(Re)locating Public Sculpture in Chicago

by Jason Foumberg on March 4, 2013 cityArts

Vito Acconci's "Floor Clock II" in downtown Chicago

A strange thing about public sculpture in Chicago is that it sometimes has legs. It’s not everyday that these bronze and stone objects grow a pair and walk out of view, but several recent examples of displaced sculpture draw attention to the sometimes strained relationship between public art and the public.

Vito Acconci’s large, 72-feet-in-diameter timepiece, “Floor Clock II”, dominates a small public plaza alongside the river in downtown Chicago—except it no longer tells time. The kinetic sculpture was originally installed in 1989, in Pioneer Court, and then relocated a half-mile, in 1992, to Ogden Slip. The giant minute and hour hands were removed several years ago, presumably because visitors held the hands from progressing along their rotation, causing the clock’s motor to burn out, and the need for continual maintenance finally deterred the clock’s owners from servicing it. Today, the remnants of “Floor Clock II” serve as benches for office workers on lunch break. Ironically, prominently posted signs near the sculpture announce that the park closes at 11pm, but there is no signage indicating that this used to be an artwork. Scott Burton’s Seating for Eight also used to inhabit this same plaza, but as ownership changed several years back, the artwork was gifted and relocated to the Art Institute of Chicago.

Louise Bourgeois worried openly about vandals destroying her sculptures of hands in an Art21 video. The sculptures were commissioned by the Ferguson Fund of the Art Institute of Chicago, and originally sited in the Jane Addams Memorial Park, near the tourist-friendly Navy Pier in downtown Chicago, in 1996. The fingertips of the granite hands were repeatedly broken off. In 2011 the sculptures were relocated to the Chicago Women’s Park, alongside the Clark House Museum, in the South Loop, with the fingertips fully restored.

A much older sculpture—one with a controversial subject matter—has yet to find a permanent home. Carl Rohl-Smith’s bronze monumental sculpture memorializing a massacre of settlers by Native Americans is colloquially known as “Black Partridge“. Famously, it features a screaming infant with arms outstretched, symbolizing the twelve children murdered in 1812. The 1893 sculpture was sited in an industrial area of Chicago, formerly the original location of Fort Dearborn, and was removed to the Chicago Historical Society’s lobby in 1931. The representation of Native Americans bothered some Native American groups, and the monument moved again, in the 1990s, close to its original home, at Prairie Avenue and 18th Street in the Prairie Avenue Historic District. There it suffered environmental damage from nearby manufacturing plants, and it was once again removed from view.

When I spoke with Nathan Mason, curator of exhibits and public art for the City of Chicago, he told me that the question of finding an appropriate site for Black Partridge “comes up perennially but it doesn’t have a good answer.” Some are in favor of re-installating the sculpture at its historic site, which would contextualize the sculpture “as a valid piece of art for its time,” Mason says. Still, this “white elephant of public art” is in need of massive and costly repairs, possibly hundreds of thousand of dollars’ worth. Spending that kind of money on a controversial artwork could prove politically risky.

No Snow, No Show, from above

It’s oddly embarrassing—and expensive—when permanent sculptures by notable artists have to be removed. Temporary public art is one solution, which skirts the politics that weigh down permanent public artworks. Such was the premise for “No Snow, No Show”, curated by artists Lauren Anderson and Alex Chitty. The group show in the artist’s yard, dubbed the West Pilsen Sculpture Garden, depended entirely on a snow storm of 6–8 inches in order to activate the sculptures on view. It was a good bet, even in an unusually dry winter, and last weekend the sculptures collaborated with the snow and a bonfire was lit. The show was deemed over when the snow melted. The exhibition resembled the type of garbage that folks place in their coveted, shoveled-out parking spaces—what we here in Chicago call “dibs”—thus enacting our real-time civic identity in 3D.

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