“In one of the streets I passed along on my endless wanderings I was surprised, many years earlier, by the first stirring of my sexual urge, under the oddest circumstances.”
—Walter Benjamin, “A Berlin Chronicle”
Can publicly situated art sustain real social engagement? This particular inquiry began in 2006 when I was hired as the curator for Atlanta Celebrates Photography’s annual public art project. The project that year, titled Serial City, included a series of temporary installations of large, wheat-pasted images on walls throughout the city by artist Matt Haffner. Some of the property owners on the original list of proposed locations declined because they felt it would incite graffiti. And indeed, some of the work was tagged by the end of the project. This was an anticipated result, however, and an important aspect of the project for me, as I am interested in how public work unfolds in the hands of those who occupy its spaces.
It struck me when looking at some of the reactive tagging that almost all of it consisted of sexual or gendered images or epithets, including “fag art,” “bitchshit,” and a penis apparently poised for fellatio. But I am strangely hopeful about such tagging, which for me triggers a whole fantasy of discourses launched by publics identified only by acts of disarticulation. The tags derive their meaning because they cut against the grain of their context. It seems to me, in these particular instances, that the taggers wanted to cast some emasculating shade on street art accomplished with permission, and so they marked it accordingly.
Considering the idea of making meaning by using the work of another artist brought me back to 54 Columns, a permanent Sol LeWitt concrete block sculptural project installed in Atlanta in 1999 at the corner of Glen Iris and North Highland Avenue. While privately commissioned, it was subsequently donated to Fulton County. There have been many interventions with this work, including the well-intended planting of dogwood trees among the columns by a neighborhood group attempting to beautify the corner. In 2005, an undisclosed area artist painted one of the columns. I refer to this intervention as “the pink finger” because it breaks the serial form of the work with a gesture that I read as a “fuck you” that interrupts this otherwise colorless, concrete, conceptual space. Reactions to work in the public realm are the uncontrollable bit of discourse that, while being activated by the institution, are not institutionally authorized.
The aggressive intervention with Atlanta’s Sol LeWitt brings to mind one of my favorite works by artist David Hammons. Richard Serra’s sculpture T.W.U., named for the Transport Workers Union whose strike was coming to a close when he completed the work, was originally installed at West Broadway at Franklin and Leonard in New York City in 1979-1980. The images presented here depict Hammons in front of Serra’s sculpture, urinating on its surface, and being confronted by a New York City police officer. As you can see in the pictures, he was not the only one using Serra’s work as a site for public discourse (notice the tags already littering its surface), just the only one disidentifying himself with the work by giving the action a title as one would a work of art.
This is a work by artist Robert Rauschenberg titled Erased de Kooning Drawing from 1953. As the story goes, Rauschenberg approached the famous Abstract Expressionist painter, Willem de Kooning, and asked him for one of his original drawings that he could erase. There are many versions of this story. In interviews, Rauschenberg has said that de Kooning offered a work he knew would be particularly difficult for Rauschenberg to remove from the paper. The gesture is considered a hostile response to Abstract Expressionism, which enjoyed dominance in the art world at the time of the work’s production. It has been referred to as a kind of “killing of the father,” a way for Rauschenberg to enter the discourse of contemporary art.
I refer to Erased de Kooning Drawing not only because one artist is renegotiating or appropriating the work of another, but also because it has something to offer me in my thinking about this strange compilation of images. While a common reading of Rauschenberg’s work may be an Oedipal one, or at least one of defiance and violence toward its preceding movements and authors, I want to suggest that it is a loving gesture. Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning Drawing is careful in the full meaning of that word. It is not annihilation, but rather a considered tending to the work, even in its erasure. The pink finger, in contrast, strikes me as victory-driven: its defiant gesture has the energy of a spontaneous rant.
The original anti-graffiti coating on 54 Columns eventually turned the piece an uneven black over the years, and there was ghosting from repairs of many instances of tagging. Recently, the work was re-coated, and the color is now a kind of pale gray to white, a matter of distress for many local curators. When exploring the columns a couple of years ago, I located a trace of the pink finger and documented it. It looked to me like a dangling thread defying its chronological cover, peeking out from the past, reminding me that a little tug at an indiscreet spot can create quite a mess. At this writing, then, 54 Columns retains some subtle documentation of its public treatment—a worthy goal for public art.
