above: artifacts and correspondence for The Art Guys at 911 Arts Center, Seattle, 1986 (click on images)
above: experiments with telephones, works for The Art Guys' residency at 911 Arts Center, Seattle, 1986 (click on images)
above: "THE," books and magazines from the 911 Art Center library are rearranged in to three letters that form the word 'the,' the most frequently used word in the English language, installation for The Art Guys' residency at 911 Arts Center, Seattle, 1986 (click on images)
above: selected images from the project "HOU/SEA–SEA/HOU." Description: a cubic foot of water from the Gulf of Mexico was collected and transported to Seattle where it was emptied into the Puget Sound. Then a cubic foot of water from the Puget Sound was transported to Galveston and emptied into the Gulf of Mexico thus completing a transcontinental exchange of a cubic foot of water. Project for The Art Guys' residency at 911 Arts Center, Seattle, 1986 (click on images)
Henry! Henry! He's Our Man!
the story of a temporary protest sculpture park
Statues are in the news again. It's a curious development. It coincides with peculiar activities surrounding some equally peculiar statues. Take for example the examples below. Despite the obvious formal similarities of fantastic creatures with wings, and despite what some may think as being polar opposites in meaning, both of the statues below, believe it or not, seek to celebrate essentially the same thing: freedom. One promotes the freedom of people, one promotes the freedom of speech. Who could argue? Unfortunately, as we all know, plenty do. Wings, freedom, bronze... I support them all and in various combinations, although regarding the examples below, I may have chosen a different aesthetic.
Left: Nicole Awai, “The Spirit of Persistent Resistance of the Liquid Land,” proposed replacement of Confederate statue (photo: Tamir Kalifa for The New York Times)
Right: The Satanic Temple, statue of Baphomet, at a rally for the First Amendment in Little Rock, 8/17/18. (photo: Hannah Grabenstein/AP)
The issue of social activism expressed through and about the most mundane form of sculpture - the statue - is bizarre. An inert metal formed and molded to resemble an anthropomorphic representation of a concept seems to drive people nuts. Why? I cannot for the life of me know. (Although, of course, I do.) I grew up in the deep south where Confederate statues are a part of the landscape. Because of this, and because of the even more bizarre southern nostalgia for a defeated South that ain't never gonna rise again because it ain't never was risen in the first place, often these statues are (or have been) heroic depictions of treasonous slave owners. When I was very young, it made no difference who the statue was. "It's just another bearded guy with a sword on a horse." Because they were about people and events long ago about which I knew nothing and about which I cared even less, they were historically, informatively irrelevant to me. Only later, after having learned about such concepts as the beyond bizarre three fifths equation of some people by other people did I realize just how stupidly awful and awfully stupid it was to erect these things in the first place. One way or another, they need to go. That's all there is to it.
But the strange thing, at least for me, is that when the bearded guy with a sword on a horse is removed from city squares in the south, I miss having them around. There's something quaint about them, save for what they represent. Luckily, there are many solutions to this dilemma.
Above: nearly identical bearded guys with swords on horses
Left: Henry Shrady, "Robert Edward Lee," Emancipation Park, Charlottsville, Virginia (image: Wikipedia)
Right: John Quincy Adams Ward, "Major General George Henry Thomas," Thomas Circle, Washington, D.C. (image: Wikipedia)
One solution is actually very easy, as I see it. Since no one seems to know that much about the particulars, I say just change the plaques to say that the statue depicts a more desired individual. In a generation or two, after everyone has forgotten about this plaque switcheroo, no one would know the difference anyway.* After you've seen one bearded guy with a sword on a horse, you've seen 'em all. [See above.] And, if one were to think about it in a certain way, it's the same now-you-don't-see-it, now-you-do Duchampian transubstantiation of a pisser into an icon. Voila! Another miracle.
[*When Andy Warhol heard that the Mona Lisa was coming to New York in 1963 with its subsequent logistical and security problems, he said, “Why don’t they have someone copy it and send the copy? No one would know the difference.”]
