An exhibition that would be a good fit for Philly

March 22, 2010

I was handed the newspaper and told, “This would work better in Philadelphia.”

It was Sunday morning but we were just getting around to the Weekend Arts section of Friday’s New York Times. The article was about a British sculptor, Antony Gormley, who is finishing up the installation of a public art exhibit amid part of the “built environment” of Manhattan. Entitled “Event Horizon,” it consists of 31 varying sculptures of a naked man – the sculptor himself – all standing in slightly different poses on streets, amid parks, atop buildings and on the ledges of office towers.

Alarmed New Yorkers have evidently already called the police to report imminent suicides. (“Interlopers on the Skyline,” March 19.) That wasn’t what the artist had in mind, even though it did stop people in their tracks.

Recalling the 2007 installation of the same exhibit in London, he told the Times that “gatherings of people would result” from one person stopping and pointing to what was likely a bit of a shocking encounter. “ … And quite quickly they would register their environment in a way they hadn’t before.”

Times writer Carol Vogel points out that the scale of London is much different than that of Manhattan, but the sculptor himself says it doesn’t matter for the works, which stand about 6 feet, three inches tall (cast-iron for those on the ground; fiberglass for those on buildings). Much of the exhibit is in and around Madison Square Park, east of Broadway and Fifth Avenue, and just south around the Flatiron district.

You can imagine the sense of place and eeriness that pedestrians encountered by taking a look at a good photo essay on the ’07 London exhibit, in the The Guardian here.

Where might they work in Center City Philly, which is of a much more Londonesque scale than New York?

Interesting site lines could be had by placing groups in two or three spots along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, especially since many of the boulevard’s cornice levels are uniform. Then again, pedestrians still need to pay strict attention to where they’re going along the BF Speedway, despite the improved street markings of the past few years.

I was also thinking of what real estate brokers call the “West Market office corridor,” from 15th Street out to the Schuylkill River, inclusive of JFK Boulevard. Arch Street, too, perhaps at 18th, site of the proposed American Commerce Center. Those blocks go dead at night, like the rest of Center City used to do after 6:30, and could use something to scare up some discussion aside from rising vacancy rates and open houses for empty condos.

“It has to do with questioning both the status of art and the nature of our built environment,” Gormley said in the article. “In a time of rising environmental awareness, it asks the question: ‘Where does the human being fit into the scheme of things?’”

In the end, my vote in this imaginary poll would be for the Market East area, the infamous “hole in the donut” in developer-speak. The Planning Commission is at work on a long-term scheme for the area (the core of which is bounded by 8th, 12th, Arch and Chestnut streets), with the center of attention at 10th and Market. The problem, in a nutshell, is that while so many things are going on around that core – Chinatown, Thomas Jefferson University, the Reading Terminal Market, the Convention Center, transportation hubs – most of it seems to back up onto Market, with no real entrances on the street.

It needs a presence, and what better way to call attention to the drab surroundings than a bunch of naked dudes standing stock still? There are some nifty balcony spaces amid the balustrades above the Convention Center sign on the old Reading Headhouse building. Place one statue (or three, even) on the top of the wretched Girard Estate property stretching from 11th to 12th on Market Street’s south side. 

The Gallery – on top of it, on the ground, hanging off the side, anything – is a natural for the installation. Maybe you could have a half dozen of them on the sidewalk there, arranged in circle of misery, like the Burghers of Calais at the Rodin Museum.

Across the street, too, in front of the five-story concrete bunker that’s two doors east of the Staples.

One could stand sentry on the lower cornice of Macy’s to summon the retail mojo of John Wanamaker. Below, there’s no shortage of barren spaces to the east and west of the intersection of 13th and Market, near the SEPTA offices on one corner and the surface parking lot on the other.

“The viewer in some sense becomes the viewed,” Gormley told the Times.

If Philadelphia could get a good long look at itself via the distorted prism of Market East, and through a six-month art exhibit or other means, our own event horizons for that vital area of Center City might get a little broader, and a little closer.

– Posted by Thomas J. Walsh

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