St. Augustine reports the following conversation between Alexander the Great, who struggled to drive pirates from the Mediterranean Sea, and a hapless pirate who had fallen into the emperor’s custody:
“How dare you molest the sea,” Alexander said.
“How dare you molest the whole world,” the pirate said to a stunned Alexander. “Because I do it with a little ship only, I am called a thief; you, doing it with a great navy, are called an emperor.”
I am always amazed in court to hear a prosecutor stand before a jury and claim to speak for the people. Am I not one of those people? Is my client not one of those people? Are not all of those lied to, manipulated, spied upon, deceived, left unemployed, uninsured, locked out of what passes for prosperity, are not these the people, too? What fairy tale requires that we blindly believe lies and half-truths?
It is a sorry day when folks are prosecuted for telling the truth, especially when that truth proves that the government lies, and its agents then seek to justify those lies as good for us. How are we ordinary folks to distinguish emperors from pirates?
—Norm Pattis, criminal defense and civil rights lawyer, 2013
Lies are tricky things. Merriam Webster Dictionary tells us that lie is an intransitive verb meaning 1: To make an untrue statement with intent to deceive; 2: To create a false or misleading impression. What is important here is that there is an awareness or intent in telling a lie.
There is the notion of a “white lie” as a trivial, diplomatic, or well-intentioned untruth. As another popular children’s tale reminds us, just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. But more often someone benefits and someone loses when there is lying going on.
Americans are familiar with an antiseptic Disney version of Carlo Collodi’s tale of Pinocchio. The original Le Avventure di Pinocchio is an ambling story told in serial format set in a poverty-stricken Tuscan village in the late 19th century. If you scratch the surface a bit, it chronicles the misadventures of a puppet who becomes a liar when subjected to the mistreatment of con-men and bullies. There are moments of redemption, and also many instances of things that just go badly wrong. At one point Collodi’s story ended with Pinocchio’s death by hanging. After a public outcry, Collodi continued the story, until in a very un-Disneylike conclusion, Pinocchio, although becoming a real boy, will live in poverty, toiling along with his elderly father as an apprentice woodworker.
In fact, Pinocchio is each one of us. Giuseppe Di Lelio’s elegant cast resin sculptures are about the liar that exists within everyone. Who among us has never told a lie? About his work in Liar, Liar, Di Lelio elaborates: “I jotted down a curious line I read (in a not so interesting blog): ‘Lies are like sex and nobody in the world can say they did not know, either directly or indirectly the rules of this ancient game.’ (Le bugie sono come il sesso e nessuno al mondo può dire di non conoscere per via diretta o indiretta, le regole di questo gioco antico.). These sculptures and drawings are the manifestation of my thoughts about that ancient game of lies and truth, lying and honesty. Creating this work is an emotional dynamic dance where the ideas morph and change. In the end, I return to the maxim of Saint Bellino, one of the healing saints, in which he asserts that the human conscience cannot rest if not in truth.”
In the quote with which this essay opens, Norm Pattis gets us thinking about the nuances of lying in a societal context. We live in a society where our government and its agents are all to often allowed to lie with impunity. When that happens those institutions hold the strings that can dictate our actions, and in the most extreme cases our fate. One of the most petrifying villains steeped in lies is our own judicial system. The U.S. makes up only 4% of the world’s entire population. Yet we have 25% of the world’s prisoners (James Fox, MA, Founder and Director of the Prison Yoga Project). These essential ideas of lies, injustice, and systematic abuse of power are essential themes that Meridith McNeal is addressing in her nib pen and ink drawings, huge watercolor paintings, and sewn sculpture included in this exhibition.
“There are lies with short legs, and lies with long noses. Yours clearly are of the long-nosed variety.” Carlo Collodi, The Adventures of Pinocchio
“Liar, Liar is a stunning, haunting, frightening, and beautiful exhibition of work by Meridith McNeal and Guiseppe Di Lelio. The two artists explored the concept of dishonesty. Asking "who among us has never told a lie?", the works in this show reveal a sense of betrayal, particularly a loss of trust in authority that is increasingly bureaucratic and brutal.
Di Lelio's drawing and sculptures feature evocative shapes and lines playing with the concepts of solidity and movement. McNeal's work is more narrative, delving into the imagery and disturbing ideas in Collodi's original Pinocchio. Many of these works are pen and ink drawings, highly detailed, larger than life images that convey the loss of innocence and a hard and chilling sense of injustice.
This is a unique and powerful show, which is on view at Figureworks in Williamsburg through May 4, 2014.”
Diana Rickard, What I Read and Watched, March 2014