Run It Up the Totem Pole and See Who Salutes

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Do we take totem poles for granted? They are among America’s earliest sculptural artworks and the antecedent of today’s urban sign poles. They were spiritual guideposts and funerary markers with large, carved human figures representing ancestors along with winged and other animal spirit helpers carved from Redwood and painted brightly. They are great pieces of environmental signage before the age of the advertising towers. But I’ve never seen them in a design history book. Have you?


VICTIM OF TORTURE, Diana Haj Ahmad. “I don’t approve of any form of torture, and I feel that there is no justification for inflicting physical or psychological pain on anybody or anything. Since ancient times, many cultures have created various instruments to inflict suffering. Unfortunately, we still use some of these medieval instruments behind closed prison doors today.”


CULT OF PERSONALITY, Tomas de Carcer. This totem pole represents some of the deadliest dictators of the 20th century. The quest for absolute power drove these men at any cost – murder, oppression, brutality – to attain their personal interests and ambitions.


THIS BOHEMIAN LIFE, Danah Abdal. Telling the story of a person and space that conveys an eclectic style. Together, all these elements come together to tell the story of the bohemian lifestyle. The story of a modern day space – the story of a modern day totem pole.


ANNUIT CŒPTIS, Timothy Cohan. This piece depicts the housing crisis that ultimately caused the Great Recession, from which we are still recovering. The Latin phrase “Annuit cœptis,” found on the reverse side of the US one dollar bill, translates to “He has favored our undertakings”.


EVOLUTION OF DONUTS, Jamie Kim. The totem pole shows different types and flavors of donuts that have been invented over the past 60 years by New York’s most famous donut shop, Dunkin’ Donuts.

Each totem presents a story as varied as the materials used to tell them; from paper to plexiglass, to metal and wood. One totem is comprised of hundreds of eight-track cassettes and another scores of vinyl LPs. The show, which is housed in The School of Visual Arts’ SVA Gallery at 209 East 23rd Street (ground floor) is as technically beautiful as it is thought-provoking. The exhibit of 20 (average 12′ high) totem poles, curated by Kevin O’Callaghan, is waiting to tower over you through May 25.


VEGAS TO COMMUNIST, Chiara Bajardi. In the abstract, the tale of Havana can be told through its architecture. With its fading colors and chipping paint, we see decay. Yet, the illustrative typography found on signage throughout the city reminds us of a culture-rich time gone by.


AN ODE TO 8-TRACKS, Shimeah Davis. These days, 8-track tapes are considered archaic. Available only by sifting through old dusty boxes, tucked away at antique stores, or sold privately on eBay. They have been replaced by the newer, faster and better sounding cassettes.


1977 – THE SUMMER OF PARANOIA, Simone Noronha. Nothing is more fascinating than New York in 1977. From the city’s near bankruptcy and inept mayor, to a 24-hour blackout that led to New York’s largest mass arrest, and the ceaseless hunt for one mad murderer.


ON A ROLL, Yiming Bao. The idea of this totem pole comes from the method Jack Kerouac used to write his most successful novel, On the Road. In 1951, Kerouac wrote this novel in three weeks by continuously typing onto a 120-foot-long teletype paper roll. On this totem, I selected several important quotes from the book and cut them out on a long paper roll to pay tribute to the original draft.


The exhibition includes work by: Danah Abdal, In Hee Bae, Chiara Bajardi, Yiming Bao, Kara Bermejo, Tomas de Carcer, Timothy Cohan, Camille Collazo Ortiz, Shimeah Davis, Bridget Dearborn, Ali Dogramaci, Diana Haj Ahmad, Francisco J. Hernandez, Donica Ida, Tiffany Jen, Jamie Kim, Kimberly McGuire, Simone Noronha, Elliot Salazar and Hena Seo.

The SVA Gallery, located at 209 East 23rd Street between 2nd and 3rd Avenues, is open 9am to 7pm, Monday through Friday, 10am to 6pm on Saturday. Admission is free. The gallery is accessible by wheelchair. For further information call 212.592.2145.


CHAPTER FIVE, Donica Ida. Chapter Five is based on Lewis Carroll’s novel Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. In this chapter, Alice meets a hookah-smoking caterpillar who repeatedly asks her, “Who are you?” It is the part of the story when Alice realizes she has been in Wonderland for too long, and that she no longer remembers who she is.


MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO (left), Tiffany Jen. One rainy night, the girls are waiting for their father’s bus and grow worried when he does not arrive on the bus they expect him on. As they wait, Mei (the little sister) eventually falls asleep on Satsuki’s back and Totoro (the large grey animal) appears beside them, allowing Satsuki to see him for the first time. THE HISTORY OF BIG DATA: VISUALIZED (middle), Kimberly McGuire. From clay tablets to the invention of the printing press to the digital revolution, 90 percent of the data in the world today has been created in the last two years alone. A term known as “big data” describes massive data sets and the challenges they present.


Kevin O’Calaghan (left), Tiffany Jen (right)

Photos by Esther Ro Schofield

For more Steven Heller, check out Citizen Designer: Perspectives on Design Responsibility, one of the many Heller titles available at