Jaume Plensa’s “Crown Fountain”, commissioned for Chicago’s Millennium Park, consists of two monolithic structures (50’) situated on either side of a black granite reflecting pool. Faces appear on LED curtains within and gaze out soulfully across the pool at one another, then close their eyes and pucker their lips as a stream of ‘real’ water spurts in an arc from their ‘virtual’ mouths. At this cue a crowd of children run beneath the water and squeal with glee. The flow ebbs, the faces open their eyes, smile, and disappear ...replaced by another randomly selected video portrait from the 1,000-odd clips in the database. Subjects were not informed of the nature of the piece when recorded. To get the ‘spouting’ gesture, they were prompted to “blow a kiss”.
All very lovey-dovey.
Yet, at my first viewing I couldn’t quell the feeling there was something odd going on: all these parents watching, unperturbed as two strangers, evidently engaged in some form of intercourse -spiritual or otherwise- were spitting on their children. Albeit implicit metaphoric-type spit. It occurred to me there must be such a thing as a spit fetish.
This cognitive dissonance returns whenever I consider the problematic of ‘public art’ --especially public art that attempts to combine the monumental with the ‘interactive’ and ludic. Essentially, hybridizing these two impulses involves manipulating the public in a way that produces meaning beyond their own immediate interaction -the quasi-transcendent meaning that arises for the passive observer -or the prurient onlooker -the sort that looks good in catalogs: the Spectacular, which lies on a continuum with the pornographic. All the more problematic given the ‘civic’ context of a city park.
Whether Crown Fountain “works” as public art is an open question. In some ways, I’m delighted by how effectively it sets up an amusingly subversive scenario. Yet, I can’t quite get over my unease as the little kids squeal in delight, knowing that, like the double entendre’s in cartoons that are there “for the parents”, they don’t know quite “get it”. In this case, it’s not clear that the parents do either.