Robert E. Lee plinth, Oak Park, Dallas, Texas (photo courtesy of a friend)
Another dilemma exists about the removal of Confederate statues. Once they're gone, there's the issue of the empty plinths in the middle of a grand plaza. Now what? Fortunately, the solution for that is just as easy: Change the plaques so that they say that this absence represents a presence. For example, the plaque might read, "This is a depiction of the emptiness we all sometimes feel deep inside each of us," or "This is a representation of what some scientists believe most of the universe is made of," or "This is a tribute to something Robert Barry did in the '60's." A negative into a positive, right? A cost saver too.
I like statues. I always have. They're weird and wonderful. I have long been fascinated with statues and have studied them deeply. And for better or for worse, I've participated in the making of a few statues. Some are still around, some are not, some, god willing, may yet be.
All of this is nothing more than an elaborately tangential preface for the brief but memorable story below about the only statue protest that I have participated in. The only difference between it and the Confederate statue removal protests, except for the loaded subject matter, is that this protest was to keep a statue, not get rid of it. Allow me to explain...
In 1986, The Art Guys were invited to do a residency at a small but well-regarded alternative space in Seattle called the 911 Art Center, the name of which derived from its address – 911 Pine Street. The director at the time, Jill Medvedow, had seen an installation of ours at the Midtown Arts Center when she visited Houston in 1985 and liked it so much that she invited us to Seattle. Soon after our invitation, Jill resigned and the organization found itself in a somewhat disheveled state, a situation that we became used to over the years in the art world. Jill was eventually replaced by Glenn Weiss who was a curator at PS1 in New York. Because The Art Guys have tended to operate at the edge of things, we have often found themselves at the beginning or end of nearly everything. We have been a part of the beginning or end of many organizations, often doing their first or last event or show. The Art Guys were Glenn Weiss' first show at 911 and 911 was The Art Guys' first exhibition outside of Houston.
Because of the relative disarray of 911 during our residency, the situation there was rather open, which worked to our advantage. The people there were distracted by more important things than us. This left us the freedom to do most anything we wanted, including using the 911 office, library, and even the trees in front for our experiments. We quickly befriended Glenn, the new director, who was delightful and very supportive. We were productive during our short two weeks at 911, instigating a number of important seminal Art Guys works including "Mustaches for Seattle" (the first in a series of 'facial hair sculptures for distant cities'), "HOU/SEA–SEA/HOU," "THE," early experiments with telephones, and other works and activities.
As fortune would have it, our residency at 911 overlapped a local controversy regarding a sculpture by Henry Moore called "Vertebrae."
"Vertebrae" is a typical Henry Moore sculpture - big, bronze, and blobby. Not quite a statue, but not quite not a statue, its sits on the fence in the middle of representation and abstraction. If you squint your brain, the concept of a flayed, reclining nude is nearly imagined, especially with the anatomical reference to a backbone as in its title. It's got a fluid dynamism to it, even if that's calmed by the stasis of its traditional material. Nevertheless, if ever there was such a thing as a quintessential plop sculpture in front of a towering corporate skyscraper, "Vertebrae" would be the most quintessential of them all.
"Vertebrae" rests within a black reflecting pool in the shadowy, bleak plaza in front of the Safeco Tower in downtown Seattle just down the street and around the corner from the Seattle Art Museum (SAM). Safeco Tower (originally known as the Seafirst Tower after Seattle First National Bank, the first owner) is a fifty-story imposing black monolith. It was the largest structure in Seattle when it was completed in1969, claiming itself to be the "tallest west of the Mississippi." The Safeco Tower, tall, dark and not particularly handsome, was not universally appreciated when it first went up, and neither was the Henry Moore sculpture. Safeco Tower is derisively called "the box the Space Needle came in." Its plaza has been called a "hostile Miesian wasteland." "Vertebrae" has been referred to as "giant dog bones." However, over the years, Seattleites have come to take great pride in "Vertebrae." This eventual change of heart accounts for the ruckus that happened when it was suddenly, somewhat secretly sold in 1986.
above: "Vertebrae" by Henry Moore in front of the Safeco Tower, Seattle
"Vertebrae" was bought by Seattle First National Bank in 1971 for $165,000 and placed in the plaza in front of their namesake building. Later in the 1980's, Seattle First National Bank lost billions of dollars in some failed business transactions which led to the sale of the bank, its building, and its assets, including "Vertebrae." "Vertebrae" was sold in 1986 for $825,000 to a Japanese buyer who planned to move it to Japan. And that's when the trouble started.
