This summer, Lawrence Argent installed “Ghost Trolley” in Aurora, Colorado, at a moment when rebirth of trolley systems or “light rail” has achieved messianic proportions throughout the USA. After nearly 100 years of automobiles, light rail is the mass transit system of choice for the suburban middle class moving back to the city centers. All planners under 40 years old assume that the renovated American cities of the future will be organized around light rail stations with heavy rail linking cities within metropolitan regions. All this environmentally intelligent dreaming (or “smart growth”) is currently tiny compared to the expanding automotive sprawl and the coming re-investment in broken bridges and cracking concrete pavement.
As is now epic myth, General Motors bought the Los Angeles trolley companies, dismantled the tracks, substituted bus lines and lobbied for highways. It’s not that evil. American mass production and higher wages made the automobiles relatively affordable and matched the American passion for individual freedom of mobility. The trolley lines’ profitability was dependent on the crowded and aging tenements, rowhouses and apartments. Only the landlord would avoid the fresh air of the suburbs and convertible.
In line with the rest of the nation, the last trolley to Aurora rolled in 1932 on the tracks underneath the site of the “Ghost Trolley”. In Denver, the streetcar system began in 1883 and was in full operation by 1900 through out the Denver. Aurora hopes the Denver metro’s light rail system will pull into its downtown before 2020.
Argent and the Aurora Public Art Program must be fully aware of the moment, although I do not know – or care in regards to this essay – their political or conceptual involvement. What matters to critical assessment of public art is the existence of the moment and the artist’s AND the agency’s action within this moment. Without engagement of the moment, the artwork become “art in public places”, not public art. This is lengthy discussion that does not degrade “art in public places”, but just strives to clarify a critical attribute that is frequently dodged, ignored and generally hoped will disappear by sponsoring agencies. Worse, than providing disliked artwork, might be artwork with an ambiguous message that speaks to an obvious or ignored cultural transformation. (Since the cultural wars of the 1980s, direct negative commentary or sexual messages have been censored by funding agencies.)
In our artistic tradition, significant public artworks (and private ones) are associated with the moment: i.e. the Statue of Liberty with the hope of European immigrants. As the moment sinks from significance, so can the artwork.
To determine the value in the moment let’s use Kenneth Frampton’s comparative method. Matthew Dehaemers’s 2003 “Point of Departureflying streetcar in Kansas City seeks a similar function in the same civic moment as Argent’s “Ghost Trolley” in metro Denver. (Argent tells me he never saw Dehaemer’s temporary project. But this is irrelevant to my assessment of either work in this age of vernacular art.) Kansas City was in a decade long fight between a citizen activist for light rail and the city’s establishment that was resolved in November 2006 when a sales tax increases was passed by the voters without City support.
Argent’s Ghost Trolly, ’07 and Matthew Dehaemers’ Point of Departure, ’03
What is the same?
Real scale of an early 20th century trolley
Located in the center of the street like a trolley
Uses “white” to suggest the spirit attribute
No illusion of motion. Static fact.
Made when light rail was under discussion in both cities
What is different?
Ghost Trolley……Point of Departure
Frosted composite materials……Net of cotton cords
On the ground in the median……Suspended over the street
Flattened axonometric image ……Dramatic lines in perspective
Industrially carved……Handmade like a grandmother’s shawl
Light rail under construction……Light rail rejected by voters
Both works are factual without any real interpretation. They declare merely “trolleys were here”. Dehaemer’s handmade quality with the antique fringe and its flying position is more evocative of an actual ghost. Argent bets on the clever 3-D illusion.
Karl Yoder Mural in Philly and Typical Tourist Trolley Today
The question for me is why both artists chose the historic trolley instead of the Buck Roger’s streamline or the Japanese bullet train. The historic trolley has been degraded by its overuse as the standard warm weather tourist transport in every American city. Where is the connection to Tennessee Williams “A Streetcar Named Desire” so easily referenced by Mona Caron in her 1998 mural? Where are the thousand filmic chase scenes with people jumping on and off the trolleys? Especially the “Streets of San Francisco”? If the image is historic, then a connection Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton? Where is the energy of the train in Kansas City’s Thomas Hart Benton paintings and prints of the 1930 or 40s? Or his reality of the workingman’s life that used and serviced the trolley. Where is GM or its equivalent?
