Monday, March 17, 2014

Agoraphobia

Public Art and Civic Self-Image in the Post-Modern Era


Let us acknowledge from the start that contemporary art theory and criticism are over most of our heads. Then let's dive into the deep end anyway.

Agora by Magdalena Abakanowicz, in the south end of Grant Park, Chicago, Illinois, near the intersection of Michigan Avenue and East Roosevelt Road. The entire installation is about 300 feet (91 m) long. (Photo by author; caption by Wikipedia.)
As I was doing the rounds for my day job recently, my route took me to the intersection of Indiana and Roosevelt, near the impressive work of sculpture pictured above. I'd noticed the piece previously - titled Agora, by Polish artist Magdalena Abakanowicz, it was completed in 2006 with heavy backing from patrons in Chicago's Polish community - and it triggered a mental reaction that I knew I'd have to unpack at some point. What probably inspired me to do so now was how fitting the wintry weather seemed for the feelings this artwork evoked in me, namely bleakness, alienation, and despair. I snapped a few photos with my middling phone camera (yes, I'm aware my images are of indifferent composition and quality; sue me), determined to strike while the metaphorical iron was hot and the literal air was cold.

There are so many tangential ideas, concerns, and similar artistic experiences I could leap to from this one trigger-point that I must remind myself to proceed with patience and caution; that discretion is the better part of valor; and that there is ample (i.e. infinite) space, if not time, to explore this and other works here on CC. I have a lot of built-up animus in this area that is not wholly attributable to Agora alone, because this piece fits with certain trends I've noticed in contemporary art that really bother me, and I suspect bother a great many other people as well. I find these tendencies not only persistently disturbing, but also disturbingly persistent, as if they're part of the fabric of the "background" condition of the arts; i.e. things that are thus not worth railing against unless one is a hopelessly regressive, irascible crank. Quixotic as it is, though, I'm compelled to be a crank - again, sue me.

The work itself is impressive in scale and not so bereft of either craft or concept that one can fairly accuse the artist of outright hoodwinking her patrons and public. (I don't even have to reach for Google to think of other artists guilty of such pranking and/or hucksterism; we'll plumb that rabbit-hole in future posts.) This is obviously an artwork about Ideas, which are clearly conveyed in the experience of the piece and accessible to any layperson with eyes to see and a dim awareness of the urban condition. So kudos to Magdalena Abakanowicz and Agora's Chicago sponsors, who can't be faulted for obscureness or a lack of ambition.

What disturbs me about Agora is what it says about the state of our agora, on two overlapping fronts. First is the decline of the representative artifact as a seemingly irrevocable condition of the post-Modern craft environment. Second is the decline of democratic optimism in the civic arena and its concomitant undermining and/or abandonment of the Liberal Project of the late Enlightenment.

Each of these 106 headless figures is 9 feet tall.
They're kinda creepy. (Author photo)

The first issue is merely a trope, or rather a set of tropes, that hang above and throughout the world of contemporary art like a miasma of hermetically recirculated second-hand smoke in this post-industrial era. Specifically, here, one sees the simultaneous diminishment in realistic detail of the human form - characteristic of precedents in Impressionism and Abstraction - along with a movement toward grotesqueness and exaggeration via inhuman scale. And then there's the trope of a hollowness or void within the body and/or head, a symbol as abysmally ponderous and bleak as it is sterile and obvious.

The siting and placement of the statues are significant too. They stand on a flat, open plot bounded on the south by the noisy thoroughfare of Roosevelt Road, on the west by the "cliff-wall" of Michigan Avenue's facades, and on the east by a railway trench that foregrounds a view toward the Lake Michigan shore. It's a spot where grass and snow alike are scoured by unabated lake winds; an ideal landscape, indeed, for an agoraphobic sensation of space. The dark, looming figures are grouped as if part of an anonymous mass of unknowably isolated individuals, either milling aimlessly within or hurrying straight through the space they share. They seem a skillful and succinct summation of that angst-inducing modern American horror, the Lonely Crowd.

If one were to read these figures as an almost literal interpretation of one way of viewing ourselves - say, as effigies - what message would they convey? They'd perhaps say that we, in our corporeal being, are metaphorically headless (therefore mindless, thoughtless, and voiceless; plus deaf, dumb, and blind), sexless and armless (therefore impotent in a dual sense), not to mention spineless, gutless, and heartless. These figures are all front surface, with nothing to back them up; they are rigid and cold, rough and unpleasant to the touch; their only discernibly human features are giant, heavy feet and toes, implying that they're both earthbound and poor; their conformity to an identical type is countered only by random bits of textural variation on their surfaces; they are hollow within and unlovely without. They speak of a culture and a species that are riven by sorrow and self-loathing.

That's what I came away with, anyway. And so I think we can certainly declare victory for the artist on the score of making one look/think/react in response to what I take to be an earnestly provocative stimulus. (The "made you look!" defense is much weaker in the service of lesser craft, infuriatingly so, but that's a subject for another essay). But if this is a case of art reflecting life, then Magdalena Abakanowicz's Agora prompts us, probably with good reason, to ponder what has gone so wrong with our culture that we would collectively portray our civic life in such a despairing, hateful way.

And that is where I'll leave you, dear reader. If you care to mull over my argument here for a while, you'll be more than ready for my next piece -- in which I'll assay the mostly unsuccessful effort of the Occupy movement to re-create a functioning agora of the demos in Chicago back in the fall of 2011 and spring of 2012.

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