In the town where I live there is a renowned museum of contemporary art, the Aldrich Museum. They have rotating outdoor sculpture installations called the Main Street Sculpture Project .
The newest exhibit is causing quite a stir in town. Ester Partegas of Spain has installed a wry, thought-provoking take on the typical bodega storefront awning.
Ridgefield is a somewhat conservative suburb of New York City, but has a very active arts community. The town is celebrating its 300th anniversary this year and its Main Street is famed for large, well-kept, historic houses and a quaint, old-fashioned yet bustling downtown. The museum sits at one end of Main Street and the installation is highly visible. The museum has displayed many other interesting works as part of the Main Street Sculpture Project, some of which were controversial. There have been a giant, slightly grotesque baby reaching out toward the sidewalk clad only in a giant diaper, a set of large blow-up McMansions populating the lawn, and the re-creation of the number of livestock a family of four eats in one year. Many other works were met with at best, enthusiasm or at worst, puzzlement.
The one defining thread of the controversial works has been vandalism. The giant baby brought dozens of letters to the local newspaper and shortly after, vandals set it on fire. The blow-up McMansions also drew the ire of some disapproving, vocal townsfolk and they were brutally slashed one night. Both works were restored and re-installed after a brief absence.
About the current installation, the museum’s website says:
The work explores the social, emotional, and physical relationship of the spectator to those objects that have become part of the urban landscape. Richard Klein, Aldrich exhibitions director, comments, “The project ingeniously plays with the awning’s change of context: urban/suburban, Latino/Anglo-Saxon, food store/art store, and will actually shelter the front steps from the elements, providing a ‘porch’ for strolling citizens to congregate and socialize.”
Instead of the usual bodega signage, Partegàs’s intervention will feature texts that reflect on the complex relationship between the artist and the viewer surrounding an intimate art experience. The title of the project—The Invisible—will be the largest sign posted on the awning and will serve as an advertisement to remind people to look for what Partegàs calls “this invisible thing” that takes place when creating and looking at art. Partegàs explains, “Finding inspiration, creating art, negotiating ideas, making changes, and categorizing the entire experience that has transpired are all invisible processes.” Regarding the other texts, she continues, “Multiple Silences’ alludes to the gaps or empty spaces during the pure contemplation of an artwork; ‘Simultaneity’ refers to the possibility of different events, thoughts, ideas, feelings, and experiences happening at the same time; and ‘Source Surface Matter’ are aspects of an art work that we require to be able to communicate effectively.”
Part of me wonders if the vandals, presumed to be teenagers, were aware of the dislike of the works by a segment of the local population and acted on their destructive impulses with the assumption of community approval. Only those most controversial works were attacked. The current exhibit is seen by some as “defacing” the historic nature of a highly visible portion of town during a time of celebration of that history when many visitors will be flocking in. The Latin American aspect is making some people uncomfortable, forcing them perhaps to confront racial or cultural prejudices. Good public art, whether you agree with it or not, whether you like it or not, causes a reaction in the viewer, engages the viewer, and creates a dialog in the community. I think this qualifies.