The Phoenix at Five Points

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Francesco Somaini, Phoenix, 1970, located at Five Points, Atlanta.
Francesco Somaini, Phoenix, 1970, located at Five Points, Atlanta. (Photo: Gregor Turk)

During the summer of 1970, my Francophile mother informed me with seething enthusiasm that Rodin was coming to our Alabama town. My nine-year-old ears perked up instantly, and until I actually entered that exhibition at the Mobile Museum, I suspect I was just as excited as she was.
Until very recently I had forgotten the disappointment I felt in walking around that gallery filled with sculptures of … people. You see, at age nine little held my attention the way that monsters did. To my mind the revival of Universal Pictures’ 1930s classics (Dracula, Frankenstein, etc.) in the 1960s had been a mere warm-up for Godzilla and his ilk. And my favorite among those big-screen beasties was the atomically mutated pterosaur that made life in midcentury Japan such black-and-white hell.
That’s right: I went to the museum expecting to see Rodan. No, not the film itself, though if you had pressed me at the time I might have had trouble saying exactly what I was expecting. I knew what museums were for, but some exhibition devoted to (for example) props and costumes from the Toho films would be possible in today’s culturally leveled landscape—and not so much in the art spaces of my youth. In any case, I’m not sure I would bother to attend such a show these days. I own August Ragone’s book on Eiji Tsuburaya, the filmmaker behind the Toho movies, which reveals more than I care to know about kaiju cinema.
When I relocated from Mobile to Atlanta in 1983, Francesco Somaini’s sculpture Phoenix had itself already migrated from private property to Broad Street Plaza, just north of MARTA’s Five Points Station. The First National Bank of Atlanta commissioned the work in 1970 and donated it to the city a decade later. I don’t recall exactly when I first saw this towering, craggy abstraction, but I do know that my reaction was love at first sight. I may have nicknamed the sculpture “Rodan” during that first sighting, but the Rodin/Rodan confusion went unremembered until I began thinking about this essay and my feelings surrounding the Somaini work.
It troubled me to think that the statue’s appeal might derive primarily from its being salve for a psychic wound unhealed since childhood, a kind of balm for failed nostalgia. The movies that brought Rodan into the world are unwatchable to me now. Phoenix, though, remains a pleasure yet green (the earthy shades of its stone form and the muted gleam of its metallic appliqués notwithstanding). The self-rejuvenating bird of myth and cinema’s winged destroyer of miniature cities do share an essential element, of course: fire. Laughable as Toho’s later giant monster movies became, the subgenre grew out of the atomic detonations at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and a 1954 encounter between Japanese fisherman and fallout from an American hydrogen bomb test. Godzilla embodies the almost otherworldly destructive force used by the United States to compel Japan’s surrender; Rodan originally generated hurricane-like winds to demolish anything in its wake, but later was able to breathe radioactive flame. Also worth noting is that (as I learned from Wikipedia) the twin monsters of Rodan perished in a volcanic eruption—but the movie was a hit, sequels were made, and Rodan rose from a volcano to fly again.
My belated realization that Rodan was a phoenix all along leaves us with Somaini’s sculpture. His bird is raggedly engulfed but hurtles ahead anyway, maw agape, talons curled for attack. This rendering of Atlanta’s emblem is as heedless as a meteor. The city often feels this way itself for me: built for motorists but ill-designed for their activities; blessed with an urban canopy of trees that dwindles daily; and possessed of a history put to the torch once already without contemporary decision-makers seeming to have learned anything from that long-past lesson. And yet it endures. Monsters do that. It’s one reason I love them.
Ed Hall lives in Atlanta and writes about monsters whenever he can get away with it.

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