Deziree Sex SafarisDan Eldon’s life has passed into a kind of cult legend.  His family moved to Kenya when he was six.  Unlike many transplanted citizens, he grew up to be not just familiar with Africa, but to embrace it.  From what I can investigate, his background gave him the chance to explore, and to use his publicity, organizing, and art talents to start small businesses, or, raise funds for refugees and organize aid distribution from the funds he raised.  He carried this off with groups of peers so that it was also a social event or “party” of sorts.  The confluence of personal and practical arises out of the strengths and contradictions of his personality. 

In a sense, his early death has turned him into a Saint Sebastian–a young martyr.  The eulogies on YouTube, for example, are somewhat mawkish and sweet.  It’s good to remember that he was also enjoying himself, as much as possible.  No one who (according to one report) had a human femur for a stick shift on his van Deziree, or called his journeys through Africa the Deziree Sex Safaris is a perfect saint.

US Soldier in SomaliaOn one of his journeys through Africa, he went to investigate rumors of famine in Somalia.  His photos and short films of the catastrophe led to world-wide concern, and he was engaged by Reuters as a photographer.   One short film shows The Lord of the Flies almost come to life, where desperate young children are fighting for food; another, a man whipping people to get them to stand back and fall in line for food.  His photos were sold to Reuters and received near-instant international dissemination.  Reuters put him on assignment. 

Dan EldonBased upon a more-intense world concern, UN Humanitarian aid began to pour into Mogadishu, and was promptly diverted by rival warlords.  Humanitarian forces came under attack, and the warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid was judged to be the main cause of conflict.  The U.S. attempted to kill Aidid, and bombed Abdy House, killing instead 73 civilians (Mark Bowden writes that the ICRC reports 54).  When the Reuters team showed up to film, the crowd turned on the crew of five: four, including an almost 23 year old Dan Eldon, were pursued and stoned to death.  One was shot and was rescued.  Three months later, the operation familiar to those who have read Black Hawk Down occurred.

With artists who have a cult following, it’s often difficult to separate their biography from their art.  Upon Mr. Eldon’s death, his family published part of his journals, which brought the private to public scrutiny.  The journals are collaged with photos, clippings, paint, and other mixed media that is wordless, thus inviting verbal explanation. The Eldon family has called the journals intensely personal, and that Mr. Eldon did not share the with just anyone.  At least one person remembers Dan offering him a chance to collaborate on a page.   Whether or not they were held strictly private or not doesn’t really matter from an art standpoint: collaboration would have also been an extension of that immediate and situational quality in the works.  The journal form, like collage, suits Mr. Eldon’s situation: they are portable, for one thing, and can be worked on in small spaces.  Furthermore, in a life filled with Events, they provide narrative, which discrete pieces do not accomplish in the same way. 

Dan EldonEldon’s collages mix the random (newspaper clippings, for instance) with the particular (his own photos) and makes dynamic the relation of outsized events to reflective life.  The washes of paint and overlay of somewhat obsessive marks I see as the substitute for the verbal heartburnings he might have made, (and that his fans have made since).   At the very least, they represent a review and contemplation of the things he had seen and experienced, many of which would not be easily translatable into words.  Eldon’s work is generally seen in reproduction, but its quality in original would impart more crudity–crusts of paper and glue and paint on a thin paper backing, so much so that each of the seventeen journals fans out and strains the binding and the cover–another nice metaphor for the tissue of narrative order to which we bind events.

Dan Eldon

Therefore, one can look at Eldon’s journals as a place where a life of privilege and choice met a world where privilege and choice were hardly available.  He approached that divide repeatedly in his works.  The ability to organize and record gave him observer status, and the number of photos and film clips of him within the pages of his journals show a desire to not be outside of events, but within them.  That is the artistic tension in the work:  To abjure observer status is to be sucked into the maelstrom.  The conflict between the individual self and events that over-run self and take away the ability to reflect is constantly approached in these works and never quite resolved.  They will never be resolved.  That is where the art of Dan Eldon eventually contributes  the most to human understanding, and why it resonates past the cult that honors his untimely death. 

Further Reading/Viewing:
Dan Eldon’s notebooks on the Library of Cultural Curiosity page (on sidebar)
Mark Bowden’s Black Hawk Down
Committee to Protect Journalists: List of journalists who died in 1993
Mohammed Shaffi, who survived the Mogadishu event, was later killed in Jerusalem in 2001 on assignment