Knowing that five generations of Will Steacey’s family (including himself) worked in the diminishing newspaper industry, we better understand the blend of photographs, pages of handwritten thoughts, and newspaper clippings that make up The Beast, a colossal collage that takes over the first room of the Silver Eye Center for Photography. In “No Job No Home No Peace No Rest” he portrays the death of the American dream, the core of American lifestyle. He appoints himself spokesperson for those who have had to bear the brunt.
Thousands of clippings, obsessively amassed over the years and carefully assembled with deliberation encapsulate the economic slump and the people’s growing desperation, from the prosperity of post-WWII to the changes triggered by 9/11. Headline after headline, some words crop up repeatedly: Nightmare. Promise. Crisis. Hell. Concerning the American Dream, this collage is truly disenchanting. In Steacy’s handwritten notes, his shock, and anger that it’s gone this far, shows through – and he’s not forgiving. Everything that’s going wrong in America makes The Beast; it’s monstrous, and once it charges, seems unstoppable. And it’s trampling over everyone.Steacy attempts to “hold a mirror to America” so we can review our mistakes. But, the mirror is tinted – it’s through the perception of the national media that we see, so it can eventually seem too blunt and excessive (like INVITATION TO A BEHEADING being placed above THE AMERICAN DREAM) because headlines are dramatic and provocative in order to get a reaction. However, he uses the collage to cover several subjects, which is not as easy to accomplish in a single photograph.
After the overwhelming information-crammed walls of the first room, the following two rooms feel quiet. Unless you’ve been desensitised by the staggering collage, Will Steacy’s photographs have an unnerving subtlety that tells the stories of individuals in a way that the collage can’t; The Beast is the nation’s agonising lament of its own condition. The photographs depict a building that has been planned but never realised, a “Set for Life” Lottery ticket that has been vigorously scratched. Some photos fall short of surpassing a normal view on a lower-class quarter of a city, like the two jack-o’lanterns on garden chairs or the discarded cup in a newspaper stand. Likewise, the portraits only work in the context of the economic crisis; without any captions to help us imagine their woes, his subjects are simply dispirited.
For those who aren’t struggling from the effects of the issues covered by Steacy, his works might make the magnitude of America’s problems dawn on you, or perhaps they just make accusatory generalisations. And for those who are strongly impacted, you may realise that the situation is worse than you thought. It would be futile to look for any signs of hope in the exhibition. There’s so much going wrong, how do we even begin to make amends? Is it possible to think of solutions if faced with an apocalyptic view of all the problems of America at the same time?