Abraham Lincoln stands in the hallway of Sandy Hook Elementary, where little jackets hang on low pegs, the contents of a lunchbox are strewn on the floor along with bullet casings and shattered glass and, in the background, there are hints of dead children. You shall not murder.
Ronald and Nancy Reagan take a joyful selfie at the 9/11 memorial in New York. You shall not make for yourself a carved image or any likeness of anything.
Barack Obama stands at the NYSE balcony in October, 2008, surrounded by applauding Wall Street types, employees of a company called Goldman Suchs. You shall not steal.
In her new series of photographs, The 10 Commandments, Vancouver-based artist Dina Goldstein takes 10 U.S. presidents – all played by locals – and inserts them into detailed tableaus of her creation.
Kicking off these obviously fictional presidential scenes is one that could be real: Donald Trump, in silk pyjamas and a bathrobe, tapping out a tweet on his phone as he watches Hannity on TV, a buffet of KFC, McDonald’s and other fast-food delicacies crowded onto an ottoman at his knees. You shall have no other gods before Me – the First Commandment.
The genesis of Goldstein’s series was Trump’s election – but, more to the point, what she witnessed coming from the religious right before the election and since.
“There was this blind eye coming from the Republicans,” Goldstein said during a December interview at her East Vancouver studio. “And then what really hit the nail on the head was the way that they use religion and the Bible and the Ten Commandments to drive their points. And the hypocrisy is so transparent and so dangerous.”
We happened to be talking about the work at an auspicious moment: the day after Trump’s impeachment.
“Even yesterday, during the impeachment there was somebody that compared him to Jesus. Did you hear that?” she said, referring to Georgia Republican Barry Loudermilk’s argument that Jesus Christ was given more due process before his crucifixion than Trump received during his impeachment.
“These right-wing Christians – how can they protest to be moral and support one of the most immoral people living? Now, I’m not religious at all. Actually, I’m the opposite. That’s why it infuriates me when people use religion in this way.”
Goldstein’s fury has fuelled this project. For “You shall not commit adultery,” John F. Kennedy sips a Bloody Mary by a pool while a bikini-clad Marilyn Monroe, on the other side of a sliding glass door, sits on a bed with a laptop and cellphone.
For “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour,” George W. Bush sits at the boardroom table of a large advertising firm, surrounded by members of his cabinet/disciples in Last Supper formation, while creative types from Arlington Advertising sell them on a campaign to promote the falsehood of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
And so on.
Trump, the catalyst, could have been the central figure in any of the scenes, but Goldstein chose him for the First Commandment.
“I felt he best suited [this one] because it perfectly embodies his self-serving nature, demagoguery and hubris,” she said.
It took her a long time to find her Trump; she searched for a couple of months before she had an epiphany: Cast a woman. Vancouver actor Sue Sparlin, under a sheet of orange makeup and a specially crafted wig, embodies the current President.
She found her Lincoln at a party. Staring at a friend, she realized he shared certain features with the 16th president. JFK is a composite of three different men – the body belongs to the man she initially cast, the face belongs to the dad of a teammate on her daughter’s soccer team and a third man provides the hair.
With the exception of the 9/11 memorial, which was shot on location in New York (the actors were shot in studio and added), all of the locations were local: a decommissioned retirement home in West Vancouver was used for George Washington (Honour your father and your mother), with actors from Vancouver’s Performing Arts Lodge playing the elderly residents.
For “You shall not covet,” shot in Richmond, B.C., Harry S. Truman stands between two cookie-cutter suburban houses, one belonging to the Smiths, the other to the Joneses.
A suite at the Hotel Vancouver stands in for Trump’s TV room at the White House.
Working on a tight budget, Goldstein worked to get each shoot done in a couple of hours. “This is guerrilla shooting. I don’t have the budgets of big film productions.”
Goldstein, 50, was born in Israel and moved with her family to Vancouver when she was 8. She began her career as a photojournalist, but moved into conceptual artwork. Her first series, Fallen Princesses, which she began in 2007, featured fairy-tale characters living decidedly not happily ever after: Rapunzel is a cancer patient who has lost her hair; a pop-sipping Red Riding Hood carries a basket filled with fast food; and Snow White appears to be a miserable, overworked new mom while hubby Prince Charming kicks back with a beer and watches sports on TV.
Goldstein’s second series was another dark look at popular culture. In the Dollhouse featured Barbie and Ken (again played by heavily made-up actors) in 10 scenes in an elaborately constructed, human-sized dollhouse set.
Goldstein’s artistic interests often stem from her feminism – overt in the Princesses and Dollhouse series. While perhaps more subtle with The 10 Commandments, feminism was a prominent theme in its creation, watching what was happening with Trump.
“You’ve got these Republicans who are supposed to be good Christian people holding him up because of their end goal, and their end goal is to put judges in the federal court system and the Supreme Court. Why? To drive their conservative messages. What kind of conservative messages? Let’s control women’s bodies. For me, it all boils down to human rights and women’s rights and men controlling women.”
Goldstein currently has work installed at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris (The Last Supper, East Vancouver, 2014), and the Dollhouse series is at Pasinger Fabrik’s Yes We Ken! exhibition in Munich until Jan. 19. She has a forthcoming solo show at the Museum of Jewish Montreal featuring her series Snapshots from the Garden of Eden. For now, The 10 Commandments can be seen online at dinagoldstein.com/the-10-commandments.