Kansas City – Last fall, artist John Salvest made a powerful artistic and political statement at the Federal Reserve Bank in Kansas City, Missouri. He created the temporary sculpture IOU/USA out of 105 multicolored steel shipping containers, stacked 7 high and 15 across. A series of white and light-colored containers, placed in between the darker boxes, spelled “IOU” on one side and “USA” on the other. Conceived in 2010, this monumental installation appeared on the Kansas City skyline right next to the Federal Reserve at a moment of blistering political discourse and unprecedented reliance on foreign monies to pay U.S. bills.
Strong reaction to the piece, which was installed from September 2 to October 16, 2011, came from both ends of the political spectrum. The city, not the Federal Reserve, owns the parkland on which the sculpture was installed, but the Fed tried to fight the installation. When it ultimately lost the fight, the sculpture was privately funded and installed with city permission.
By using shipping containers, which are rife with symbolism about American consumerism, reliance on foreign industries and economies, and the environmental ravages of our disposable culture, Salvest made the medium the message. And his finished temporary installation made a lasting impact on its viewers. “Activists of most any persuasion could read the work as a rallying cry for their own ideals,” says Stacy Switzer, artistic director and project curator for Grand Arts, a nonprofit art project space in Kansas City. “This multivalence is what makes IOU/USA so potent as a work of art in the public sphere.”