Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Decorating Dense Cities with Relevant Pastel Tidbits

I once lived in a densely populated and profoundly unattractive urban setting: China in the late 80s. In those crammed cities, which had streets jammed with bicycles, almost everything built in the preceding 40 years was pure ugly, blocks after block, kilometer after kilometer, and whatever wasn't pure ugly-functional was either clumsy Communist propaganda, or the nascent scratchings of commercial interests that would eventually...well you know that part.

But no matter how hard you try, resin statues intending to illustrate how great life is while working or fighting, or giving birth, or combinations of those, for the greater glory of the State just make people feel miserable. "Like what?" you ask, "Do you have any examples?" No, please don't, don't make me. "No, seriously, what do you mean that they just make you feel miserable, how could that possibly work?" OK, take a look at this. Remember, you asked:

Base of Ginormous Mao Statue, Shenyang, China, 1987. Meant to be triumphal, actually oppressive.

OK, you may be thinking, that's not too good, but how bad could it get? It's just public art, and you can always ignore it, and anyway, you mentioned the block after block of ugly, didn't the statues help a little bit? Here, check this out, and see if you have any last shred of that optimism about State art isn't squashed right out:

Extolling the virtues of the One Child policy, a small park in Dalian, 1987.

OK, I'll make it stop, you know I have better stuff coming, but I just wanted to illustrate how bad it can get. You have to leave out propaganda, politics, and commerce for that matter, and in my opinion go for something relevant, local, meaningful, and perhaps peculiar. Possibly with historic relevance, although that's optional, there are certainly many other sorts of local connections that can be worked into pleasing public art as well. Recently while toodling around Old Town Scottsdale after a much longer ride, I came across some historically relevant pastel tidbits of art just sort of scattered around an out-of-the-way corner that seemed like just the ticket: Here is Hidden Histories for Old Town Scottsdale by Elizabeth Conner et. al. 

Human-scale, local, relevant, color. With barrel and other cactus too.

What are these objects? Handouts provided...

I was naturally curious about these objects, what they were, why they were here, and upon walking up closer to them, found the information and handouts above. The handouts encourage you not only to walk around this group, but on reading them, you find out that there's another group somewhere nearby, though not entirely obvious exactly where, encouraging you to stroll around a bit reading about the history of this little corner of the west while trying to find the other group. To just pick a couple of things off the list, from the photo above, and ignoring a bit what the plaque says about it because it is somewhat interestingly out of touch compared with the precision of the handout, 

"Boot: From its founding in 1888 through the 1950s, Scottsdale was home to many farms and ranches. This boot was patterned after one the artist saw at the Saba's family store. This boot also carries a reminder of the Rusty Spur Tavern on Main Street, a 1920s vintage building that originally housed the Farmers' State Bank."

"Bell: Image of the bell honors two Old Town historic properties: Old Mission Church, located directly across the street, and Little Red Schoolhouse, a block away on Main Street. Mexican immigrants volunteered in 1933 to build the Mission Church and its distinctive bell tower. Long-time residents remember the school bell that called students to class at the Scottsdale Grammar school, built in 1909." There's more, much more, but you get the picture. 

There are  many more objects in this little "nicho", or niche. See below for a pottery jug, grinding stone, car tire, ice blocks and tongs, a boxing glove, a rose, a wash tub, and a brand with TWMWT for "The West's Most Western Town," one of Scottsdale's taglines.

One view, but to really see them all, you have to walk among them, and get around them.

With Mission in the background

So then, with my handout in hand, I cruised around the area on my bicycle, looking around for the other group of objects, Diorama, on Second Street, which was said to include a "Salvaged Wall, with recycled door", as well as an electric fan. It took me a few minutes, but I found it.

Electric fan, orange slice, cowgirl hat, artist's palate, salvaged door: this must be the place

Canteen, cotton bale (E.O. Brown and partners built a cotton gin at the foot of Brown Ave in 1920...)

Those objects do it for me. One trick that people who are able to remember long strings of facts use is to associate each one in their memory with an object on the street at a particular spot along a familiar route. That's pretty clearly what these are: the method of loci, a walk through the memory palace. That green canteen? That's for water, long ago brought by the canals of the Hohokam people, then later by those who came after them, down to today in canals and regulated by the zanjeros who siphon and valve and gate it down its various shoots and pipes and sluices and ditches and pumps.    

Of course, this particular envisioning of this memory palace is part of a larger street setting, with commerce, and propaganda, and wealth, and poverty, and other beauty, and probably its own fair share of the ugly, like all cities. But these relevant pastel tidbits scattered around dress the place up a bit, and anchor it in a bike ride down a familiar route, now connected in memory to some context, some stories of this place.

Hi, I have this kind of, um, big old Mao statue, how much could I get for it do you think?


  1. Seattle needs a Mao statue to go with their Lenin one. It is near the Troll.

  2. Steve I think I would prefer to see them add historically relevant pastel tidbits.

  3. Boy, now I wanna make something really big.

  4. limom, one very large industrial teapot, please.

  5. Interesting. I've never seen the 2nd one, the Diorama, even though I've worked in Old Town for years.

    1. I came across it due to the handout, which mentioned it and sent me seeking it out. Last time I was by there the handout bin was empty, though.


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