“The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.”
When I was preparing for my move to Atlanta from Los Angeles one year ago, I was struck by the emphasis placed on crime in this city. It seemed that every neighborhood I was considering for my new home was just too “dangerous” according to those I asked: all of the headlines in the local newspaper were about crime and violence; a friend of a friend had been hit by stray gunfire in the parking lot of an in-town shopping center. I have found myself repeatedly relaying these anecdotes to friends and family when they ask me about my new home in the south. It seemed to me that the city defines itself by the Civil War, Civil Rights, and lack of civility. With all of this on my mind, I came across Isamu Noguchi’s Playscapes (1976) and David Hammons’s Nelson Mandela Must Be Free to Lead His People and South Africa to Peace and Prosperity (1987)—both located in Piedmont Park.
In 1975, The High Museum of Art commissioned artist Isamu Noguchi to build a playground for the city of Atlanta; upon completion, stewardship was handed over to the Bureau of Parks and Recreation (now the Department of Parks, Recreation & Cultural Affairs). When writing about the commissioning of the Playscapes in a Museum News article from 1976, former High Museum Director Gudmund Vigtel lists the components of the completed playground: “a broad orange and black triple-slide; a 20-foot-high triangular swing set; a monolithic grey and blue spiral slide; blue and green blocks and jungle-gym sets; a low concrete mound; see-saws; and sandbox.”1 Vigtel was describing a sculpture, not a typical plaything for children. The adjectives are nuanced visual descriptions instead of basic and playful as would be expected. In the same article, Vigtel quotes Noguchi—admitting to have done so multiple times in letters and other propositional materials for Playscapes—“I think of playgrounds as a primer of shapes and functions; simple, mysterious and evocative; thus educational.”2 Noguchi does not state that the playground is a primer of shapes and their functions; he argues in this concise and redolent statement that play should challenge—it should be dangerous; it should not be straightforward.
Nelson Mandela Must Be Free to Lead His People and South Africa to Peace and Prosperity, or Free Nelson Mandela, can be found on the other side of Piedmont Park, opposite Henry W. Grady High School. As a part of the Artist-in-Residence program for the Arts Festival of Atlanta in 1987, David Hammons made this work on-site at Woodruff Park before it was moved to its permanent home, where it still stands today. Hammons relocated a seven-ton boulder from the Georgia Mountains and welded a 12-foot iron fence atop; the crest of the fence is latticed in barbed wire. The words, “Free Nelson Mandela” are engraved on the stone’s surface. When the work was completed, the gate was locked and the key was handed over to the city of Atlanta; in 1990, when Mandela was freed, the gate was unlocked and has remained so since.
As is the case with many works of art in outdoor public spaces, there are stories of years of neglect. The Noguchi Playscapes started rusting, with corroded paint flaking into the rotting woodchips below. It became a hang-out for drug addicts and indigent characters. Free Nelson Mandela was covered in shrubbery, acting as a trellis for wild growth yet invisible to passers-by, camouflaged as just another landscaped plot in the park. In 2009, the City of Atlanta Office of Cultural Affairs did a major renovation of Playscapes to alleviate the weather damage and implement safety modifications (read here) and the greenery has been pared from Free Nelson Mandela.
On a recent run through Piedmont Park, with news of Mandela’s imminent death, I stopped by Free Nelson Mandela. Also at the sculpture were two members of the Piedmont Park Conservancy with clipboards in hand. A black man and a white woman were discussing maintenance of the work—there is a tree stump that needs to be removed, weeds to be pulled, and replanting to be done. I wondered if they were there in preparation for memorial outpourings or whether it was just a routine visit. Regardless, it struck me how far we have come, men and women of different racial backgrounds working together, especially in Atlanta after Civil Rights and across the globe in South Africa after Apartheid—to maintain a work of art, none-the-less.
When I wrote this, Nelson Mandela, at the veteran age of 95, was alive but lay in a hospital bed in Peoria, South Africa, in “critical but stable condition.” For years, Mandela has been an unwavering advocate for social justice around the world. We are now forced to confront the humanity of this extraordinary man, hopefully taking the moment to reflect back on the lessons he has taught consistently throughout his life. If we take the words of Noguchi and translate them to apply to art generally, instead of to playgrounds exclusively, one can use a visit to Hammond’s Free Nelson Mandela as a primer for thinking about the “function” of Nelson Mandela: of activism, of gates, of monuments, of opportunity, icons, leadership, freedom, rights, humanity, suffering, and myriad other human concerns. Art is a primer; I am under no delusion that it can alone change the world. But, art can definitely function to encourage evocative thought and inspire action in an engaged audience. Go take a walk through Piedmont Park and think about it.
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