and the only politeness you'll find here comes from the gallery's genial owner, Patrick Rock, who still seems tickled at the gloriously obscene and noisy environment that Ender created. WWIII is the sort of art that provides what critic Dave Hickey describes as "a totally nonredemptive but vaguely exciting experience, like brushing up against a girl with big boobs in the subway."
Rocksbox is divided into three gallery spaces, and WWIII coaxes you through them as a sort of abbreviated voyage into uncivilized madness, like a 21st century version of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (or, if you prefer, Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now). A trashed, boozy approximation of a recruiter's office occupies part of the front room, where Ender's collaged mural wraps around walls, inviting you to join World War III: the War on Freedom, which the artist claims is upon us.
"The world is facing [WWIII] right now," Ender told me. "Because of economics, it's a civil war between all humans, about money." A written manifesto ticks off points about "capitalistic globalization," profiteering off of natural disasters, and the real generals of WWIII being CEOs of major corporations. Ender then makes the suspiciously simple and idealistic claim that art is the world's only possible salvation, and that the World Art Revolution (WAR) "will expose all religions and will offer a new way to think and act for the future." As if to throw his credence into even more dubious waters, he writes that "if necessary, we have to take hostages... If our demands are not going to be fulfilled, we erase the hostages." Before closing, it's noted that the WAR will "drive u on a hellway to high."
There's no reason to question Ender's beliefs about the economic motives that drive global conflict—but hostages and a "hellway to high"? Clearly, Ender, who introduces himself as "the general of freedom," has gone rogue, like Joseph Conrad's (or Marlon Brando's) Kurtz, and has thrown off the shackles of civilized behavior for the unrestrained freedom of barbarism. And somewhere along the way, he's amassed quite a porn collection.
Oh, the porn: It covers everything in WWIII—walls, floors, and even a life-size soldier dubbed the "pussy warrior" for reasons that will be readily evident to gallery visitors. At one point in the show, viewers must crawl through stacks of pages ripped from hardcore magazines, and a video juxtaposes patriotic and militaristic footage with clips of ejaculating women.
"I think war is a lot about ejaculating men," Ender told me, "and very stupid old men who start wars. I wanted to take the power away from them, or build a sort of opposite, with the ejaculation of women—to destroy the force of war images."
Porn is also one of the few comforts allowed to soldiers at war, a situation alluded to in the barracks tent that occupies Rocksbox's front gallery. Under a big camouflage tarp, life-size dummies of soldiers (each bearing Ender's face) sprawl across each other in a heap: We're not sure if they're corpses or simply engaging in an orgiastic session of "don't ask, don't tell." Their gaping red anuses prove inconclusive, as does the small mountain of porn beneath them.
A textbook case of foreshadowing, these soldiers reveal what could be in store for you if you enlist in Ender's WAR: It's unclear whether it's violent death or a harmless brothers-in-arms game of "soggy waffle," but you can't claim to not have been warned. (To continue the Heart of Darkness analogy, the prone soldiers are like the well-hidden Africans who attack the ship early into its metaphorical descent downriver, signaling the atrocities to come. In Heart of Darkness, another man's blood fills the captain's shoe in this scene; here, a sticky blowjob pic will likely adhere to your sole.)
The middle section of the show consists of a series of interconnected tents that wind like a cramped corridor into pulsating darkness. In all great literature—from The Iliad to Revenge of the Sith—the protagonist undergoes some transformative journey and emerges reborn. (Heart of Darkness is the quintessential 19th century telling of this voyage, with the dark river symbolizing the descent into man's tortured soul.) This passage of tents clearly represents our journey; appropriately enough, Ender has fashioned the entrance to look like a huge vagina, which we must crawl through.
Once inside, we are bombarded with more porn: Our hands and knees sink into it, and we see that it's mixed now with pages from military and firearm magazines. Dangling Christmas lights hit us in the head; the sound of blaring XXX videos and automatic gunfire make it hard to focus. A strobe light distorts our time/space orientation, and the low-quality footage of ejaculating women is forced upon us in the cramped space. There is something genuinely and viscerally disturbing about crawling through Ender's tunnel. In the roomy main galleries, we can stand back (physically and metaphorically) from the sex and violence: Here, it literally surrounds us, and the addition of the machine gun rattle and epileptic strobe overwhelm on a cellular level.
You are halfway through your transformative journey: Don't say you weren't forewarned.
The good thing about these soul-baring excursions is that they eventually end, and after sludging through Ender's foxhole/birth canal/river voyage, we are deposited in WWIII's final gallery—a veritable oasis of sterility and minimalism in this chaotic and grimy show. But of course, it's not so simple.
An enormous, undulating camouflage sculpture nearly fills the room. Made of hundreds of camo plastic bags taped together, it's an inflated mass of bulbous forms and outstretched tentacles. A compressor pumps countless metric tons of hot air into the piece, and roars with the intensity of a small aircraft. The constant bellow from the compressor bounces off the gallery walls, making it nearly impossible to think. Rations of pickled vegetables labeled for the general sit in the corner, and it becomes evident where we are—the seat of power. Untouched and free of the squalid obscenities and whizzing bullets of the barracks tent and trenches, this back room belongs to the masters of war, represented by this ill-defined, amorphous, and intimidating mass that shrouds itself in camouflage while remaining sequestered in a clean, safe room.
(The use of camouflage in everyday fashion, Ender tells me, "feels like the militarization of civilians. The military look is normal, and it looks like a war is going on if you walk through the streets of cities.")
It's up to us to determine how we were granted an audience with the forces of war: the CEOs, the generals, the president, and the profiteers. Was it simply because of our participation in their ejaculatory war? Did that turn us into one of them? Or were we complicit before we even stepped into that recruitment office? Most likely, this is the stopping point on a perilous journey that was promised to us from the outset. We have reached the final destination of WWIII's "hellway to high."
Benedikt Ender's WWIII: The General of Freedom is on view at Rocksbox Fine Art, 6540 N Interstate, Saturday-Sunday noon-6 pm, through January 6, rocksboxfineart.com.