“Critically” Analyzing the Ruins
In comparison, a University of Chicago international graduate student was aware of the monumental size of Taft’s 1922 Fountain of Time, but she was unaware of the subject depicted other than assuming, like my companion, it had something to do with an early American war because of the soldier on horseback. When asked how Chicago educators may best utilize the “Neighborhood showcases of culture” like these monuments, she suggested an increase in awareness not just of art, but history itself, admitting she couldn't identify dates of most major battles which America had fought. When asked if the information was important, she responded, "Yes," adding as America is engaged in war now, it should look toward its past to learn of sacrifices made to get us where we are today. Her comment reflected that of Benjamin’s concept of “critical” analysis, since as modern theorist writing at the beginning of the twentieth century, he had written volumes deeply delving into the past, looking intensely at France’s Second Empire of the mid-nineteenth century. History and the past, whether artistic image or written text, while potentially irrelevant if upheld as monumental, once critically analyzed, or read, may serve as an exemplar for both the present and the future.
This same international student who offered critique of American education was also fascinated with Albin Polasek’s 1941 Thomas Garrigue Masaryk Memorial (Appendix F) because it reminded her of a number of equestrian figures she had encountered in India depicting a female warrior who fought for Indian independence against England. She had noted the Masaryk Memorial differed formally from those she had encountered because the mounted equestrian figures she recalled from India depict a woman who, according to legend, fought against England’s colonial rule with her infant child in her hands. The viewer, who was aware Masaryk Memorial depicted a northern European political figure, believed public art could be used to effectively teach history to students since for her the Indian equestrian figure reinforced history lesson she had learned regarding this woman's nineteenth-century fight for independence. Since Chicago’s monument stood before her with an absence of history, she was able to transcribe her own experience onto the work of art, a “critical” reading Benjamin has advocated. This historical Chicago monument, because she was able to view it from her own historical reference as well as personal experience, for her became a reminder of maternal dedication as well as an allegorical symbol of strength and determination to overcome an oppressive force.
Another University of Chicago international graduate student from India engaged in the same conversation wasn't able to identify as much about the sculpture as his friend. Yet he too stressed the importance of studying history, adding the conversation we had was a good example of how these types of discussions could range from personal experience to history to education. Their interpretation of the work, though the piece was not in any way specifically relevant to their own historical or cultural experience, serves as an exemplar of how an image may be used in a “critical” sense from a Benjamin perspective. This on-site discussion, which took place in the space surrounding an older monument, critically addressed educational, cultural, gender, and socio-economic issues within a modern framework.
My inability to find many of the pieces in Bach and Grey’s Guide was only the beginning of what turned out to be a very frustrating day in which I wandered from address to address in South Side Chicago, illuminated in spite of the dreary drizzle. I was shocked to discover seven out of the first fifteen sculptures listed in the Hyde Park tour were missing or had been relocated. Even though I had asked a number of people, including a local art museum docent, an art school’s information desk attendant, and several art students at the University who were passing by me where I may possibly find these missing monuments, I had even less information available than I had been able to procure regarding the toppled equestrian. I had discovered very few residents in the Hyde Park area were cognizant of the public art surrounding them, much less very well educated about the pieces they passed on a regular basis. No one, not even those who said they had lived in the neighborhood their entire lives (including those which would have resided in the area as adults when the Guide had been published in 1983), recalled seeing any of the missing sculptures pictured in the Guide. In some instances, buildings now sat where sculptures were once listed, while the plaque for Sorel Etrong’s 1968 Mother and Child (Appendix G) simply stated it replaced his Pulcinella II, a piece Bach and Gray (1983) identified as being based upon the “Italian antecedent of the comic Punch of English puppet shows” who always had “a hint of maliciousness” (p. 264). The Guide photo indicated it was a large upright phallus projecting menacingly into the air, supported by two spheres located at the base. In this case, the older, more threatening figure had been replaced by a sculpture representing maternal love. Many of the missing works, including Wolf Vostell’s 1970 concrete-encrusted Cadillac, had been installed in the late 1950’s through the early 1980’s. They were perhaps like Etrong’s missing piece; no longer relevant or effective in a changing world.
After successfully shooting and interviewing at only two of my designated locations, discouraged, wet, tired and sore, I headed home to regroup, more determined than ever to find these allusive “Neighborhood showcases of culture” Chicago educators were supposed to utilize in their culturally based curriculum (Supplemental, 2012, p. 4). Not easily daunted, in fact, rather encouraged by the safe passage I had received by my escort the day before, I set out once again to Hyde Park armed with the confidence of a Tae-Kwon-Do advanced belt, my camera, two lenses, laptop, GPS, cell phone, video camera, and a newly acquired CTA (Chicago Transit Association) map to avoid another cross-park, after-dark excursion as my escort had wisely advised.
When I returned, the condition of the monuments I was able to find was highly disconcerting. In Jackson Park, Albin Polasek’s 1930 Gotthold Ephriam Lessing and his 1941 Thomas Garrigue Memorial (above), Johan Dyfverman’s 1891 Carl Von Linne (right), Jordi Bonet’s Untitled Mosaic, and Fredrick Law Olmsted’s 1893 Stony Island were occluded from sight by overgrown trees.
The 1977 Spirit of DuSable (above) had a pedestal with only a rusted bolt serving as a reminder that another piece of the installation was missing. Arnaldo Pomodoro’s 1963 Grande Radar and the ancient Circular Stone (below) that once stood outside the Red Temple in China had a path worn in the grass where passersby hastily pass from one destination to the next. As with most of the other public art, Jene Highstein’s 1976 Black Sphere (below) was covered in bird poop, particularly noticeable because of its subtly hand-patted, textured black-dyed concrete surface.
The main entrance to Chicago Museum of Science and Industry, modeled after Charles B. Atwood’s 1893 Exhibition Hall of Fine Arts featuring Beaux-Arts Style Caryatids (right) was no longer in use, replaced by an underground entrance adjoining the parking garage. Even the exemplar of a collaborative community and education project, the 2008-2010 Chicago’s After School Matters and Mirtes Zwierzynski’s Welcome to the Path of Our Community, appeared incomplete, with several un-tiled niches along the underpass.