In 2005, New York artist Zaq Landsberg purchased two acres in a remote Utah desert for $610 off of eBay. After venturing out to the land that summer, Landsberg and a few friends who would become the first Zaqistani citizens declared independence from the United States and founded the Republic of Zaqistan. Ten years later, and with the help numerous Zaqistani Citizens, the Republic of Zaqistan has morphed into an international phenomenon that calls into question what it means to be a nation is in the first place.
Over time, Landsberg has built an array of monuments and public works on the land, including a Victory Arch, a customs booth immigration station, and robotic sentinels that protect the borders. Zaqistan has opened a temporary Embassy in Buenos Aires, Argentina and a Consulate-General in New York City in 2012. The Zaqistan Tourism Office opened in downtown Salt Lake City in 2016. The Zaqistan State Department has issued more than 200 passports to date, and more than 300 people around the world hold Zaqistani citizenship.
Described as a “sovereign nation” by Conan O’Brien, “conceptual art project turned into a literal example of nation-building,” by Vice Media and acknowledged by US Congressman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) as a “country,” the Republic of Zaqistan exists on a multitude of different levels. While public figures joke about the micronation, refugees from around the world have sought asylum there. It is a plot of land, a severely weathered sculpture garden, a national identity, a conceptual art piece, a de-facto sovereign nation, and a probe into the meaning of sovereignty, legitimacy, nationalism, perception, and reality.
To date, Zaqistan has been reported on in 40 countries and in more than 27 languages. It has been featured in Vice, the NY Daily News, PEOPLE Magazine, ARTE (France), The New York Times, Deseret News, KSL, WGN Radio, New York Magazine, U.S. News & World Report, USA TODAY, Fox News, The Daily Mail, The Telegraph, The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, Yahoo! News, Business Insider, The Seattle Times, The Miami Herald, The Denver Post, SFGate, Salon, DunyaNews Pakistan, Emirates 24/7, Irish Examiner, Egypt 1, Singapore News, Kenya Central, and many others.
Aside from the sometimes humorous aspects, what insights has establishing the Republic of Zaqistan provided you or the people involved?
In terms of insight, Zaqistan has been a long term project and it’s been an investigation into legitimacy. The Passports are not “fake” they are real Zaqistan government issued passports, the difference comes not from the material it’s made of (very similar to other countries passports), however they won’t allow you to cross borders in the way you think it should, not because of the design, or the physical materials, but because of the money and guns and international relationships that back other countries’ passports but that Zaqistan lacks.
The main takeaway for me and I think the other Zaqistanis involved in the project up to this point, is that all of this is really powerful stuff. The way perception works is that the human brain doesn’t scrutinize everything all the time. If you do a long boring drive, your brain will zone out and you won’t remember specifics for chunks of time because your brain is on auto pilot and only reading cues in the landscape not focusing on the same thing.
If you make something that looks official, most people will accept it at face value, especially if you present it in a place where someone expects to see something official. It’s baffled me that no matter how many red flags I bake into the project, and how openings I put into it for people to really question what’s going on, few do. I find this really scary, and we as a country and a society need to do a better job at scratching the surface and not accepting things based on their covers or appearance.
Describe your creative process and influences:
I’m drawn to things that look like other things. Astro turf, vinyl floor tile with a marble print, mimicking finish, color and shapes of real things.
I hijack existing materials, shapes and forms that are easily recognizable; I don’t make radical new forms. I don’t believe there is a difference between art objects and objects. I amplify reality by taking materials to logical extremes.
I’m drawn to things that I find absurd, or things that exist in real life that I think when really thought about are really strange. My goal is not to make crazy new objects but to pluck these things from their natural contexts, (pinatas, military vehicles, law enforcement equipment) alter them slightly to create new meaning, and to highlight absurdities of reality.
There’s some real deep influence of The Yes Men, and Stephen Colbert’s Super PAC project of a few years ago, this idea of revealing the system not by parody, but by guiding something through the actual system to reveal how it works.
