plastic bead necklaces, temporary metal chain-link fence
6' x 210' x 3'
I. Inherently Controversial
For more than fifty years, Vandenberg Center in Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA has been a site of storied controversy. Beginning with city planning in the 1950s, the most dramatic urban renewal took place in the 1960s. From multiple street blocks transforming into one giant complex, to local artist and musician Mary Stiles Kimmell handcuffing herself to the wrecking ball used to demolish the 19th Century city hall building, the downtown area named after Michigan Senator Arthur Vandenberg morphed into the future. But it would be the creation of La Grande Vitesse – the monumental red steel sculpture by the iconic American artist Alexander Calder – that would be a source of both inspiration and debate to this day.
On June 14, 1969, La Grande Vitesse was formally dedicated at Vandenberg Center. The sculpture became the first work of public art partially funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. A local committee, led by Nancy Mulnix Tweddale, raised the remaining funds and La Grande Vitesse was installed at Vandenberg Center. But controversy quickly followed as citizens voiced their concerns through letters and radio waves, comparing it to a pile of “welded junk” and a “horrible example of nothing”. Tweddale argued, “I think it’s safe to say a lot of people don’t understand abstraction”. Eventually, the sculpture became a unique symbol of civic pride for Grand Rapids: It informally renamed the area to Calder Plaza and is used today on the city’s municipal flag, garbage trucks, and even the logo for ArtPrize, the radically open international art competition.
In 2013, artist David Dodde created an entry for ArtPrize titled Fleurs et riviere. In a move approved by the independent Calder Plaza curator for ArtPrize Richard App, several large two-dimensional flowers created from white foam core were attached to La Grande Vitesse with magnets. “Thank you Alexander Calder, your lessons were not lost on me,” wrote Dodde on his ArtPrize profile page, where he also described his artwork as an “homage to one of the greatest minds in art”. Some local citizens found the work inappropriate and with the help of city officials, the Grand Rapids Deputy City Attorney Elizabeth R. White reached out to the Calder Foundation in New York City (the organization responsible for “collecting, exhibiting, preserving, and interpreting the art and archives of Alexander Calder) for “input and direction”.
Garnering national publicity, the response from the Foundation’s president and Calder’s grandson Alexander S. C. Rower went as followed:
Dear Ms. White,
I am not surprised to hear from you, as we too have received dozens of messages surrounding this controversy.
The history of art has been enriched on multiple occasions by temporary interventions or responses to masterpieces by fellow artists; however, its success rests on the intellectual rigor of the dialogue and the intervener’s deep understanding of the original work. I regret that neither applies to this unfortunate example.
The addition of poorly rendered imitation Warhol flowers to Calder’s magnificent La Grande Vitesse contributes nothing to humanity’s understanding of Calder, Warhol, or the role of public art. The public “discussion” surrounding this abomination, which you mention as an element of the project’s success, fails to address these issues.
We had chosen to remain silent about this provincial happenstance, as the initiative is luckily temporary and reflects an utter lack of understanding and respect of Calder’s genius.
Alexander S. C. Rower
In an article written by Garret Ellison for MLive.com, a visiting art history professor at Grand Valley State University named Eric Gollaneck summed up the situation when he said: “All public art is inherently controversial. You’re taking the commons and putting a piece of art there and saying, ‘This represents all of us’. Anytime you do that, you’ll have people who stand up and say, ‘That doesn’t represent me’. It goes with the territory”. La Grande Vitesse sponsor Mulnix Tweddale considered the entry “vandalism,” and with shifting opinions from Mayor George Heartwell, he concluded that, “Our nearly half-century relationship with Alexander Calder and, following his death, the Alexander Calder Foundation, is too important to risk by allowing this art installation to continue”. A week after the competition began, the city announced that Fleurs et riviere would be removed and several days later it was officially decommissioned.
II. Institutional Critique
After college, when I graduated with a BFA in Art from Carnegie Mellon University, I began to create artwork revolving around a secret brotherhood known as the Society of 23. At first, this fictitious society that I created mimicked my own experiences in my actual college fraternity (Theta Xi) where I used rooms in my fraternity house as the backgrounds for various photographs. In graduate school at San Francisco Art Institute, I continued to work with this constructed world of organized rituals and introduced broader ideas of American nationalism and religion. As some pieces of photography, sculpture, installation, and performances emphasized darker themes like the pledging process, other pieces revealed the brotherhood filled with celebration and generosity.
