Don't Wanna be an American Idiot... (review of the "American Qu'ran" exhibit by Sandow Birk)

I have purposefully procrastinated writing my thoughts on Sandow Birk’s show “American Qu’ran.” My excuse is that show left me feeling agitated and annoyed. But maybe I’m just to jaded with my personal history growing up in a dogmatic culture to really feel motivated to give organized religion a thoughtful look. My intent here is to write my thoughts of the show as honest as possible. In doing this I have not done any research on the artist or his motivation in creating this work. The only information I had going in to see the show was that a Muslim American Artist, Sandow Birk, had translated the Qu’ran into English. The idealist in me felt extremely optimistic of this show as the thought of giving an American audience the chance to read the Qu’ran might help create an understanding of a religion that has been casted as a villain to most in this Country. By not doing any research before hand I hoped to experience this show as any person off the street might have.

Was the work successful? For me to answer this I have to organize my thoughts into two sections.
Superficially, the surface and images themselves were an interesting mix between beautifully decorative borders, an “urban” graffiti text, and flat cartoonish illustrations of contemporary American life. Just reading that sentence brings chaos to my brain. The work was gauche. It was trying to combine too many contrasting styles in a very concentrated space. The lace-like quality to the borders themselves seemed to radiate with anxiety as they seemed too fragile to contain the bulky human caricatures in each scene. The illustrations were clunky. I don’t mean that in a negative way. I enjoyed them on their own as they looked like scenes from an animated still. But I was confused to see them presented in this work. It was almost as if Birk was illustrating a children’s book with very important and weighty text. The two didn’t gel well together or atlas it made me feel like the Artist was purposefully trying to lessen the sincerity of the Muslim faith. The typeface Birk chose was in the style of early Southern California skate and gang culture. Trying to read the text gave me a migraine, it was a bit too over stylized for the size of the font. The graffiti looked like it was taken out of the Dogtown days and made me think of Venice beach and the scribbles you see on the sides of buildings marking gang territory. It was a lot visually to take in.

Contextually, it’s the Qu’ran translated into English. Where do I begin….
Given that we are in a holy war with the Middle East (I’ll try my best to keep my political views out of it) this exhibit carries an immense amount of seriousness. I tried respectfully,to read each page as best I could but found it extremely difficult to concentrate. This is a religious text, it’s already something that needs to be read closely and I was annoyed at the fact that it was presented in a way that was almost too hard to get through. Then I started to notice each illustrated scene as it coincided with the text. The narrative of the images themselves were heavily loaded with stereotypical comments on American society. My sarcasm appreciated the snark-worthy quality to the pictures — red necks and monster trucks, suburban culture with all it’s gluttonous materialism — but, then I found myself wondering what the hell is the point here? All I knew about Sandow Birk at that time was that he grew up in Southern California, participated in surf/skate/beach culture and was raised in a Muslim home. One on hand I didn’t mind some of his overtly political images of Presidential elections and military combat, but the ones depicting common American life pissed me off a little. Here is a guy that fully enjoyed the freedom of growing up in this country which gave him the opportunity to cultivate his creativity to the extent that he could spend almost a decade making this work and exhibit it in a museum — to then sort of throw it back in it’s face. There’s something a little punk rock about it that I like, especially since this show was in the Orange County Museum of Art in Newport Beach, the cradle of right wing Religious dogma. The contradictory aspect to the show left me with the same contrast of feelings. Already I feel like this whole blog entry doesn’t make much sense and isn’t articulated well, but that’s exactly how I felt about this show.

The ceramic pieces were what I most enjoyed, they achieved nice balance of Arabic styled tiles and American graffiti which to me commented on the two cultures successfully. All in all, I feel sorry for Birk to have spent nine years on this project, I really wanted it to be something better than it was. As an artist I can appreciate his dedication, I just wish it didn’t leave me with such a visual headache.