The Dogma of the “First World Cargo Cult”: An Interview with Peter Adamyan
In year, hell, a universe where consumption and transportation of goods has been both a major metaphor for wealth, labor and access, it felt refreshing to see the works of Peter Adamyan in First World Cargo Cult, his new solo show at Spoke Art in San Francisco. As the show opened last week, Lyndsie Fox, Spoke Art Gallery Manager, sat down with Peter to talk about the scope of the show, the story behind the paintings and where satire fits into his style.
Lyndsie Fox: Congratulations on the show, we’re so happy to welcome you back for your 4th solo exhibition at Spoke Art! Now for those of us who have never heard of them before, where did “cargo cults” originate, and how did this history inspire the current show?
Peter Adamyan: The first version of what would later regrettably be called a “cargo cult” arose in Melanesia, which includes the islands of Papua New Guinea and Fiji. When colonists arrived on the islands they brought mass produced goods along with them. As the indigenous people were unfamiliar with mass manufacturing processes, they believed these goods were manufactured by spiritual means, intended for the local population by their gods, and that the foreigners had unfairly seized control of the cargo for themselves. Their belief system dictated that this wrong would be corrected by some supernatural means and the desired manufactured goods would be fairly distributed to them.
Rituals arose to facilitate this change, often borrowing symbols from Christianity, western military forces, and their own civilization. They produced mock versions of airplanes, landing strips, and radios from local materials such as sticks, coconuts, and straw. Their rituals would often mimic the activities they’d seen western military personnel engage in to bring in the cargo.
These generally egalitarian, hunter-gatherer, lightly agricultural societies had their way of life disrupted by colonialism, globalization, and capitalism and interpreted the production of the cargo as best they could from their understanding of the world. Many in the west may find their lack of understanding of how these goods are manufactured laughable, but I would wager many in western civilization are just as ignorant of the manufacturing process behind many of the products they feel entitled to.
From the minerals mined to create their cell phones, the petroleum used for the plastic forks thrown into their take out, and the textiles produced and assembled in sweatshops for the fast fashion world of today, modern society’s exploitation of the world’s resources for cheap cargo has put a heavy burden on the health of our planet and to those less fortunate, forced to earn their living manufacturing and delivering our cheap cargo.
A global shipping network creates unfathomable amounts of waste and exploitation for workers, coalescing in the convenience of next-day-delivery for Prime members. We have our rituals to bring in our cargo while unaware of its impact on our planet, humanity at large, and our own personal humanity. The reliance on mass-produced goods leads us to no longer rely on our own abilities of survival and, more importantly, gives us the illusion that we do not rely on each other or the planet for this survival.
This is the dogma of the “first world cargo cult”: the selfish entitlement to goods based on the ritualistic exchange of capital, built on the backs of unsustainable economic and ecological systems.
As with most of your work, this “cargo cult” concept is examined through the lens of colonialism, indigenous spirituality, and environmental decay - with many of the portrait subjects dressed in makeshift tribal garb and indigenous-inspired accessories. What about Native Americans and indigenous peoples inspires you to mimic their culture in your own work?
The starting point of my inspiration is not so much the people’s culture as it is the land and the way human’s use it. I was born and raised in California so the wild lands of the west coast are my biggest inspiration, and the human connection to the land goes along with that.
It is clear that the romanticized lifestyle indigenous people had, which were perceived to be more harmonious with nature is better for the longevity of the planet but what few people think about or realize is that there was societal and regional ecological collapse in the Americas long before Europeans crossed the Atlantic. Empires rose and fell without the help of colonists, mass extinctions followed everywhere humans settled around the globe as they destroyed the delicate balance of ecosystems.
If you follow any human’s history back far enough we all came from tribal societies. As much as the romanticization of this type of society may be misguided and ill informed, many of us have a longing for the notion of simplicity it offers when faced with the hyper capitalism of modern living.
My portraits try to imagine a future where humans have returned to a hunter, gatherer and agricultural society and new cultural practices arise from an almost archeological uncovering of the trash left behind by our society. This allows me to criticize modern society from an imagined future as a reflection of a romanticized past. Our current society is consumer driven and in many ways cultural identity has been replaced by brand identity, this idea was the jumping off point of this body of work.