Brando still from Street Car Named Desire and Mona Caron “Desire” train mural (photo Eric Haas)
Why are public artist getting away with only the facts? I might say that agencies are afraid of the interpretations, but the fact object is a dominant historic trend of 50 years of art at least since Jasper John’s target and flag and Oldenburg’s baseball bat. Beyond the oversized element (to be discussed in the next Argent essay), the fact object confronts the audience with the value of that common thing or situation so frequently overlooked. The confrontation requires surprise at the object selected and the location displayed. Both Argent and Dehaemer fail to surprise us as the moment expected the rebirth of trolley in exactly those places.
Trolley in House in 1952 and Abandoned in 2006
In Aurora while Argent was fabricating “Ghost Trolley”, an amazing event occurred and then disappeared. A hundred year old trolley was re-discovered boarded-up suburban house. In 1950, Edwin Perrott bought a trolley for $50 and built a house around it, converting the interior to a sitting room and bedroom. A classic American tale of reuse and invention on private property in the Western USA where ABSOLUTELY NO ONE or THE GOVERNMENT had the right to tell YOU WHAT TO DO. In 2006, as Sgt. Franklin Michelson inspected the abandoned house, he found and informed the City of the trolley in the house. Within a few months, the Historic Society had raised the money to move the trolley from the house with a pledge to restore the trolley. For reasons of failed imagination, the restored trolley – another fact – was more important that the complex story and imaginative potential of the trolley in the house. Truly a “spirit” that speaks to the cultural abandonment of the mass transit and the trolley’s reincarnation at the heart of the suburban freedom served by the automobile.
JUST TO KEEP THINKING
Both Argent and Dehaemers have created works with comparible attributes to other contemporary artists – most likely without awareness of the other artist. Again, who cares that the techique has been used, but rather how has the techique been modified for the situation? Does the use of the technique enhance the message of the artists and its moment?
Argent’s “Confluence”, 2006, Fort Collins, CO, USA and Hew Chee Fong/L.M.Noonan’s “Stillwater + Rocksack”, 1999, Carindale, QLD, Australia
Argent’s “Confluence”, 2006
Venturi in Philly – Jenson in SeaTac, WA – Dehaemers in Kansas City
UPDATE OF SORTS: See Discussion with Ries in the Comments
Seattle Art Musuem Olympic Sculpture Park, where Mark Dion did a piece about a Nurse Log (“Neukom Vivarium, 2007”), and many people brought up Buster Simpson’s Nurse Log (“Host Analog”, 1991) of ten years or so before, in Portland. General consensus was the subject had enough inherent interest to attract two different artists, at two different times, and no copying, or, in fact, even awareness of the other, had occurred. From Ries.
Buster Simpson, Host Analog, 1991, Oregon Convention Center, Portland, Oregon
Mark Dion, Neukom Vivarium, 2007, Olympic Sculpture Park, Seattle, Washington
In 1991, Buster Simpson planted Douglas Fir, Hemlock, and Western Red Cedar seeds onto an eighty-foot-long Douglas Fir nurse log.
In 2007, Mark Dion’s work features a 60-foot decaying “nurse log” enclosed in a greenhouse. Cycles of decay and renewal will be evident to current and future generations of park visitors, who can observe the thriving bacteria, fungi, lichen, plants and insects with microscopes and artist-designed field guides.
Because Buster Simpson is a lifelong member of the Seattle community and one of the American founders of public art, I find it insulting that Dion was permitted to make and exhibit this work in such a high profile situation. The Seattle Art Museum should have told Dion – we are sorry, but we would like a different work of art. Artisticly, I think it is great to have two similar works, but socially, another local Art Museum with international ambitions slaps the local artist in the face. Excuse me, but it just sucks.
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