|“Every soldier is someone’s baby - both soldiers from our front and from our enemies’ fronts. What we do to these soldiers, both our own and our enemies’ we do to someone’s child."
Juliellen Byrne addresses her major premise in this work,'Toe Tag’. The double-ended doll is too large for comforting and yet too small to be inconsequential. The body is clothed with tags covered with the names of only some of the soldiers killed in the line of fire in recent wars. Praying hands adorn each of the heads.
Byrne has the knack of drawing the viewer in with forms and faces that are non-confrontational, children’s faces, praying hands, a sawdust stuffed doll. We enter the world of the artist as she then tells us an uncomfortable story; a story of sending children off to war and the ultimate price of doing so. The price is that some children will not come home, and those who do return in an altered state. Children return to a culture that cannot embrace them; they are greeted with inadequate healthcare, not enough jobs and to a public who would rather avert their eyes.
The praying hands in this figure symbolize what those who feel powerless do--the most effective way known to parents, family and loved ones trying to protect those boys and girls who are doing battle. In addition it is often only prayer that ill-equipped soldiers have to rely on as they are sent off to foreign lands with inadequate protective gear. Prayers contain the words of the powerless, those whose voices are ignored in the halls of decision-making.
In varying the size of the two heads of this figure, the artist is implying several things. The first and most obvious is the strata of power--those who are the policy makers are the more powerful, and they reign over the fate of the soldier. From the position of these heads, the superior policy making head cannot look the lower soldier head eye to eye. The concepts of armies are sent to the front line without the consideration of the personal sacrifice. Another notion brought forth by the smaller head is the diminishing image of the dying soldiers that, as a nation, we forget all too soon: flagged draped caskets which are never shown; the mentally and physically damaged veterans receiving inadequate care and attention from our V. A. Hospitals; splintered families; shattered futures.
The Spanish resistance to Napoleon’s armies will be remembered in the canvases of Goya, and the Vietnam War will be seared into memories by photographic images of the frontline, of flag burners and Kent State shootings. The Iraq and Afghanistan Wars have been sterilized with no new taxes, few front line images, and an absence of anti-war art. That fact makes this work, indeed the entire body of work, by this artist even more significant. It is no accident that this anti war art is executed in what has traditionally been a craft media, thereby making the imagery more palatable to the country’s unconditioned eyes.
Museum Curator, Ohio Southern Museum, Portsmouth, Ohio