Cultural appropriation has been a pervasive issue since the dawn of colonialism, namely white colonialism. In exploring this issue creatively, it can be hard to tread the waters between critiquing cultural appropriation and blatantly committing it. As an artist satirically emulating indigenous cultures, how do you navigate the two sides of that threshold?
The satire in my work is aimed at modern society, not indigenous cultures, but I have been concerned about the ideas of appropriation in my work. I try not to use any images or designs directly from any tribe, instead try to use modern imagery such as logos as an imagined future tribal imagery. In the rare instance I use a particular design or image of a tribal member it is with an eye to a true and overlooked history, to remember that the future and past are connected by the present moment. As I said earlier, we all come from tribal societies if you go far back enough, each are rich culturally and have unique customs. I am trying to create a notion of a tribal society that could arise anywhere, I don’t want people to think “this is so and so tribe, but with trash in place of their natural materials”.
Both of my parents were immigrants from Armenia, a country under the thumb of one empire or another for all of its history and really for most of human civilization. I grew up in a part of the country where it was rare to meet another kid whose parents weren’t immigrants. The merging of all of these immigrant cultures and those already here in America from the indigenous people to those with multiple generations of descendants from around the world, combined with the materialistic society we live in and finally the landscape of our wildlands is what makes up America for me, and what shapes my work.
The people in your portraits are modeled off of real people in your own life - who are some familiar faces we might recognize in First World Cargo Cult? Do you ever factor their individual personalities into the paintings and create “characters” around them, or are they actors playing into the role you’ve scripted for them?
I try to use people as diverse as those I grew up around, but sometimes it’s just a matter of convenience. I ask friends and fellow artists to model for me, as well as my wife and myself where it won’t be entirely obvious who the model is.
Some paintings have deeper backstories than others. Some are characters who would perform certain ceremonies, some are just portraits of folks who might be wearing what could be seen as a simple piece of jewelry created from contemporary waste.
In representing indigenous cultures, much of your focus is on the hunter-gatherer lifestyle and finding sustenance within natural wilderness. As a found object artist incorporating debris and discarded materials off the city streets, you yourself have become a sort of modern, new-age forager. How does this hunter-gatherer mentality and industrialized foraging fit into your creative process?
The benefit of finding all you need in the wilderness is that no artificial process was used to create your food, there is no carbon footprint created by transporting the good there, no fertilizers or pesticides. All of this limits the impact on the natural environment.
I try to bring that philosophy to everything I make, the more materials I add to my art that are found is not only one less item going into a landfill it is also one less thing I have to buy at the store, which creates demand for the manufacturing of more materials. I am not even close to perfect at extending this philosophy to my entire life, but I believe everyone should limit the amount of new goods they buy, use everything until it can’t be used anymore and buy second hand whenever possible.
How has working with found objects - essentially, discarded products and consumerist trash - influenced how you view these products and material items? After spending hours dissecting cheap, plastic-heavy, inorganic, manufactured goods and manipulating them into something beautiful, do you have more respect for the production and manufacturing process or does it only disgust you even more?
There is a lot of illegal dumping in my neighborhood which is partly what inspired my work. I am disgusted pretty regularly by the amount of waste created by modern living. Working with these materials has only made me realize how much of it there is. When I start to collect a particular item I find regularly on the street or at my local shoreline, I begin to realize how many of that particular item must have been manufactured, billions, trillions of single use plastic items littering or planet. It is only a reminder of how much we take for granted and the impact of individual decisions accumulated over time across the entire population.
I will literally pick up a screw or a nail if I see it on the street and throw it in my pile in the studio for later use. I imagine what a 18th century blacksmith would say to see how easily we are willing to discard a useful item that would have had to be made by hand only a couple hundred years ago.
You’ve previously said that your intention in depicting these tribal, hunter-gatherer societies is to have the viewer think about “how we have lost our connection to the wilderness that has nourished us throughout our evolution, and how we could possibly bring some of it back into our lives.” With this in mind, how do you feel about the trend of mass-manufactured, inorganic products that mimic nature in our indoor spaces? (eg pine scented candles, ocean sounds white noise machines, fake decorative plants) Do these faux wilderness “experiences” still nourish us, to some degree, or are they part of the problem?