I’m also into the group Gelitin, I find them pretty inspirational in the way the interact with the art world brings up questions of how “serious” everything needs to be.
Tell us about your project at FSP and what you hope it will contribute to the park.
The Peshmerga (military forces of Kurdistan) have been doing most of the fighting against ISIS in both Syria and Iraq since 2014. Due to the politics of the region and international alliances, neither the US, nor the Iraqi government, nor the international community will supply the Kurds with heavy weaponry, including tanks and armored vehicles.
I came across some images of the vehicles The Peshmerga are forced to improvise a while ago and was mesmerized. They weld and rivet steel plates onto bulldozers, tractors and whatever they have, and then paint them in loud, 70’s wall paper looking camouflage. The results look more like a Mad Max film rather than the 21st century battlefield.
I made a 1:1 scale replica of a Peshmerga Fighting Vehicle based on a picture I found, trying to make it as faithful as possible to the original.
The result ends up doing several things. It looks like an artsy, psychedelic war machine, something like something out of the Yellow Submarine cartoon, something that belongs in a sculpture park, even though there are very few “artistic liberties” taken with it, it is pretty accurate as to what it is in real life. The reason that it looks so cartoon though is not aesthetic decisions by the original builders, but decisions based on survival necessity.
The details of it, the big messy welds, the large rivets not in a straight line, give it a handmade and medieval feel at the same time, the result ends up looking really brutal and strange.
The idea is to highlight the Peshmerga warriors and their equipment, who are fighting a “boots on the ground” conflict that US troops are not, and that they are forced to fight in vehicles that look like art projects.
I put it on a concrete pad, going for the look of the surplus U.S. tanks that stand outside VFW halls, military museums and roadsides across America. This language of concrete pad, war machine, and park is one that is common around the US especially in rural parts and i’m trying to touch on the similarities between displaying a “historical fighting vehicle” and “art object”, because this piece is both at once. We, as viewers are conditioned to think about “art” as one thing, and “historical display” as another and that affects how we interpret the meaning of those objects. I’m trying to cross the wires a bit and get people to think about what creates the meaning and how cosmetic things like display and appearance change our perception of what things are.
What did you learn at FSP? What was the biggest challenge?
It was good to be around for a chunk of time to observe the park and really see how it ticks, the rhythms and flows, of the school groups, passersby, staff, etc. It’s valuable for me to not just visit a sculpture park, but get a better sense of how it operates and how the public interacts with it. I was surprised at just how much traffic the park sees, and how many people seem to be dropping by for the first time. Being part of a place that attracts art people and people who seem to just be breaking up the drive to the lakes up north and might not be the type of person take their kids to the art museum, but will roam around the sculpture park was really cool. I think it’s our duty as artists to engage in the critical, art with a capital “A” dialogue but also reach out to general public and give them something to mull over.
The staff/artist/intern interactions are something really special. Being in such close quarters constantly with different staff/artists/interns resulted in some good scheming and developing of new ideas, and plans of further new collaboration. The environment that gets created is unique and something that I don’t think exists anywhere else in the world, and that the place becomes more that just the sum of its parts.
This is kind of lame, but the biggest challenge was the weather. There’s a certain amount of clever planning, but when the pollen count is high, or the torrential downpour falls, there’s not a ton I can do to work around that.
I also have a large group of friends in NYC that for years I’ve laid a low-level guilt trip on and I can usually call them up and beg them for help when I’m running behind on large projects. It was difficult to push most of the project by myself and not have my gang of friends as a pressure release valve.
Anything coming up next that we should know about?
I recently received a NYSCA/NYFA Artist Fellowship in Sculpture, which is not tied to one project specifically, but allows me to do some R and D on some longer term projects. Very loose projects I’m thinking about are bringing refugees to Zaqistan, having the Zaqistan Arts Council some role in saving American arts organizations, and bringing the jobs back to The Rust Belt.
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