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David Lang

the national anthems

Cantaloupe Music, 2016

Fear thy neighbour

National anthems are the song equivalent of a country’s flag, used – as we all know – on ceremonial occasions to unite and inspire populations. The original concept for David Lang’s the national anthems was to take the most hopeful lines from every country’s national anthem (all 193 members of the United Nations, at least) and assemble them to create a new song that would celebrate the positive values we can all agree on. But when he started collecting and going through the texts of all the national songs, he was startled by how violent they were ‘I guess what we all agree on is that we have to threaten our neighbours because we are terrified of them.’

With this unexpected discovery, the national anthems took on another character entirely. The music is quiet, introspective and fragile with lines that vary from the hopeful ‘our land is love and beauty without end’ to the frightening ‘they come to cut our throats’. In their new, patchwork form, the texts reveal the hopes and fears of the collections of people we define as nations.

The resulting artwork for the release seems simple but it was really hard to find a parallel visual concept that would reflect the music’s ideas and aesthetic.

It didn’t take me long to start working with flags at least. I tried to assemble rows and rows of flags but flags are bright and bold, mostly drawn with simple lines and primary colours, the results were bombastic and loud – not at all like the music.

I tried to remove the colours and markings from the flags, to make them empty and minimal but as soon as I used a white flag – or a black one for that matter – I was taken down a path of associations – peace, surrender, anarchy, terrorism – that were entirely inappropriate.

Again and again during my sketching process I got the wrong kinds of associations: political movements, protests, alliances, war. All ideas that are present in the text, but not what the work is actually about. I gave up on the flags many times but kept returning when other ideas also led me down a blind alley.

At one point, I found a photo of some cut paper strips with printed reproductions of flags on them. There was some potential in it those strips. I cut them up again – digitally this time – and wove them together (literally), but eventually just layering the strips over each other so that the flags now began to merge into each other. I tried to layer them randomly but again was surprised by strong associations, now created by certain combination of flags.

I was pleased with the layered effect but the artwork was very monochrome at this point  – not at all exciting enough to be a cover image. I had to bring the collage to life with some colour. It was my husband who hit on the final idea: He thought the flag layers looked like an x-ray image and suggested I use the colours from an airport scanner on the flags. I thought he was crazy at first, but the orange, green and blue colours worked a treat while the ideas of surveillance and suspicion while crossing borders was a great bonus.

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