Who deserves to be put on a pedestal?
A new public sculpture in Philadelphia has a suggestion: Maybe it’s you.
At 33rd and Chestnut streets, on the campus of Drexel University, an arrangement of granite plinths, some toppled, has been created by Chicago-based artist Theaster Gates. The stone blocks, called “Monument in Waiting,” are at such a height that passersby can sit or stand on them.
Perhaps as a sunny place to eat lunch. Or, to pose for posterity.
“The work is interactive. It is brought to life by people walking on it and looking at it,” said Harry Philbrick, director of Philadelphia Contemporary which brought the work here. “Children will likely jump up on top of the plinth and pose as a hero. Yes, that is encouraged.”
One of the blocks is carved with the phrase: “Until real heroes bloom, this dusty plinth will wait.”
“Monuments in Waiting” was made in response to the social unrest of 2020, when statues honoring Confederate figures were reassessed and sometimes removed.
Controversy over memorial sculptures also occurred locally in Philadelphia, where a statue of former mayor Frank Rizzo was removed, and a statue of Christopher Columbus became the subject of an ongoing debate that after two years has not yet been resolved.
In 2020, the Parrish Museum in Southampton, NY, commissioned Gates to create and install his piece as part of its Field of Dreams outdoor sculpture exhibition. The artist, who has a background in urban planning, often makes work from a social justice perspective with a particular focus on Black communities.
After the Field of Dream exhibition closed in August 2021, Gates’ studio looked to Philadelphia to give the piece a new life.
“He was interested in seeing the work in a different context, in a city,” said Philbrick. “They approached us thinking that Philadelphia would be appropriate. I think Philadelphia is really appropriate for this piece. This is a work about monuments and who we consider to be heroes.”
Philadelphia has one of the largest collections of public art in the country, but the vast majority of its figurative sculptures are of white men. There are scant few sculptures of Black people and women, and zero sculptures of historic Black women, a statistic that will soon change with two planned statues of opera singer Marian Anderson and abolitionist Harriett Tubman.
“Monument in Waiting” is located about two blocks from a major sculpture by Simone Leigh, “Brick House,” which prominently features an invented image of a Black woman.
The granite blocks in Gates’ piece have had a previous life: He sourced reclaimed plinths from actual sculptures or statues. Bolt holes that once secured sculptures in place can still be seen, as can remnants of sealant tracing the footprint of unknown previous works.
“This work is about monuments, but there is no monumental figure on it. Instead the public is invited to walk on it and interact with it,” said Philbrick. “We become the heroes or the protagonists in the piece.”
“Monument in Waiting” will be on view for a year, until summer 2023. Philbrick said Gates’ studio will be programming musical events at the site later this year and next.
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