Anything manufactured is part of the problem, but these are great examples of how desperate people are to bring more nature into their lives. We live in a society that tells us we need to be physically comfortable and safe at all times. While simultaneously we are told we need to dedicate ourselves to working as much as time will allow us to make our living, which leaves little time for people to embrace the healing that being in a wild place can bring them, so they bring it into their lives in whatever way they can.
In planning this show, you quipped that you wanted to brand it as your “Spoke Art Residency” because it debuted after leaving a nearly decade-long job managing the shipping and warehouse facilities for Spoke Art and its several sister galleries. How did that job, and leaving it right before COVID hit, influence the FWCC collection?
The show was very much inspired by working in a shipping department for so long. The amount of waste generated from shipping items across the globe is immense. I tried my best there to recycle and reuse materials wherever I could but there is only so much we can do. It was a small operation compared to an Amazon, but the amount of soft plastics we went through was still disappointing. Many of the props used in the paintings for this show were pulled from the waste of the shipping warehouse as well as some of the wood scraps.
After leaving the job I went on a roadtrip through the southwest which was cut short due to the covid lockdowns, but I visited a lot of pueblo ruins and beautiful national parks and monuments. I used some photos I took on the trip as source material for some of the landscapes you see in the background of some works. Organ Pipe National Monument is in the background of “The Rust Collector” and Chiricahua National Monument in the background of “The Complete Package”.
Similarly, how did the pandemic and presidential election affect the show and your creativity? Are there any pieces (eg “The Typist”) that were directly inspired by the chaos of 2020?
That particular piece and most of the show was conceptualized before COVID hit, but as has been said many times during all of this, the pandemic only revealed the problems our society already had. From income inequality to the lack of access to basic healthcare, to larger problems about how we have built an economic system that serves very few people and how our government operates to protect that economic system. It has become very clear that we need a government that is willing to create a new economic system that protects the well being of all its citizens the way it currently protects the wealth of the handful at the top of the economic ladder. Unfortunately I knew we wouldn’t be getting that from either candidate in this year's election.
Overall the political situation only made the work more relevant to our times. People simultaneously saw how delicate our global shipping networks can be, while also taking advantage of the convenience of Amazon Prime and UberEats which only contributes to the wealth accumulating at the top.
Part of what I love about your work is that it always seems to be one step ahead, cleverly smirking at us - viewers are drawn in by the beauty and satirical absurdity, then they are trapped into admitting their role in the very same System on trial. While you’re ridiculing the descent of humanity, viewers have no choice but to reflect on their own cog in the self-destructive machine. We have bit the hand that feeds us, and we will bite it again (the alternative of “standard 7-10 day shipping” transcends any earthly pain imaginable.) So in a way, to appreciate your work is to admit defeat - and with this show, you have bested us yet again. Now, in the glow of another victory, do you have any other parting words or hopeful intentions for the viewers of First World Cargo Cult?
Those who know me know that I am not one for false optimism, and many would say I’m not one for optimism of any kind. They’re probably right, I have become less and less hopeful. The pandemic has only revealed how ill prepared the world’s largest economy and mostly powerful nation can deny science and that does not bode well for the wellbeing of our planet.
When I was on my road trip through the southwest I saw the ruins of collapsed societies in places like Mesa Verde, Chaco Canyon and when I visited Tikal some years ago, and I thought a lot about the rise and fall of societies, and how this empire will fall one day as well.
When I visited Petrified Forest National Park, I saw the fossilized remains of trees that existed 220 million years ago, long before the evolution and extinction of dinosaurs, and I realized my failures and successes in life are meaningless in the grand scheme of things when viewed through the lens of geological time we truly are only a speck of dust in the mushroom cloud of human existence, it’s important to sit back and enjoy the wind against your face as you blast into the atmosphere. Mass extinctions will come and go, but the planet will go on, one way or another.
I was recently backpacking in Yosemite National Park, while setting up camp I was watching a black bear laying in the Tuolumne river as if it was it’s personal jacuzzi. That night as the stars started to reveal themselves as best they could through a polluted sky, I thought about that bear and the four others I saw on that trip, and I thought that one day I will die, and if when I do, I can think back to that bear enjoying its evening bath and I can know, that somewhere on this planet, there is a bear, wild and truly free enjoying a river on a mountain, I will be able to die happy.
Peter Adamyan "First World Cargo Cult" is on view at Spoke Art Gallery through December 26, 2020 by appointment only