Forty years ago a religious cult in Guyana known as the Peoples Temple carried out a mass suicide and killings during a visit from a U.S. congressional delegation and some journalists.
Over 300 children were among the 918 people who died on Nov. 18, 1978 at Jonestown, or the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project. The event overtook the imagination of the U.S. populace; a 1979 Gallup poll found that 98 percent of Americans had heard of the event.
Jonestown gave the world slang for loyalists who blindly follow their leaders by “drinking the Kool-Aid.” Actually, Flavor Aid, a drink-mix competitor to Kool-Aid, was mixed with cyanide to make the gruesome grape sacrament for Jonestown’s denizens.
Iowa City has a public artwork inspired by the event, according to New York City artist Robert Longo. His sculpture, The Sleep, was also inspired by a fashion photograph that the artist said he found in New York Times Magazine.
“I’m presenting something that we’ve all participated in creating,” Longo said of his sculpture in a 1985 interview with Maurice Berger in Arts Magazine.
Since 1985, the low-relief, aluminum, advertisement interpretation has adorned the Federal Building in Iowa City. It’s on the northwest corner of the building, facing Clinton Street. The Federal Building opened in 1974 and housed the U.S. Post Office until 2015. The Sleep, also known as Love Will Tear Us Up (The Sleep), was commissioned by the General Services Administration, a federal agency that oversees Art in Architecture at federal building sites and courthouses across the country.
The installation of the Iowa City piece coincided with Longo’s first museum show, Dis-Illusions, held at the University of Iowa Museum of Art. In addition to visual art, Longo is also a director. He’s behind the 1995 Keanu Reeves flop Johnny Mnemonic and several music videos from the 1980s, including R.E.M.’s “The One I Love” and New Order’s “Bizarre Love Triangle.”
“A great deal of my art, particularly the relief The Sleep, is about blowing the whistle on society,” Longo told Berger. “I made the piece right after Jonestown and right before the Phalangist murders. Here they are selling the image of genocide in family sportswear.”
In The Sleep, a man on his back is surrounded by a woman and three children who seem to float around him, clinging to his body.
At Jonestown, some of the dead were arranged in similar tableaus, discovered the next day by Guyanese soldiers.
Many at Jonestown willingly drank poison thinking it was another in a series of “white nights,” psychological exercises arranged by Jim Jones, the charismatic cult leader and namesake of the jungle commune. Leading up to the event, Jones had a public address system that announced “white night, white night, white night.” Members of the Peoples Temple gathered after dark and practiced taking the juice while Jones spoke.
James Warren Jones began as a radical race prophet who integrated church services in Indiana and San Francisco. He frequently called himself and his followers “black” — though they were not — and preached the benefits of communism. The Peoples Temple was begun in 1955 and moved from Indiana to California in 1965. By the summer of 1977 church members began an exodus to Guyana on the north Atlantic coast of South America.
When concerned families in the U.S. pressured elected officials, San Francisco Congressman Leo Ryan organized a visit which spread panic throughout the Temple. He was killed in an airplane with a group of defectors waiting to escape Guyana.
A few hours later, a tub of poisonous grape Flavor Aid was mixed up and passed around to families and children. Some followers squirted cyanide from syringes directly into babies’ mouths. Jim Jones did not drink the Flavor Aid. He died of a self-inflicted gunshot.
Unlike typical historical relief sculpture, which depict the heroics and glory of masculine achievement (think the Parthenon frieze or churches encircled with religious figures, statesmen and/or philosophers), The Sleep hangs at eye-level, approachable by the viewer, almost like a mirror.
Robert Hobbs, then the UIMA director, brought Longo to Iowa City for the 1985 show. He wrote the accompanying catalogue that the artist had “shown that modernist elements have been used effectively by fascist regimes. The primary focus of Longo’s art has been the conquest of fascist modernism and the recycling of its imagery in a modified form to show how elements of it still exist in corporate America.”
By attaching the dreamy scene to a government building, Longo questions our awareness of the power and violence of the state. He contrasts the outsider radicalism of a commie cult with mainstream middle-class mentality.
By equating this white American family with the cult allegiance of the Peoples Temple, also comfortable in their decision to die, Longo has fashioned a religious coin. On one side, the Peoples Temple cult blindly follows a suicidal leader. On the other side, a sleeping family of whites is unaware of their own complicity in state-sponsored control and the use of power.
In one context, a serene family snoozes in comfort and privilege. They’re drowsily sprawled in their daytime sleep, cuddled and wrapped up in religion.
But in Longo’s version, the family is over. The patriarchy has killed us.
Through this interpretation of corporate fashion advertising, Longo divinates the unconscious state of Americans slumbering under the opiatic spell of consumerism. The blind sleepers are emblematic of a societal Kool-Aid consumed in the pages of a magazine.
“I have a lot of hostility I toward the viewer … I always imagine that I want to make art that is going to kill you,” Longo said in that 1985 interview. “Whether it’s going to do it visually or physically, I’ll take either way.”