The Hoax as Art: A Review

May 17, 2010

Artist Sam Van Aken has an affinity for illusion: He was as eager to learn one of my sleight-of-hand tricks as to give me a guided tour of his new art exhibit at Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center in Buffalo. Titled "i am here today . . .," it is based on Orson Welles’ famous 1938 "War of the Worlds" radio "hoax." (Visual Arts Curator John Massier, recognizing me, and introducing me to the artist, fitted me with a microphone for a videotaping of our walk-through.)

Van Aken told me he was surprised to learn that there really was a Grovers Mill, New Jersey, where — according to Welles’ broadcast — the extraterrestrial invaders supposedly first landed. There, behind a farmhouse, was a small water tower with spidery iron legs. Panicked by the broadcast (failing to hear the beginning disclaimer that it was a dramatization of the H.G. Wells novel), a group of armed townsfolk hunting the aliens reportedly mistook the water tower for one of the metal-legged "tripod machines" of the Martian invaders and riddled it with bullets. In his 1970 book The Panic Broadcast , Howard Koch states: "Possibly the story of bullets shattering the structure is apocryphal but we were struck with its resemblance to a Martian machine as pictured in various illustrations."

The artist’s replica of the vine-entwined tower, lying on its side in the gallery of Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center in Buffalo (April 23-May 28, 2010) is an homage to the power of illusion to motivate people (never mind that Welles’ program was not an intentional hoax; it nevertheless functioned like one). Van Aken seeks to embody the intangible in tangible art forms — in this case, not only the replica tower, but "eerie" lighting, a side radio-studio exhibit (that broadcasts the dramatization of a hoax written by the artist), and a series of drawings (depicting in turn a windmill, from which the tower had been adapted; the water tower itself; the tower as spaceship; etc.).

If the legendary incident at Grovers Mill really occurred, how could a water tower be mistaken for an alien "tripod machine"? First, there was the broadcast’s semblance of reality : in 1938, news-bulletin radio enjoyed a position of trust, and the dramatization of Welles story by the Mercury Theater players made the event seem terrifyingly real, all the more so because there were no commercial interruptions. (See Gordon Stein’s Encyclopedia of Hoaxes , 1993, pp. 100-101.) Then there was the expectation of seeing a certain thing: Just as someone predisposed to see a giant lake serpent can mistake for it a few otters swimming in a line, so an excited mob, anticipating an alien "tripod machine" and encountering in the darkness something approximating that description, could be deceived. The supposed paranormal is rife with such illusions of expectancy — something magicians well understand.

Artist Sam Van Aken understands it too. Influenced by trompe l’oeil ("deceives the eye") paintings, he lives life on the edge: exploring the interface of the real and the seemingly real and understanding that it can be difficult at times to know one from the other. The alleged water tower incident is a case in point.