By Cory Dugan
NOVEMBER 17, 1997: Public art has earned a deservedly bad reputation. From the stone-cold statues of dead bigots and bureaucrats to the infamous "turds in the plaza," public art -- be it civic or privately commissioned -- is almost uniformly horrible. Part of the problem is the bad taste of those who choose art for force-fed public consumption. Which, of course, perpetuates the problematic proliferation of bad public artists.
And then there's the more subtle problem of defining public space in these last years of the 20th century. The Greeks and Romans saw public space as an outdoor forum, a political, social, and educational resource. But then, the Greeks and Romans didn't just hop in their chariots to run down the street to the convenience store. Today, communal outdoor spaces are almost exclusively for either recreation or parking. Serious art, much less serious discourse, seems either out of place or out of the question. In a society locked inside moving metal-and-glass capsules, where the outdoors is usually seen peripherally at (at least) 40 miles per hour, is any public art aside from signage feasible?
Yes, say the folks at Number:, the local visual-arts journal. And to prove it, they're collaborating with the Art Museum at the University of Memphis and 10 artists from around the country to produce a series of public art installations at various points throughout the city. Collectively titled "X Marks the Spot," the project is the culmination of Number:'s 10th-anniversary celebration and will be accompanied by an exhibition of related works at the museum.
Number: sometimes seems to reserve its originality for its seemingly perpetual fund-raising events and for its occasional art project or exhibition. Its last major project, the flawed but notable "Windows on the Dream" (which placed installations in storefront windows along the Main Street route of Dr. Martin Luther King's 1968 march), was its first foray into art in public spaces. "X Marks the Spot" seems far more subtle and challenging, both on an aesthetic and a societal level, in that it actually attempts to redefine the "public" in public art.
What is public can be, after all, rather private as far as the viewer is concerned. We're not talking parks and plazas here, not even supposedly revitalized pedestrian malls; we're talking everyday life. We're talking about the sidewalk, about elevators, about shopping centers, about churches and restaurants and libraries. We're talking about restrooms.
"X Marks the Spot" is an ambitious endeavor, involving placing artworks in over 30 places, an endeavor that's garnered financial support from the Memphis Arts Council, the Tennessee Arts Commission, and the Andy Warhol Foundation. Joining forces with the University of Memphis Art Museum didn't hurt.
"It's a lot easier to get money for a project when you're affiliated with a real institution, one with academic credentials and all," says Number: editor Debora Gordon. "But it's still hard to get people to let you put art in weird places." At this writing (a mere week before the official opening) there were still unresolved questions involving several sites.
For example, Rhode Island artist Peter Stempel is placing a group of sculptural "houses" which deal with the visual perception of scale and perspective -- they're titled Russian Houses because they will be transported nested inside one another -- at the Carrefour at Kirby Woods. Where he will be placing them was still in question, due to the mall's concerns about parking during the holiday season. "We may have to move them around," Gordon says.
Moving things was on the mind of artist John Salvest when he was contacted last week. Salvest is well known for his painstaking assemblages of collected detritus, from fingernail clippings to dead wasps to business cards. For this project, Salvest had just moved an estimated 5,000 uncirculated University of Memphis library books from storage to the second floor of the Ned McWherter Library, where he was installing his Quotation of Books in a 48-foot, six-shelf section of unused stacks. Arranging the books either spine-in or spine-out, Salvest's piece will spell out a quote from novelist/theologian C.S. Lewis: "We read to know we are not alone."
Wyoming artist Wendy Lemen Bredehoft's work will also be found in libraries -- in the form of bookmarks available in nine neighborhood branches of the Memphis and Shelby County Public Library. The printed bookmarks, as well as inserts in a local church bulletin and table tents at several area restaurants, bear the title fear unconfronted rules. The phrase, reminiscent of a Jenny Holzer truism or a Barbara Kruger slogan, was coined by the artist's mother; I'm not quite certain if it's meant to communicate a statement or an instruction -- what's unconfronted, the fear or the rules?
Memphis artist/architect Coleman Coker plans to communicate with pedestrians in his piece, Motion Detector. With the idea of stimulating a passerby's interaction with their architectural surroundings, Coker's original project was to place hidden sound installations -- triggered by motion detectors -- in downtown storefronts. As passersby look around for the unexpected sound's hidden origin, Coker hopes they will notice their reflections in the storefront window and their relationship to the architecture and to their surroundings.
Central and East Parkway was not part of Coker's original plan; the necessary pedestrian traffic is negligible compared to downtown. But Number: pressed him into using the location near or at the site of Flashback (a vintage furnishings store and longtime Number: sponsor). Using the reflection in the store's window of the Spanish War Memorial across the street, Coker has chosen the sounds of bugles and gunfire for this imposed "site-specific" work. Another piece will be installed as originally planned, downtown near the corner of Front of Union.
Terri Jones and Greely Myatt made their artwork for the most private of public spaces -- the public bathroom. Fashioning handmade soap into the shape of X's and O's -- hugs and kisses, male and female, tic-tac-toe -- Myatt and Jones play games with words and symbols and multiple meanings while enlivening a mundane human ritual. Dispensers with their opposite-attracting soaps will be available for your appreciation and good health at the Arcade Restaurant and the Church Health Center.
Liz Meyer is also making use of public restrooms, decorating those at the Center for Southern Folklore with historical and cultural references and memorabilia. Other projects include: Sara Good's "renovation" of a decaying wall at the University of Memphis with replacement bricks of her own creation; Baltimore artist Mark Miller's installation of hula hoops (complete with clever instructions) in the elevators of several high-rise office buildings; Texan K. Schmitendorf's Refuse/Refuge, which involves the placement of thrift-store furniture in outdoor locations -- such as the grounds of the Promus Corporation and Elmwood Cemetery; and Nashvillean Mary Lucking-Reiley's whimsical Bubble Light at Front and Monroe, which will only be operational and visible during the first hour of darkness each evening.
"X Marks the Spot" is, in the design of its framers, about art in "unexpected places." Of course, for those of us who receive announcements or read about the artworks in Number: or here, who take the handy map they've published (where, by the way, the spots are marked by dots instead of X's) and go on a treasure hunt, the surprise -- the unexpectation, if you will -- is spoiled. It makes me a little jealous of those who will actually stumble across these artworks, many of which wouldn't be recognizable as such to those who do the stumbling.
The stumblers might smile, they may wonder, they'll no doubt go home or back to the office and tell others about "this weird thing I saw today." And maybe they'll talk about it for a minute or two, maybe try to figure it out, decipher a meaning or a purpose. The subject of art may never come up in the discussion. Hopefully not. Rather, they talked about fearing unconfronted rules or the rule of unconfronted fear or reading to know we aren't alone or battle sounds and war memorials or the physical relationship of humans to architecture. Or maybe just hugs and kisses and bubbles and hula hoops.
Discourse. The lost art of public spaces.
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