In early 2015, I created a series of photographs titled Nice Beads, Bro!. Directly inspired by portrait paintings from the 17th Century Dutch Golden Age, each photograph depicts a solitary man draped in shiny colorful Mardi Gras beads. Here, I cast models, friends, and my actual fraternity brothers (a decade removed from our glory days) to play the American pop cultural phenomenon of the bro – the cliché alpha, straight, Christian, American white male that graduated from college with top honors in pumping iron and chugging beer. Juxtaposing Hollywood masculinity with a charged femininity of shiny jewelry, the photograph becomes a site of personal investigation.
Negotiating between my Catholic and gay identities has always been a challenge, and a personal struggle that has been the primary source of inspiration for my artwork. Commonly known today as a raging party of booze and sex, Mardi Gras has its religious roots, too. Translated from French to ‘Fat Tuesday,’ the global cultural phenomenon originated as a primer for Christians to consume food and drink before fasting the next day on Ash Wednesday (the first day of the holy season of Lent). While the Lenten season culminates in the resurrection of Jesus Christ on Easter Sunday, the famed debauchery of Mardi Gras is a far cry from its original purpose.
With my interest in the semiotics of Mardi Gras in full force, I applied to ArtPrize Seven with several ideas: I created proposal images of different outdoor site-specific installations that played with thousands of beads draped onto the urban landscape of various ArtPrize venues. Like the city of New Orleans doused in beads during Mardi Gras, I envisioned a similar, temporary theatre of colorful exuberance in Grand Rapids, including thousands of beads on small trees at the Grand Rapids Art Museum's outdoor Pocket Park or on J. Brett Grill's bronze sculpture of President Gerald R. Ford in front of the Gerald R. Ford Museum.
During the ArtPrize Connections Period, I was rejected by my top venue choices. About a month into the process and chatting with various venue curators, the venue organizer of Calder Plaza and City Hall Robert J. App (brother to curator Richard App) got in touch with me, and thus began my intense research into Calder Plaza itself.
Following the 2013 controversy, three new guidelines were placed onto La Grande Vitesse for use during ArtPrize:
No installations will be allowed to attach/wrap/hang from any portion of La Grande Vitesse
No alteration to La Grande Vitesse will be approved or allowed
All installations on Calder Plaza will be placed a minimum of 20 feet away from La Grande Vitesse
For me as a conceptual artist, "following the rules is what really sets us free" and so these guidelines would be the rules used to create my ArtPrize entry. Evolving from my proposal ideas, my new piece would be in dialogue with La Grande Vitesse: Thirty thousand colorful beads would be draped onto a six-foot high temporary metal chain-link fence that stood on the invisible boundary line that was established twenty feet away from the stabile. Understanding the already sensitive relationship between the City and the Foundation, I chose to include four large gateways within the fence to accommodate for full access to and from La Grande Vitesse. With this piece, I could continue my trajectory with familiar material while highlighting a fascinating story connected with the young institution of ArtPrize.
But this idea would not become a reality. Following a first approval from App, a second approval was needed for all entries installed on city property, including Calder Plaza. Tasked with monitoring safety and other logistic concerns, the city’s Art Advisory Committee is now also responsible for preventing potential issues like the controversy of 2013. Based on the photo-realistic proposal images shown above, my entry was vetoed based on issues of access and sight lines to La Grande Vitesse.
I was devastated. Between the approval and then the veto, enough time had passed where I entertained the idea that I had created a fabulous work of art. I truly believed that my piece was smart and interesting, not only because it used the guidelines implemented onto La Grande Vitesse as its conceptual framework, but because it used Rower’s response letter to the City as a type of instruction manual as well. In several unanswered emails to the Calder Foundation, I essentially begged them to ‘approve’ my work by justifying that the piece rested on the “intellectual rigor of the dialogue” and my “deep understanding of the original work” itself. I would be “adding to humanity’s understanding of Calder” and the “role of public art”. To me, the Calder references were endless: The thin metal fence would reference Calder’s famous mobile metalwork, and as it circles around La Grande Vitesse, the entire site would temporarily become a larger-than-life Calder's Circus with the massive red stabile at its center. And of course, the beads remind us of Calder's own jewelry pieces. I convinced myself that I would receive the Foundation’s blessing, that I could go back to the Arts Advisory Committee with the good news, and that my work could be executed as planned.
