Philly's big new art project asks: Who deserves a monument, anyway?

With more than 1,500 pieces of public art and monuments, the city of Philadelphia would seem to have thoroughly emblazoned its municipal landscape.

Yet when artist Sharon Hayes looks around, she sees what isn’t there. Ditto Marisa Williamson. And Karyn Olivier.

Where are the women? Where are the people of color? Where are the monuments to the city’s heroes of civil rights, its champions of the downtrodden? In fact, where are the downtrodden?

Others look about and see things they’d rather not. A lot of people think it’s way past time to remove the massive bronze statue of former Mayor Frank Rizzo from the steps of the Municipal Services Building facing City Hall.

Beginning Saturday, thanks to the Mural Arts Philadelphia, a sprawling project will unfold across the city providing tentative answers to some basic questions embodied in public art. What might we be as a society, and how should that be reflected in our monuments? Who are we?

Camera icon Steve Weinik for Mural Arts Philadelphia
Detroit-based artist Tyree Guyton works on “The Times” at Indiana and A Streets in Kensington. (Steve Weinik for Mural Arts Philadelphia)

Monument Lab, which will continue to unwind until Nov. 19, has asked 20 artists from Philadelphia and around the country to create monuments that would be “appropriate” for Philadelphia in the 21st century. The answers — in many ways, suggestions — will be found in the city’s five original squares, plus some outlying neighborhood parks and locations. Each project will have an attendant “lab” that will gather public responses. The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts will serve as a kind of exhibition hub.

Jane Golden, head of Mural Arts, said the project will suggest how “we want to be represented in the built environment.” Can, she wondered, “public art provide space for discussion and conversation” about fundamental questions concerning history, aspiration, and identity?

The timing couldn’t be better. As civic sculptures of the Confederacy are being challenged around the nation and a broadening awareness of the country’s racist past sparks controversy about other memorials, the Monument Lab project turns to simple, maddening questions about who decides what goes where and for how long.

“Time, money, and power can put up a monument,” said Paul Farber, managing director of the Penn program in the environmental humanities. Monument Lab, which in many ways seeks to broaden the playing field, began as “a series of conversations” several years ago in Farber’s Penn classroom, and in the classroom of his co-curator, Ken Lum, chair of fine arts at Penn’s School of Design.

They are hoping for “a shared understanding” of the city’s history to emerge through its monuments. But that may be impossible. Witness the controversy now raging over Confederate monuments.

For many whites in the South (and the North, for that matter), removal of such monuments constitutes a removal of history. President Trump tweeted last month that it is “sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments.”

But for many others, the monuments celebrate the worst America has to offer — the beauty lies in their removal.

Memphis officials, for instance, want to take down a prominent 1905 statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general and the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Tennessee state law has blocked any removal, setting off vigorous protests last month. Many wonder why a giant of the KKK’s violent past should be celebrated in a public square in 21st century America.

Camera icon MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
The statue of Frank Rizzo on Thomas Paine Plaza is joined temporarily by the new sculpture “All Power to All People” by Hank Willis Thomas, part of Mural Arts Philadelphia’s Monument Lab project.

And then there is Rizzo and his two tons of bronze, waving from the steps of the Municipal Services Building plaza, as though hailing a cab.

Attorney and activist Michael Coard speaks for many when he says, “The statue of this Northern racist official must be removed, just like the statues of the Southern racist officials must be removed.”

Monument Lab has stepped onto this highly volatile landscape with a variety of voices. Now near Rizzo, for the duration of the project, is a giant Afro pick, tapering to a bold Black Power fist at the end of its handle. Artist Hank Willis Thomas didn’t have Rizzo in mind when he made his Afro pick, but he has certainly created a dialog with the statue. Or an argument.

“We’re interested in understanding the monuments we’ve inherited with all their complexity, as well as unearthing a future generation of monuments,” said co-curator Farber, adding that he values “social justice and solidarity.”

Multimedia artist Sharon Hayes, whose work will be located in Rittenhouse Square, was struck by the absence of monuments to women.

Hayes’ piece, If They Should Ask, consists of nine cast-concrete pedestals encircled with the names of women who contributed to the city’s public life, potential memorial candidates. But there will be no figures on the pedestals. The public can contribute additional names to a website, iftheyshouldask.com, which will be operative after Saturday.

Marisa Williamson looked at the city’s landscape and saw ghosts, the figures of the city’s ignored and sometimes suppressed African American past. She designed a scratch-off map and a cellphone scavenger hunt. Hold your phone up to certain magical spots in and around Washington Square and a hidden performance will spring to life.

Camera icon Steve Weinik for Mural Arts Philadelphia
Artist Marisa Williamson created an interactive digital monument for the Washington Square area. (Steve Weinik for Mural Arts Philadelphia)

Her piece, Sweet Chariot, never renders history in real space. It remains invisible — “ghostly,” in Williamson’s view.

“I’m interested in creating a space in which people feel history,” she said.

For her piece, The Battle Is Joined, Karyn Olivier covered up the Battle of Germantown Monument in Vernon Park with a reflective acrylic surface, rendering it invisible. But in her view, the absence of the monument makes it more visible in “a neighborhood that was predominantly German but is now predominantly African American.”

What does that mean?

Camera icon Michael E. Reali for Mural Arts Philadelphia
Karyn Olivier’s “The Battle Is Joined,” located in Germantown’s Vernon Park, encases the monument to the Battle of Germantown with mirrored acrylic panels. (Michael E. Reali for Mural Arts Philadelphia)

“We know it’s not equal who decides what should be honored,” she said. “Can monuments be interrogated? Can they be investigated? Can we challenge them?”

Mel Chin’s Two Me is another group of pedestals in search of a monument. Two Me consists of two pedestals that are replicas of the pedestal for John Wanamaker Citizen, the 1923 statue erected on City Hall’s south apron. Chin’s pedestals are set within the City Hall courtyard along with massive ramps allowing anyone to ascend and commemorate themselves.

Chin’s piece is probably Monument Lab’s most direct engagement with the narcissism of the selfie culture.

“This project was actually conceptually driven by the question of what is monumental in our culture,” Chin said, answering for himself: the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. “One is talking about independence and unalienable rights of an individual and the next document goes into the social contract of we the people. That’s where this piece begins.”

Camera icon Steve Weinik for Mural Arts Philadelphia
Mel Chin, whose work “Two Me” is located in City Hall Courtyard. (Steve Weinik for Mural Arts Philadelphia)

His piece puts anyone — the “Two Mes” — on the pedestals where, side-by-side, the
Mes can be captured instantly in an iPhone pic. A monumental Me.

“You’ll have an Instagram of you being taken by someone who cares about you, to represent Me, which is you on top of this [pedestal],” Chin said. “Look to the left or the right, and there’s someone else who is also another me.”

All of these “monuments” are temporary. The only permanent one to go up during the run of Monument Lab — but not a part of the project — will be a traditional monument to Philadelphia’s O.V. Catto, activist and educator, who was gunned down by a white mob on election day in 1871.

Catto successfully fought to integrate the city’s trolley lines in 1867, and was a strong voice pushing for Pennsylvania to approve the 15th Amendment in 1871. He was a relentless advocate for black voting rights, which led to his murder. The Catto memorial on the south apron of City Hall will be dedicated Sept. 26.

Both Catto and the Monument Lab sculptures acknowledge the importance of public art in shaping the way a city or a culture views itself.

“People build these things in metal or stone,” said Marc Ross, professor emeritus in political science at Bryn Mawr College. “The idea that memories change doesn’t occur to anyone.”

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