A History of Ultimatums, 2007
installation dimensions vary (36"h x 24 "w each)
by Katja Rivera
"SADDAM HUSSEIN AND SONS MUST LEAVE IRAQ WITHIN 48 HOURS. THEIR REFUSAL TO DO SO WILL RESULT IN MILITARY CONFLICT COMMENCED AT THE TIME OF OUR CHOOSING. MARCH 18, 2003 8:01PM EST."
So reads one poster in a series of 33 from Kurt Mueller's A History of Ultimatums. Visually just as startling as it is jarring to read, the ultimatums range from political to historical, from personal memories to excerpts from songs and fairytales. Even local examples are not outside of Mueller's scope. Mueller was first inspired by UT parking signs posted prior to home football games, which demanded that cars be removed from campus parking lots by Friday at midnight. Following this initial impetus, Mueller draws his chosen messages from a variety of sources. He says, "They are almost, if not entirely, Western in origin, and usually depict a larger power (majority) trying to get its way with a lesser group (minority). Two, though, subvert this play, by showing the 'patriot' retorting with his own ultimatum (Patrick Henry and Captain William Barrett Travis)." Mueller takes these statements and visually unites them through a format and presentation that demands the viewer's attention.
The poster format not only visually unifies the 33 ultimatums but also it calls to mind a very specific sort of dissemination. Typically plastered in public spaces that are easily accessible, Mueller shifts from this expected location to the gallery space. Shown together these disparate demands and ultimatums come together to express both a unified messages and multivalent meanings via association. Alone, each poster draws attention to the political and social conditions within a dominant western society, a society obsessed with the haves and the have nots. Seen together, the posters nearly overwhelm the viewer, not only in content but in context. When asked about their connection, Mueller states, "Regardless, I think some collective link needs to be established. The work, after all, is about the prevalence of this 'management strategy' in history; the diversity of its uses and its ingrainedness in culture, if not nature. These connections are to be made visible."
Connecting time and disparate events, these words collectively create a new object. While these statements are still sensible and legible, language becomes the art object. Demanding our attention, these ultimatums begin to question the meanings of the words themselves. Can statements that initially seem so objective actually be subjective? By pulling statements from history, songs, and even fairytales, Mueller adeptly illustrates just how much context influences meaning. When placed together, words that were once demanding, powerful, and/or persuasive either become harsh, dictatorial statements or merely letters on canvas, stripped of their individual meaning and brought to life as a new, collective unit. Seemingly straightforward, these ultimatums allow the viewer to subjectively critique language as an object and remove a prescribed universal meaning from words.