It’s at this part of the story that my ‘rule following’ philosophy is also my downfall. I understand the importance of procedures and protocol to a fault. I understand that time and conversation are important factors in the approval process. I was not in the room during the committee meeting, but I was told that one member asked if the committee would reach out to the Foundation for permission, and sadly, the request was denied. It’s this decision that irks me – for the price of preventing controversy, the City has paid with a missed opportunity of well-researched site-specific artwork. When access and sight lines are justification for vetoing my piece and previous events held on Calder Plaza with similar accessibility and sight lines (that only use La Grande Vitesse as a backdrop, unengaged with the “genius” of Calder) are approved, I think there's a problem with the system.
Ironically, I hope that more procedures are put into place so future potential proposals are investigated for artistic merit, rather than its ability to conform to the relationship between the City and the Foundation. The Calder Plaza venue deserves to host its own mini-competition for the intriguing entry selected to represent a site-specific dialogue with La Grande Vitesse each year. But until some kind of public art peace treaty is made between the City and the Foundation (which I acknowledge is an endeavor in itself), then the Arts Advisory Committee has no choice but to continue imposing rules onto La Grande Vitesse, privatizing its public identity, and pushing artwork away from Calder Plaza until the site is no longer an officially registered venue with ArtPrize. It’s a tragic state for the stabile that has become the source of civic pride for the city.
III. Artistic Perseverance (or Spiritual Transcendence)
After a depressing week, I submitted to my fate and accepted that my piece was dead. But I was so passionate to exhibit and too invested in ArtPrize to drop out now: This would be my third year participating in ArtPrize, and for the last several months I was on an anthropological digital expedition through hours and hours of West Michigan's local NBC-affiliate WOOD TV8's YouTube channel. So I picked myself up and headed to the library to research Calder for a new idea. On my way to the library, I was unexpectedly detoured by the Asian Art Museum just next door (where in 2014 I had the pleasure of exhibiting Blissed Out as part of a group show titled Proximities 3: Import/Export curated by Glen Helfand). Stopping in to see the exhibition 28 Chinese (a survey of contemporary Chinese art originally organized in 2013 from the collection of the famous American collectors Don and Mera Rubell) will be the most significant decision that I make in this story.
While walking through the museum’s rooms, God must have felt like giving me a pat on the back for my efforts because He put it in front of me superstar artist Ai Weiwei’s 2008 sculpture Table with Two Legs. Having never seen the piece before, I was immediately inspired. Like my personal favorite Ai Weiwei 1995 piece Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, the piece at the Asian Art Museum is a subversive object that plays with ideas of appropriation. In the work, the artist disassembles a 17th Century Chinese table and reassembles it to be unrecognizable from the original, shifting its meaning from antiquity to contemporary art, and skirting the line between an erasure of the past and the formation of a future. And just like that, my next task was set, thank God.
I began to remix my entry that I thought was dead. When rejection crosses your path, the only thing to do is to remain faithful and steadfast (though a few tubs of ice cream and a self-indulgent pity party are fine and well-deserved). Like that original Chinese table, I disassembled and reassembled the physical materials of my fence and beads into various iterations of itself. For a site-specific work of art, slight changes in location can drastically change the meaning of the piece. For an artwork like Richard Serra's grand public installation Tilted Arc, moving the artwork to a new location would essentially destroy it. After many sketches, several exchanges with Robert, and game-changing input from trusted friends and advisors, I resurrected my original idea and created a new entry with this interesting (albeit brief) history and a brand new reason to be. And thank God again because it passed through the gatekeepers and was double approved.
For ArtPrize Seven, I created an entry titled Revelry. Thirty thousand shiny, colorful plastic bead necklaces hang on a temporary steel chain-link fence on Calder Plaza. Revelry stands six feet tall and spans over two hundred feet between City Hall and the Kent County Building. By moving along this large-scale outdoor installation, the viewer is invited to take a transcendent journey through space and color.
