“The Hellfire Story”

In “The Hellfire Story”, Kenny Cole presents a large-scale collection of work that questions the cultural significance of the CIA’s ongoing remote missile program in the Middle East, particularly in Pakistan with whom we are not at war. This new warfare paradigm, “remote targeting killing”, carried on in secret by the CIA, is not only remote geographically, but metaphysically and ethically as well.

“Hellfire”, a chill acronym for “Helicopter, Fire and Forget”, is a US missile system in development and deployment for over 40 years and currently in use by high altitude predator drones controlled by “pilots” at desks thousands of miles away in Langly VA.
“The Hellfire Story” brings the details of these drone-wars home in two overlapping phases, each magnifying a new incongruity in understanding a killing machine which we unknowingly tolerate every day.

Phase I, the Hellfire Drawings, began with brush and ink images and text transcriptions based on the 125 chronological “Milestones” of Hellfire System development. The hand-painted texts matter-of-factly transcribe a plodding story of inexorable development as the narrative ploughs on and on, backwards and forwards across the pages, describing laser systems, multi-national manufacturers, millions of dollars doled out in research and development.

The cold text rides on a riptide of death and ruination, the boring calm of the words sliding over the darkness of the intention below.

Cole pulls the words apart at their seams as the letters arbitrarily find their way across the page. Without spaces, line breaks or syllables, the letters are marching ants, symbols without syntax making reading difficult and content all the more impersonal and disjunctive.

In the midst of this almost painful visual process of reading, Cole’s line, like a worm, burrows amongst the text finding second meanings in between the lines…tantrum, flog, maim, fester, connive, ransack, sate, stun…another set of hard to read words, but the hot underbelly of the cold smug military tale.

Each drawing is built around an image, often of a scientific apparatus, a leaking flask or frothing test tube, an alchemical retort, imprisoned figures and vacuum tubes, scissors, hammers, bandaged arms.

Clouds rain oil, milk, honey and blood. Robed hands emerge, God-like, and reach through the words, pointing, emitting rays or grasping at objects and all together creating a monkey wrench of battling thought.

Phase II, the 175 placards projecting overhead, detailed the number of Hellfire drone strikes in Pakistan since 2004. On one side of the placards, biblical quotes suggest how old and dire strife in the Mideast actually is. On the verso, the death statistics of each strike are painted.

These powerful works of art throw the viewer a curve. They encode while they decode, but they are deeply felt and complexly layered clarions to awareness. They ask questions and decry the violence. “Art shouldn’t be about beauty,” Cole says, “Go for the ugly truth. That can be beautiful.”

Al Crichton

October 2010