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Candid Caricatures, Candy Coffins, and Cringe-Inducing Catharsis: A Walk Through Pedro Reyes’s ‘Doomocracy’

Doomocracy's Lady Liberty. Photo credit Will Star Shooting Stars Pro.

Lady Liberty in Doomocracy.

COURTESY WILL STAR SHOOTING STARS PRO/CREATIVE TIME

During the second presidential debate, it took a chubby-cheeked man named Kenneth Bone to break the unbearable tension in the room. Perhaps Bone succeeded because in him we saw the everyman—a Guess Who? card, as one person characterized him. Although it could have just been his great red sweater, or the fact that he is named Kenneth Bone. Or even that he managed to ask a substantive question. Regardless, Bone’s bumbling presence amidst the excruciating proceedings provided a welcome catharsis.

A similar dynamic is at play in the latest Creative Time–produced site-specific public art installation, Doomocracy, a self-described “house of political horrors” created by the artist Pedro Reyes and directed by Meghan Finn with a script by Paul Hufker that runs on weekends through Election Day. Housed in an abandoned section of the Brooklyn Army Terminal in Sunset Park, Doomocracy is a three-story collection of live action dioramas, a Lynchian answer to Night at the Museum.

For an hour a group of around 50 characters, each more of a caricature than the last, guides the audience through the space, each on hand to deliver bitter pills in bright wrapping. Describing the specifics of these scenes would do a disservice to the surprise of their execution. What’s not surprising is the underlying content, which spans the spectrum from gun control, late capitalism, and drone warfare, to the pièce de résistance of our current miasma, climate change (a topic, it’s worth noting, that did not come up in any of the debates).

OK, maybe a description of one room. Velour drapes encircle a church organ and a child’s coffin decorated as a chocolate éclair. Upon entry, a man in a suit worthy of a used car salesman begins to play a dour jingle. Addressing the small group assembled, the man explains his strange surroundings. Noting that there has been a recent spate of child deaths, the organist croons some some ingeniously clever lyrics about creating a junk food-themed coffin business. “We’ve got Twinkie coffins, candy-corn coffins, the fried chicken coffin,” he sings.

Installation shot of Sugar Coffins. Photo credit Will Star Shooting Stars Pro.

Installation shot of Sugar Coffins. Photo credit Will Star Shooting Stars Pro.

“That idea was actually based off an article I read about a recent trend of superhero-themed funerals for kids,” Reyes told me later, in a phone interview. Yes, as ridiculous as the funeral parlor and many of Reyes’s rooms may appear, the ideas behind them are all rooted in reality, as in any good satire. His additional layers of humor, Reyes continued, helps to avoid the “heavy-handedness” that comes with confronting such topics as early onset diabetes and gun-related child deaths.

“What is interesting for me is how fear and laughter are connected,” Reyes said. “We often laugh at things that are awkward and uncomfortable. Laughter is perhaps a defense mechanism to cope with the shock of reality.”

This sentiment is epitomized by a wooden Statue of Liberty at the entrance to Doomocracy, which welcomes visitors to the performance. Unlike the Ellis Island version, the base of this statue is the continuous track of an army tank. For Reyes, the connection here is pretty straightforward. “The United States has been in an almost permanent state of war, all in the name of exporting democracy and freedom,” he said. His installation is now housed in the largest military supply store that the United States had through the years of World War II, and it was the site of departure for nearly 80 percent of all the American troops who left for Europe. At the front and back of the wooden statue is an open hatch that reveals a hollow interior, cloaked in darkness. It is a Trojan horse for the modern age.

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