A giant Afro pick confronts former mayor Frank Rizzo in Philadelphia, part of the city's Monument Lab project.
A giant Afro pick confronts former mayor Frank Rizzo in Philadelphia, as part of the city's Monument Lab project. Steve Weinik at Mural Arts

Philadelphia’s timely new exhibition of temporary public art offers both beauty and confrontation.

The recent flashpoints in conflicts over monuments and public art have usually been Confederate generals or problematic founding fathers. In Philadelphia, protesters have found another target: Frank Rizzo, the law-and-order mayor who presided over the city in the 1970s. A ten-foot tall bronze likeness of him stands, waving awkwardly in an ill-fitting suit, in the concrete plaza in front of the Municipal Services building. Demands to remove the statue have been growing ever louder.  

Hizzoner has recently been joined by a nearby reply: a massive Afro pick emerging at an angle from the concrete, a piece called “All Power to All People” by the New York-based artist Hank Willis Thomas. Its handle—as in thousands of combs emerging from thousands of Afros during the Rizzo era—embodies a black-power fist. The provocative pick is part of an ambitious citywide effort to re-think public art in Philadelphia: Monument Lab, curated by University of Pennsylvania professors Ken Lum and Paul Farber with the city's Mural Arts program under Jane Golden, has installed twenty temporary monuments in squares, neighborhoods, and parks around the city.

The timing is remarkable. When they conceived the project five years ago, Lum and Farber didn’t know it would open amid a charged national debate about who and what gets to occupy public space. The work, which is slated to run until November 19, is remarkable as well, created both by conceptual artists of international reputation such as Mel Chin and Hans Haacke and by local artists and collectives, often working with neighborhood groups and activists. Taken as a whole, it presents works of great variety and coherence.

When I visited the sites on its first weekend, many were already provoking intense responses. Each time I strolled by Thomas’ Afro pick, for example, passersby paused to take its picture or pose with it, to express political opinions or Rizzo nostalgia. The former mayor seemed to lose some of his power to offend in the juxtaposition.“I’m just worried that they’re going to abolish history,” I heard one man say. But he sounded more rueful than angry.  

Themes of race and community change run through Monument Lab, but also self-portrayal and self-knowledge: Who gets to be memorialized, and how can people recognize themselves and be recognized by others in the spaces they share? Indeed, at each site (and at the Barnes Collection for some weeks before the installations opened) the public is invited to submit proposals for their own monuments. There have been hundreds of proposals so far; they display moments of remarkable ingenuity, humor, and profundity, as well as banality and rage. One proposal was simply to remove all monuments. Another suggested replacing Robert Indiana's famous LOVE sculpture with LIKE. Many focused on police violence or ethnic histories of the city. It’s one of myriad ways that the project has been conceived as fundamentally democratic and collaborative. And some of the proposals, organizers say, may wind up being realized, temporarily or permanently.

Me time: “Two Me” makes observers into participants. (Steve Weinik/Mural Arts)

One of the biggest hits of the show with the Center City crowd was Mel Chin's monument “Two Me,” installed in the courtyard at City Hall. It features two ramps, on which viewers/participants ascend to marble pedestals—copied from the nearby statue of 19th-century marketing guru John Wanamaker—labeled “ME.” As the work opened on a sunny Saturday afternoon, a remarkable group of people became monuments: people in wheelchairs, parents with baby strollers, the poet Ursula Rucker, hip-hop MC Black Thought of the Roots, and Chin himself. The people on the individual pedestals meet on the ramp back down and, Chin told me as we sat on a bench looking at people pose monumentally, “merge into a we.” The work’s popularity may make it hard to remove, and Chin conceives it as permanent.

Monument Lab has also placed works outside of the heavily touristed parts of town. Tyree Guyton and a neighborhood crew's remarkable installation “The Times” transforms an abandoned factory in the troubled Kensington neighborhood into a huge multiplying clock face—a bristling, rough-hewn collage of time that delivers such messages as “It’s Almost Midnight,” “It’s time to get your shit together,” and “Now.” It’s patron saint is an image of the Public Enemy rapper Flavor Flav, depicted here with his trademark oversized timepiece.

Tyree Guyton’s “The Times” conveys a certain urgency. (Steve Weinik/Mural Arts)

I talked about the project with a man named Robert Moore, who works at the neighboring veterans’ center. “It gives a sense of life and hope to people who have been hopeless,” he told me. “It’s something we could use more of around here.” A young man saw us gazing at a construction depicting Flav and trailed us to the car, throwing down more or less the entirety of Public Enemy’s “911 is a Joke.”

The collaborations are real, but so are the conflicts.

