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Art exhibit on an O.C. lawn displays signs for failed candidates in every U.S. presidential election

"Monument to the Unelected" art installation by Nina Katchadourian on a front lawn of a home.
The “Monument to the Unelected” art installation, by Nina Katchadourian, takes up the front lawn of an Orange home at Fairhaven Avenue and South Oakwood Street.
(Raul Roa / Times Community News)

There are two campaign-like signs. One is in black and white and reads “Biden,” and the other is in blue with “Trump” on it.

Both signs are at the Orange home of John Spiak, the Grand Central Art Center’s director, and will remain there until the Nov. 3 presidential election results are official. Only the losing candidate’s sign will make its way onto a residential lawn in Orange County and become the latest addition to Nina Katchadourian’s ongoing “Monument to the Unelected” art installation.

Katchadourian’s installation consists of 58 election signs bearing the names of losing candidates of every U.S. presidential election, from John Adams to Hillary Clinton. The installation will run until Nov. 17. The artwork will also be on view in three other locations: New York, San Francisco and Scottsdale, Ariz. A fifth location in Madison, Wis., may be added this month.

Over Zoom, Katchadourian described the installation as a Rorschach inkblot and a history quiz.

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“This piece is sort of a statement of fact about the past. You could feel happy or sad about any one of these signs and it depends on your own political perspective,” she said. “There’s something kind of paradoxical about the fact that it’s using a form that is so partisan, but doesn’t express a partisan view about any election.”

Spiak said about 50 people stopped by last week as “Monument to the Unelected” was being installed on his lawn.

“People thought there was some kind of fanatical person putting up all these political signs for current elections,” he said. “When we started to explain, their reaction was both humorous and also melancholy about some of the people that they had supported and lost.”

The signs are not historical. Although Katchadourian researched political campaign signs’ aesthetics, she designed each one herself with the help of Evan Gaffney.

In 2008, Katchadourian was commissioned by the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art to create new work for a show on the subject of humor. During her first visit to Scottsdale, Katchadourian said she kept thinking about disturbing moments in American history and was struck by election signs.

“They’re so particular to a North American landscape before an election. These things pop up everywhere,” she said. “Although it sounds perhaps unlikely, these two trajectories of thinking about the U.S. collided. I thought maybe there’s a way to work with these election signs, but in a way that actually makes us think about our shared political past.”

Mock campaign signs for John Adams, Grover Cleveland, Winfield Hancock, Al Gore and other failed candidates
Nina Katchadourian researched political campaign signs aesthetics and designed each one herself with the help of Evan Gaffney.
(Raul Roa / Times Community News )

The Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art has committed to show the installation every four years since 2008.

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Katchadourian recalled 2016 being a tense election year and thinks 2020 is also tense, saying the COVID-19 pandemic added a level of instability and uncertainty during the last seven months.

The installation “seems to mean something different than it ever has,” she said. “It’s been really interesting for me to see how much this piece seems to somehow reflect how much this next election is on people’s minds.”

In terms of location, Katchadourian said it was important to get the piece in front of audiences that would have mixed political leanings.

When thinking of potential locations in Orange County, Spiak said they were looking for contested zones and heavy traffic areas, and they found it through a Grand Central Art Center advisory board member’s home in Orange and near North Tustin.

“North Tustin — while it does have quite a few liberal voices, it has a pretty conservative voice there as well,” Spiak said.

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This year, in a virtual event, the 59th sign will be planted by a local first-time voter at each site.

“That’s important to me,” Katchadourian said. “It’s a way of bringing a young person who’s going to have a long future — longer than me — in this country and live with the consequences of all the past decisions behind them.”

Castaneda writes for Times Community News.


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