Public Exchange

Artist Mary Miss' plan for the space next to the new Federal Courthouse is vastly different from the statues and monolithic sculptures of the past. It's public art that actually keeps the public in mind.

Nearly 20 years since its installation, "Twain" is still a sore subject, as Miss has observed. "During the time I was doing my proposal," she says, "I was constantly hearing it referred to: "Well, we don't want anything like that.' It's still such a negative image in so many people's minds. It is totally the opposite end of the spectrum from the way I approach my work, but I certainly respect its right to exist. I'm just doing something that's different. I've moved in a different direction."

In Steinberg Hall, though, Miss is not about to discuss her personal reconciliation with the work of artists such as Serra — a generation of bulls known for their muscular, monolithic objects — even though her proposed project for St. Louis would connect the slim corridor between Clark and Market with the Gateway Mall and, ironically, with Serra's "Twain."

Miss presents herself as a different kind of artist, one whom local artist Bob Hansman introduces as "not one of those artists who leave town before the art hits the fan."

Jennifer Silverberg
Richard Serra’s “Twain” remains a sore subject in St. Louis 20 years after its installation.
Jennifer Silverberg
Mary Miss’ “Pool Complex: Orchard Valley” at Laumeier Sculpture Park

Again, in relation to Serra, Miss' proposal for public space adjacent to the courthouse has little to do with making singular objects marked by her signature style. For example, she has her own installation at Laumeier, "Pool Complex: Orchard Valley," where she took the site of an abandoned swimming pool and adapted it into a trellised walkway and seating area. Many people wouldn't think of this as a work of art, or as sculpture, which is fine with Miss. She chose the garden trellis-like structures for their sense of familiarity rather than to make structures that would stand out as exceptional forms. "I know that people would be able to relate to them in that way," she says. "Yet there is something different about them, and they're creating situations that are not just the same, so people are experiencing that. And when they go away from this place, they have the memory of having experienced it there, and as they move through the world, they'll start noticing these structures again. It's got a lot to do with memory — not nostalgia, but how memory functions in all of our lives and determines our future."

With the city in the throes of demolition addiction, crushing more of its heritage to dust by the hour, Miss' proposal for public space acts as an antidote, a reclaiming of memory and history. She seeks ways to make historical reflection a central component of the site. Part of her creative process has involved immersing herself in the city's history, with numerous visits to the Missouri Historical Society to explore artifacts on exhibit and in storage. She's examined a 19th-century book, Compton and Dry's Pictorial St. Louis, with images of the city as it existed at the height of the Industrial Revolution. She's visited the old Lemp Brewery to study the remains of former buildings in storage there, taking note of such details as the limestone foundations particular to the city.

Projects such as these are by their nature interminably on hold, so Miss is still exploring how these elements can become parts of a whole, to form an appealing public space within the urban environment. Instead of the traditional plaza of statues and fountains, or forged metal, Miss is thinking of a greenspace that reflects St. Louis' history and projects ideas of a more positive future. Her plan — a work-in-progress — includes a line of trees and native prairie grasses inserted in the urban corridor along 10th Street. Structural fragments from old buildings, saved from demolition, decorate the site, with some functioning as impromptu chairs and benches. The full facade of one of those buildings might be laid flat, working as sculpture, playground and seating area, and as a reference to St. Louis' past in juxtaposition to the skyscrapers that make up its present. In Miss' study of old city maps, she's found where the outline of Chouteau Pond was once located on the site. Now a forgotten bit of St. Louis history, in the 19th century Chouteau Pond collected toxic runoff from downtown industry, becoming the source of cholera epidemics in the city. Miss conceives of a narrow reflective channel that would collect storm-water runoff. Cleansed naturally by a series of plant beds, the resulting pool would mark the former Chouteau Pond and demonstrate advanced ecological practices.

"How can we deal with urban place-making in our time," Miss asks the audience, "and redefine the way the built and the natural come together without a collision?"

She emphasizes that she is an artist — not an architect, not an urban planner, not a landscape designer — and to her this means she has an obligation to open new tracks of thinking, explore new territory. In the midst of a technological revolution as all-encompassing as the Industrial Revolution a century before, Miss calls for the artist's participation in this rapidly evolving society, to take part in the critical task of understanding "our future sense of locating ourselves."

Going public

The procedures through which public art is selected, funded and made have changed significantly since the day Serra's "Twain" appeared in the middle of the Gateway Mall or, more to the point, since his "Tilted Arc" was removed from Manhattan's Federal Plaza in 1989. The de-installation of "Tilted Arc" closed a decade in which artists, in Miss' words, "were the bad guy." An aggressive Republican Party, eager to condemn any ill-spent tax dollar, found artists an easy mark. Artists work in the territory outside the status quo, if they're doing their job, subverting institutionalized thinking. You don't discuss religion, sex or politics in mixed company, but here were artists such as Andres Serrano placing a crucifix in, he said, his own urine, photographing it with exquisite lighting effects and calling it "Piss Christ." Or Robert Mapplethorpe, photographing friends and lovers in bondage gear, or pissing on each other, or engaged in a good friendly fist-fuck. The '80s were a decade in which artists were told to mind their manners or all those government dollars would be taken away. And, for the most part, considering the 40 percent cut the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) sustained — accompanied by the elimination of grants to individual artists — the cultural money flow was stopped.

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