The Big Toe on the Obelisk; or, the problematic of the Perverse in public art

Curator's Note

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.


On the other hand, when it's 10,000 degrees in Chicago, it's kind of nice to sit in the pool and get spat on by smiling giant faces.  If you'd like to talk about modern day prudery, we could talk about old bronze fountains of young men pissing into the wind or maidens with gushing breasts. 

One of the things I think about sitting in this park is the "we-are-the-world" rainbow of races represented in the 1000-clips and who exactly ends up playing in this pool.  It's not really a neighborhood park (the neighborhood is mostly downtown-Chicago-finance and School of the Art Institute kids).  It's more of a park for some imaginary touristy United Nations.

And, my goodness, there must be some serious up-keep cash for that pretty public sculpture.

My concern isn’t really with prudishness. Or if so, in a very abstract way.

As far as I’m concerned, the ‘perversity’ of the piece is the most interesting part.
And that definitely extends to the mismatch you mention between the ‘represented’ community & the ‘participatory’ community.

I like the way it works as a semiotically self-regulating machine : even as resources (11,520gal H20/min. not to mention maintenance, etc.) are lavished through it on a transient tourist populace by the city, the actual (and in some neighborhoods, woefully under-served) residents of Chicago (represented virtually by the 1,000 portraits) are able despite their physical absence to collectively and viscerally ‘spit’ upon those tourists --and the whole mise en scene is itself a tourist attraction that everyone can enjoy.

If I think of this piece as intentionally manipulating the problematic inherent in a commission like this towards the end of pointing up those paradoxes when they might otherwise be effaced, then it seems like a great piece.

But part of that greatness would stem from the effective use of the public as a meaning-making component. Literally, a form of instrumentalization, and as such, pretty ethically dubious. Even if they are mostly tourists and no real bodily fluids are involved.

I guess my point is that something can be a great piece of art that involves public participation but still be a terrible piece of ‘public art’. Whether or not Crown Fountain is either, it makes for an interesting case study.

Yeah, this makes sense.  I love the details you have about the piece (that's a LOT of water). 

I just saw a talk by Erika Doss about monuments - particularly monuments down in Texas and New Mexico of Juan de Oñate, a Spanish conquistador who did some brutal and horrible things.  This from the mighty Wiki: "In October of 1598, a skirmish erupted when Oñate's occupying Spanish military demanded supplies from the Acoma tribe—demanding things essential to the Acoma surviving the winter. The Acoma resisted and 13 Spaniards were killed, amongst them Don Juan Oñate’s nephew. In 1599, Oñate retaliated; his soldiers killed 800 villagers. They enslaved the remaining 500 women and children, and by Don Juan’s decree, they amputated the left foot of every Acoma man over the age of twenty-five"  

Both in El Paso, TX and Española, NM there is a statue of Oñate.  This from Bashapedia: "In the Oñate Monument Visitors Center northeast of Española on New Mexico highway 68 is the 1991 bronze statute dedicated to the man. In 1998 New Mexico celebrated the 400th anniversary of his arrival, but that same year individuals opposed to the statue cut off the statue's right foot and left a note saying, 'Fair is fair.'"


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