The real commotion began after influential art supporters learned that the removal of the sculpture was to take place immediately and clandestinely. De-installation was adroitly scheduled for the early wee hours of a Sunday morning so as to maximize minimal attention. But that backfired after the mayor got in on the act, which, of course, set the media wheels in motion. And that's when The Art Guys stepped in.
We learned that television crews were scheduled to show up to record a street protest that was supposed to happen in front of the sculpture during its scheduled removal on Sunday morning. Never ones to miss a chance to stage a ridiculous action to be broadcast to the perplexed, unsuspecting masses, we decided to infiltrate the event.
Jack and I hatched our idea sometime that previous Saturday night after drinking more than a few beers. Our scheme was to make a miniature rendition of "Vertebrae" – a maquette – and bring it down to the protest as a sort adjunct take-it-with-you parade float. Or something. Not being in a clear state of mind, we had no clear idea. But by golly, we were going to charge ahead. We asked our friend and mentor, the illustrious Buster Simpson, if we could use his studio to make what we had no clear idea about or how. He agreed. Glen Weiss, in an equally blurry fit of free speech-ism, decided to assist us in our righteous act of public civil discourse.
The maquette was ridiculous. It was a slapdash piece of crap made of taped plastic garbage bags around a chicken wire armature (I think) and then spray painted green and orange that we inexplicably saw as bronze-ish. This mess then rested on a piece of plywood that supposedly mimicked the reflecting pool of the Moore sculpture. To top it all off, the plywood base was attached to two army helmets so that it could be worn by two people, spanning and connecting two heads, bridge-like. Glenn and I, being the nearly identical height, vertical build, and overall similar appearance, were the obvious choice to co-wear this piece of protest art.
Sleepless and still slightly inebriated, we all set off from Buster's studio to the protest site. In an attempt to stay conscious, we stopped by a doughnut shop for some sobering sustenance. At the doughnut shop (shoppe?), Jack made the inspirational observation that the chocolate covered cake doughnuts bore an uncanny resemblance to yet another beloved Seattle sculptural masterpiece: Isamu Noguchi's "Black Sun." Our protest bonnet instantly enlarged into a sculpture park.
above: "Black Sun" by Isamu Noguchi, Volunteer Park, Seattle
Walking side-by-side together in a sort of Siamese twin, joined-at-the head, potato sack race dis-coordination, we approached the protest site. A TV crew was there waiting. Other than that, the streets were completely empty and quiet. No one else showed up. We were the only protestors. Snapping into character with this two person headdress, we began our lonely parade down the street. On cue, the TV crew started rolling. We marched around in circles in front of "Vertebrae" in our unsyncopated straddle chanting "Henry! Henry! He's our man! If he can't do it, nobody can!" and "Henry! Henry! He's our man! We don't want him to go to Japan!" We continued over and over until the news crew, realizing that we would be the only protestors that morning, eventually lost interest in our monotonous blather and left. But they got their protest story, and we got on TV. Win win.
Glen Weiss (left) and Michael Galbreth (right) protesting the removal of Henry Moore's "Vertebrae" sculpture, August 31, 1986, Seattle, approximately 6 am
"Vertebrae" was never shipped to Japan. Someone bought the sculpture back from the Japanese buyer and then donated it to the Seattle Art Museum who now owns it. The piece has never moved from its original location. It's there today. That morning was the hardest I have ever laughed in my entire life.
"This is Eyewitness News reporting live from the Henry Moore sculpture in downtown Seattle..."
above: temporary miniature sculpture park featuring recreation of Henry Moore's "Vertebrae" and Isamu Noguchi's "Black Sun" (1986) The Art Guys with Glenn Weiss. Chicken wire, tape, plastic, spray paint, plywood, army helmets and chocolate covered cake doughnut. Variable dimensions.
August 22, 2018