In trying to negotiate a relationship between art and its public reception, I offer some questions for your consideration: How do we traffic in undisciplined and unauthorized discourse with care? How does work that strives to challenge other projects or operate outside of institutions do its work without always only throwing tantrums or oppositionally reinforcing the lines it aims to challenge? What if instead of pressure washing words like “fag art” out of the visual sphere into an afterlife of repressed pink fingers and eager phalluses, we find ways of incorporating their question marks and incentives to unravel? What if our public art practices could reflect both the making and undoing of discourse?
After I had more or less moved on to thinking about other things, I came across a series of photographs by Emily L. Martin titled Public Exposure. Interested in how people interact with public art, and also how the presence of a camera might alter their engagement, Martin introduced people she knew to various works of pubic art in Atlanta and Cincinnati. She did not give them special instructions, but only documented the ways they chose to perform or pose. Weirdly relevant, one such encounter includes a set of images titled Sol Lewitt/54 Columns/Atlanta, GA.
The “art audience” in this instance is exhibiting complete abandon in their interaction with this public installation. I would venture a guess that they are at least unaware that the work was probably not constructed to structurally support such activity. But beyond their sense of entitlement here, they have also chosen to expose themselves, or their underwear, anyway, as a way of performing their relationship to public art. Remember Michael Ryerson’s poster, “expose yourself to art”? Well apparently art doesn’t have to be figurative or representational these days to elicit such reactions.
Offering a similar collection of documented public art interactions is Marc Adelman’s work Stelen (Columns) from 2007-2011, which was recently part of the exhibit Composed: Identity, Politics, Sex at the Jewish Museum in New York, and was even purchased for the museum’s permanent collection. The series consists of appropriated images in which Adelman gathered 150 profile pictures of men posing amidst Peter Eisenman’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin found on the website GayRomeo.com. The trouble came when one such man realized his profile picture was being used out of context for Adelman’s artwork and was on public display. After the museum received the complaint, the artist immediately agreed to remove the image from the series. The artist now states on his website that any other image will be removed by request. What Adelman was not consulted about was the removal of the entire series from the exhibition this past May.
There are several points of interest here. First, the subjects in Adelman’s series are using Eisenman’s work to capture themselves in desirable ways—or at least in ways that seem applicable for a profile picture on GayRomeo.com. And while the museum curators were apparently interested in the visual re-use of Eisenman’s memorial—interested enough to purchase Adelman’s work—when that re-use threatened the institution, the work was visually negated by removing it from public view. It remains to be seen if any legal action will, or even can, result. Regardless, in such cases, if an institution has made its collecting and exhibition decisions in good public faith, it should stand by these decisions and use negative public reaction as an opportunity to lead discourse on important civic issues. Indeed, Adelman’s case stands to offer an engaging debate on the ethics of appropriation and digital re-use.
For me, the missed opportunity is when we fail to recognize trouble for what it often is—a signal of the fraught and undetermined territory that fertilizes all knowledge and authority. Troubled borders are not inconvenient aggravations, but rather creative epicenters. My question, therefore, is this: Can we learn to read this kind of trouble as an invaluable aspect of serious work, and if so, what kind of artistic and curatorial methods might simultaneously sustain art and its, at times contentious, receptions?
In a personal, childhood story from Walter Benjamin’s “A Berlin Chronicle” (quoted at the beginning of this article), Benjamin’s parents send him to collect a relative who will then accompany him to a religious service. At some point in his walk through the city, he realizes that he cannot find the relative’s home, he does not know where the synagogue is, and it is too late to make it anyway. It is at this point that Benjamin feels a “blasphemous indifference” toward the service, and this same feeling exalts the street in a manner he associates with his sex drive. But why a sexual urge? For that matter, why fags, bitches, and blowjobs on public works of art? Why pink phalluses, urination, and dropped pants? Is this completely random, or can we understand the impulse to encounter the sanctioned in undisciplined ways? People touch art when they shouldn’t; they draw on it, steal it, and even hold it for ransom. If there is a blasphemous indifference toward art, perhaps it provokes the kind of trouble that isn’t so much art’s undoing as an offer for greater combinatorial capacity. The real question is, are we deft enough to meaningfully engage in such undisciplined discourse? If institutions are invested in art existing outside of their walls, they might at least recognize that a blasphemous indifference awaits it. And what if this is not a matter of art’s annihilation, but instead a potential for its transformation, however odd the circumstances?
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