A work at Penn Treaty Park, near the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood of Fishtown, appears like an apparition: “Plainsight Is 20/20” is a large earth-mover, covered in reflective chrome, clutching a tree in its claw at the site where, tradition has it, William Penn reached an agreement with the Lenape tribe. The work is by RAIR (Recycled Artists in Residency), which offers artists a massive site for architectural salvage in Northeast Philly. It’s a complex commentary on the rapid destruction and redevelopment that is happening in the area—the excavator is at once glamorous in its chrome armor and threatening. Before you realize that it is intended as a work of art, you might think it's there to dig up your park.

Dig it: “Plainsight is 20/20” makes a shiny statement about Philly’s redevelopment boom. (Steve Weinik/Mural Arts)

At most sites, the monument itself is accompanied by a lab consisting of half a shipping container in which Penn students and other young people are taking proposals and holding conversations. The young woman at Penn Treaty told me that some construction workers from the condo rising on the other side of Delaware Avenue came over to admire the piece on their lunch break. “That's the baddest-ass earth mover I ever saw,” one told her, she said.  

In Washington Square in Old City, I sat with the artist Kaitlin Pomerantz, whose work “On the Threshold” has replaced some of the park benches with Philadelphia front stoops, salvaged from houses that are being torn down around the city. Parkgoers were scattered on the stoops, doing what people do on stoops: people-watching, staring at their cell phones, and talking to one another. I was in the process of expressing my appreciation for the work when an older woman  walked up and looked around angrily. “What was wrong with the benches?” she said to the square. “These things are going to give people sciatica! Who the hell did this?”

“I did,” Pomerantz admitted sheepishly.

When you’re making art in the public square, everyone’s a critic.  

Kaitlin Pomerantz with her work “On the Threshold” (Steve Weinik/Mural Arts)

A few blocks north, in Franklin Square, Kara Crombie installed what she called a giant boom box, dubbed “Sample Philly,”that allows visitors to create remixes out of samples of Philadelphia music—hits by Hall and Oates, Archie Bell and the Drells, Teddy Pendergrass, and the Roots (plus the NFL Eagles fight song). I saw kids and parents playing with it, and had a go myself, with limited success. But a young man who described himself as a “sometimes DJ” strolled up and spent 20 minutes constructing a mix over the bassline of the O’Jays’ “For the Love of Money.” It sounded great, and a couple of kids from the nearby playground started shimmying around to the beat.

In Marconi Plaza in South Philly, local artist and activist Shira Walinsky has installed a modest-seeming enclosure which she calls “Free Speech.” It constitutes a place for refugees living in Philadelphia to tell their own stories in images, maps of their routes, and poetry, among other media. It seems homespun but it is also itself an enactment of the politics that Walinsky seeks to embody, incredibly varied in its languages and voices from all over the world. At the opening, Walinsky was accompanied sunnily by a teenage former refugee, Khin Aye, whose family left Burma in 2007 for Malaysia, and from there to here in 2011. She struck me as quite Philadelphian.

Perhaps the most directly aesthetically compelling work, however, is Karyn Olivier's “The Battle is Joined” at Vernon Park in the Germantown neighborhood. Olivier, born in Trinidad and based in Philadelphia, encases an existing monument to a Revolutionary War skirmish in a box of rippling mirrors. As you approach, it is almost invisible, reflecting a whirl of leaves and branches and sky, in motion as you are. The young woman working at the lab, Sakinah Scott, remarked that, as you get still closer, “You see yourself as a living, breathing monument; it reflects an ugly history and a beautiful day.” A church group, she said, had come out Sunday morning to “praise dance” beside it.  

Sight unseen: Karyn Olivier's “The Battle is Joined” is a nearly invisible monument.(Michael Reali)

Olivier’s work is quite a complex commentary on the idea of a monument, which it simultaneously conceals and reconstrues. It shows as a monument whatever is near it, and adds an element of joy or celebration that is conveyed above all by its beauty. Indeed, many of the works, though they engage particular problems seriously, also monumentalize a future they would like to help create. They have to make room for pleasure as well as confrontation.

The theme of the living monument, or the self as monument, honoring the variety of individual and group identities as they (we) exist now in the city, run through many or even all of the works. Taken as a whole, both the exploratory art and the collaborative or combative responses yield multiple reconceptions of the topology, uses, and meanings of public space.

One thing we may learn during the monument wars is that we are very likely to have to keep rethinking and remaking every bit of every city, more or less continuously. As ownership of public space is always contested, interpretation of the city as a work of art or as a scene of conflict is always volatile. No parade of generals goes on forever, nor should it. I will be sorry to see many of these profound and innovative works disappear, but perhaps we should be thinking about public spaces as more vital and volatile than monumental.

In any case, it will be interesting to see what happens next in Philadelphia; some of the same people fighting to remove the statue of Frank Rizzo might soon be fighting to preserve the Afro pick.

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