Forgive the recent silence; I have been preoccupied by a tough deadline. I was asked to write about my city museum research for a collection of essays on cities and memory, to be published (in Finnish) by the Finnish Literature Society. Now that I have sent my draft off to the editor, I can turn my attention back to you, dear reader.
One of the topics I discuss in my essay is historically-themed public art. I think it can be a particularly interesting way to interpret city history, and at the same time build meaningful urban spaces. Here are a few examples of particularly successful pieces:
First, there’s the sculpture pictured above, at the beginning of the post. It’s Balancing Act by Stephan Balkenhol, on Axel-Springer-Strasse in Berlin. It poignantly marks the borderland of the Berlin Wall with a larger-than-life figure of a man, perched on a section of the Wall as if it were a tightrope. The effect is iconographic: anyone who knows even a little bit about the history of Berlin immediately gets the message with no need for complicated interpretation.
I also love this piece in Philadelphia. In 1976 architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown recreated the frame of Benjamin Franklin’s former house, just off Market Street. Nicknamed the Ghost House, it is an evocative and award-winning piece that writes Franklin back into the landscape of the city he so influenced.
And here’s a project from 1989 in Los Angeles, Biddy Mason Park. It’s a collaboration between the architectural historian Dolores Hayden and two artists, Betye Saar and Shelia Levrant de Bretteville. The park commemorates the site of Biddy Mason’s home with two pieces of historical art. Biddy Mason was a slave who petitioned and won her freedom in the courts in 1856. She also eventually owned a significant amount of property in what is now downtown LA. While she was well known in her own community, she was not particularly remembered by mainstream American history until this project came along. She was a midwife and healer, and embedded in the concrete wall are impressions of objects from her everyday life—a midwife’s bag, a medicine bottle, scissors, a spool of thread.
This is an interesting one that suggests possibilities for city history, even if it’s not quite that itself. Denise Ziegler’s 1999 Epigrams for Helsinki Citizens consists of messages cast into eight manhole covers throughout the city. It’s the kind of special thing you have to know about and look for, promoting a sense of discovery and belonging.
And this is Edge of the Trees by Janet Laurence and Fiona Foley, outside the Museum of Sydney. It symbolizes the first contact between the two cultures, when Arther Phillip’s First Fleet sailed into Sydney Harbor in 1788 while the area’s aboriginal people watched from the shore.
Here’s one that’s a little more abstract: the Chicago Bean, formally titled Cloud Gate, by Anish Kapoor. While its connections to Chicago history aren’t that direct, I love that its highly-reflective surface acts as a mirror, situating each viewer in relation to the city skyline: in case you have forgotten, you are here, in Chicago. That’s right, Chicago.
And lastly, here’s a lovely little memorial that’s halfway hidden, at Suomenlinna, the old island fortress in Helsinki Harbor. It alludes to the 1918 Civil War in Finland, an event that still isn’t completely resolved in the country’s collective memory. After the war, one of the prison camps for Red soldiers (the side that lost) was established on Suomenlinna. There was a food shortage throughout Finland, and food was particularly scarce in the prison camps. Thousands of prisoners eventually died of hunger and disease in 1918 and 1919 at Suomenlinna and in the other prison camps. Marja Kanervo, who created the memorial, explains how it works: “The years cut in the broken bedrock will disappear as slowly as the marks of violence, stretching over generations. In addition to being a physical contact to the silent world of the dead, the rippling water is also a wearing tool, which, like time, shall finally do its task. Until then, the emotions and traumatic memories stirred by the artwork take place in the present.”
I lived in Washington, DC in the late 1990s. It’s a city full of neoclassical architecture meant to visually reinforce the power of the American federal government. It’s also full of public art in the form of memorials: some that are treasured by the public—the Lincoln and Washington monuments, Maya Lin’s groundbreaking Vietnam Veterans Memorial—but also a lot of dead white men, made of bronze or stone, with or without horses, that get little attention these days. I’m sure those military men and city fathers were important and known to past generations, but most of them have been forgotten with the march of time. I remember once while I was living in DC I made a trip to Cleveland and was caught off-guard by the contemporary public art there—colorful pieces, abstract pieces, pieces I doubted would ever get through committee in DC. My point being that each generation writes its own history, and therefore our commemorations and allusions to it through public art need to be a continuous process that never stops. Which is why I find this temporary piece made for a Helsinki festival in 2005 intriguing:
It’s called Time Signal, by Elina Lifländer and Eliisa Suominen, and it creates a dialogue between a statue of the poet Eino Leino created in 1953 and the present day. I couldn’t find much online about the artists’ intent—I think the female silhouette may represent the writer Onerva Lehtinen, his lover—but even simply imagining the possibilities is interesting.
I’m going to end with a few public spaces I’ve encountered in my explorations over the past few months that seem to be screaming for public art:
The courtyard of the Stockholm City Museum. I was there on the cusp of the tourist season, so maybe it doesn’t stay this empty all summer long. And I’m sure there are good reasons to keep it a flexible, programmable space. But can’t you imagine some colorful and intriguing historical public art as a centerpiece?
Tunnelgatan, also in Stockholm. This is a very long, public tunnel near the center of the city that saves you from walking up a steep flight of stairs only to go back down another one. Right now, its yellow walls are bare. Hmmm.
And finally, this is an old gasometer (or gas holder) in Helsinki, just northeast of city centre. Gasometers are used to store natural gas; they are more common in Europe than in the US. This particular one is part of an abandoned industrial complex that is slated for redevelopment as a cultural center. In Dresden, the architect Yadegar Asisi transformed one of these gasometers into a 360 panorama of the 18th-century city. You can stand in the center and be enveloped by 1756 Dresden. Asisi did a similar panorama of 312 Rome for a gasometer in Leipzig; in 2009 it was replaced by a view of the Amazon rain forest. What should Helsinki do with its gasometer?