Beginning near La Grande Vitesse, Revelry appears as an ordinary fence, particularly referencing construction zones or disaster sites. As the viewer moves along the fence and away from the stabile, silver bead necklaces sporadically appear, growing in numbers until completely filling the grid of metal lines with shiny reflections of silver light. As the viewer continues to move along the fence, even further away from La Grande Vitesse, the silver beads evolve into hints of recognizable color of pinks, golds, greens, blues and purples. In a chaos of colored pixels, the sea of beads imitates the static of an old television searching for a visual signal. As the viewer continues, the static begins to change into something, like a kind of unexpected message. And as the viewer has moved down the narrow space between the large buildings, no longer in sight of La Grande Vitesse, the message is clear: the pattern of the beads reveals an organized spectrum of light, a rainbow of color. From a sign of divine promise following a great flood to a signifier of pride and equality, the rainbow has culturally affected humanity in so many ways. As the fence concludes in a rainbow, the viewer has arrived at the emotional "pot of gold", an open-ended and selfie-worthy space for personal reflection. I also imagine that as one turn's their back to the stabile and to travel along the fence towards the rainbow, that the act itself is a bit of a peaceful protest to the site that caused me so much confusion and conflict.
Rooted in a lineage of American sculpture and installation, Revelry continues a tradition of play with modern materials. From Calder’s theatrical circus and open-air wirework, to Serra’s Tilted Arc, to Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s intimate beaded curtains, Revelry speaks to ideas of time, space, color, devastation, perseverance, humor, and love. Playing with themes from some of my earliest work in college, Revelry raises a glass to my fellow bros Arthur Vandenberg (Delta Upsilon at University of Michigan) and Alexander Calder (Delta Tau Delta at Stevens Institute of Technology). And touching upon my interest in global perspectives, the modern spectacle of the plastic bead material represents a ubiquitous idea of manufactured mass market goods produced in China and consumed in America.
Here, the overall message of Revelry continues through the people and rituals of ArtPrize. As the Executive Director of ArtPrize Christian Gaines has said, “ArtPrize is like a holiday that can be celebrated in a million different ways”. Like Christmas, Easter, or Super Bowl Sunday, holidays have traditions that remind us it's that special time of year again. While there’s art installed around the city and an excitement for casting votes, there is little ritual associated with ArtPrize so far (though the annual ArtPrize beer release from Founders Brewing Company is fantastic). Let’s change that today, and let’s change that by having parties.
My ambitious idea starts with a request for the people of ArtPrize to throw parties to celebrate the holiday. At these parties, folks will share plastic bead necklaces with each other in exchange for conversations about art. With these beads, revelers will travel around Grand Rapids, experiencing the art and the city itself. This year, I ask that everyone come to Revelry and knot their beads on the fence as a new ritual at ArtPrize. The fence was always meant to represent the conversations and controversies of ArtPrize – the line of ongoing debates between good art versus bad art, public vote versus juried award, figurative versus abstract, and local versus global. So let’s celebrate those conversations by enacting the behavior of honoring the fence with our beads, much like performed rituals throughout the world in places like the Western Wall in Jerusalem, Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C., and the (now defunct) Love Locks on the Pont des Arts in Paris. Next year and in years to come, we can select new sites to carry on this festive tradition.
Though Revelry was intended to last the duration of the 19 day event, the sparkling shiny beads remained on the fence for only four days before visitors removed the highly coveted objects on Saturday. As the intention of Revelry was to highlight the identity of public art and begin a new tradition at ArtPrize of adding beads to the fence, its own controversial raison d'être was exemplified as the tradition was reversed and beads were removed from the fence.
Media outlets were informed that Revelry was 'vandalized' and began to create a new narrative. MLive.com, WOODTV8, and many more captured the story and called on visitors to return the beads. In a surprising turn events, the call worked and revelers returned with beads on Tuesday, leaving bags of beads at the base of the fence reminiscent of memorial sites, or knotting beads to the fence in abstract patterns.
As a public work of art, Revelry quickly evolved with - and for - the people. Rather than bringing the celebration to the fence, the people of ArtPrize took the beads and joyously infected the city with Revelry like a candy from one of Felix's corner installations. We came together to celebrate, and we came together to mourn the unintended destruction. What once was an abstract statement about the institution of ArtPrize quickly evolved into an emotional narrative about a universal reflection of life, love, and death. As one visitor wonderfully expressed: "It's like the piece was breathing. Inhale. Exhale. Inhale again".