The tank has been described by the artist as 'on the cusp of entertainment and terror, similar to Trump’s political persona, which could be seen as amusing at times but has also subjected so many minorities to the fears of an uncertain future'
Trump tank by secretive and satirical Syrian artist rolls through Beirut
Passers-by stopped to stare, and pull out their mobile phones to take photos and videos as a bloated likeness of America’s president, Donald Trump, passed through the streets of Beirut.
That was the scene last week in Lebanon’s capital, and while the American leader wasn’t physically present, his likeness was patrolling the streets, thanks to a surreal installation by an anonymous Syrian artist who goes by the pseudonym Saint Hoax (the new artwork following in the tradition of the Trump baby blimp that floated around London in July).
The artist created the startling inflatable work in the run-up to his exhibition opening this month in Beirut. The likeness shows the president’s fleshy face, topped with a distinctive cloud of blonde hair and set atop the body of a tank, complete with blow-up caterpillar treads, his nose is replaced with the tank’s main armament, an inflatable gun several metres long.
Saint Hoax doesn’t meet with journalists, as part of his mission to remain anonymous, but in a written interview with The National he described the installation as “on the cusp of entertainment and terror, similar to Trump’s political persona, which could be seen as amusing at times, but has also been subjecting so many minorities to the fears of an uncertain future.”
The satirical installation, which was driven through Beirut on a flatbed truck, is an imposing presence, but also has an innate fragility “like a balloon that is one pop away from being flattened”.
Part of the mystique of Saint Hoax’s work stems from his secret identity, which he maintains so that he can produce sensitive and controversial work without facing public backlash. With no way of ascertaining whether or not he really is a Syrian man, the public are forced to confront the work on its own terms. “The anonymity allows for uninhibited artistic expression considering the sensitive nature of the work and further emphasises the art rather than the artist behind it,” he tells us. “Had I been identified as an American female, the work would probably be perceived differently.”
A social activist and political agitator as well as an artist, Saint Hoax defines his work as “POPlitically incorrect” – a caricature of popular culture and politics. He believes the artist’s role in society is to “question the status quo through thought-provoking visuals.”
The artist's previous projects include a series that used doctored illustrations of Disney princesses to highlight sexual abuse and domestic violence, as well as several projects related to Trump. After Trump's 2015 speech in which he said that if he won the election he would send Syrian refugees back to their war-torn country, Saint Hoax produced a series of blow-up Trump dolls, which were sold to raise money for the United Nations Refugee Agency to help provide food and shelter to Syrian refugees.
His focus on American culture is related to its ubiquity. “It’s not so much the fact that it’s American that captivates me, but rather how universal American pop culture has always been,” he says. “It’s been imposed on us through the omnipresence of Hollywood and the ‘American dream’ in the media. It’s become a topic that unites people in a way, an identity that belongs to everyone. I use it to poke fun at society and its ridiculous obsessions – which are also in a way, mine.”
Saint Hoax’s Trump installation on the streets of Beirut was just a taster. On October 11, he is set to launch an exhibition called MonuMental at Le Dome, the distinctive egg-shaped cinema beside Downtown Beirut, which has been derelict since the Civil War. The exhibition, organised by Plastik Gallery, will include the Trump installation, for those who missed its parade through the streets, alongside a series of surreal oil paintings of renowned figures including Michael Jackson, Freddie Mercury, Princess Diana and Queen Elizabeth II.
The exhibition’s title is “a play on words emphasising the mental state of monumental figures. When someone’s fame becomes so exponential, it creates a clash between their self-perception versus the public’s … It fascinates me how vulnerable a public person is, when subjected to people’s aspirations and expectations,” Saint Hoax explains.
One painting captures Michael Jackson in a carefully staged studio portrait, looking soulfully away from the viewer. Half his face has been replaced with a slice of landscape, capturing a full moon above a calm sea. At the bottom of this peaceful scene, Jackson can be seen again, clutching a baby that dangles from his arms, evoking the infamous incident in which he held his son precariously over the rail of a hotel balcony.
The contradictions between public and private faces are echoed in Saint Hoax’s own public persona, with his true identity carefully concealed.
“A saint is someone who is meant to be pure, and a hoax is a misleading lie. When you put them together they create a beautiful contradiction, a ‘pure lie,’” he explains. “This is the simplest way to describe my vision: I manipulate images and icons in a deceptive manner in order to tell a certain truth.”
MonuMental will be on show at Le Dome in Beirut from October 11 to 14