Sunday, October 27, 2013

Man(hole)ifest Destiny: Printmakers Local 271 Belle Tower

Print from "Printmakers Local 271" by Jake Early

Nothing breaks the wilderness experience like walking through a supposedly wild place, then coming upon a manhole cover with something like "US ARMY CORPS OF ENGINEERS" on it, proclaiming the control of nature, even there.

Before you despair that I have once again made one of my offbeat leaps by connecting these lovely silkscreen prints of birds and cactus with manhole covers during one of my bicycle ride endorphin-fueled reveries, allow me to quote from the explanatory notes from the installation before I continue: "For this installation, Early created seven original silkscreen prints that merge manhole cover design and desert bird imagery to create bold, graphic patterned wallpaper and lighting shades, which encompass the Bell Tower and beyond. Using over 700 prints, the combinations create a dramatic and modern presentation, powerful from a distance but full of intimate detail as you approach more closely. Each of the desert birds represented in the prints chirp in the background creating a subtle ambience of sound. Pride of place is a continual thread in his work..."

I read that before I rode over to see the art, so I was naturally thinking of manhole covers. What resulted from this extended bike ride meditation on those round steel items of storm drain utility follows. This of course may have little or nothing to do with the actual intention of the artist, but it is where my mind went when it encountered these lovely prints.

When settlers arrive in a place to set up shop, there must be an extended period of time when their existence in that strange, new place feels tenuous, temporary, contingent. They may not succeed there. The crops may fail. Their ventures may go bankrupt. Disease, famine, war, competition, bad luck, drought, monster haboobs, politics, jealousy, revenge, pirates, black magic, smashing asteroids exploding overhead (great, just what we need), any or all of these might undo their grandiose plans, and send their constructions and dreams back to forest, sand, and water which they tried to displace. But once the manhole covers go in, I think a certain level of stability and prosperity must have been achieved, which portends an extended existence for the settlement. When the sewers and storm drains go in, you know you're going to be on the map for at least a while, I guess.

Given that, it's possible sometimes to read history in manhole covers. For example:

See what I mean? Giddyup!

Or, to continue the theme, check out this one I photographed in Tianjin, China:

"Concession Francaise de Tientsin", volumes of history in a steel disk. Near a former synagogue, too.

So, while I initially didn't understand, it made sense the more I thought about it. Then it made even more sense (and was also a flash of recognition) when I did a search for "Vaṣai S-vaṣonĭ" to find out what it meant.

Belle Art in the Bell Tower, Scottsdale, w/chirping bird manhole silkscreen print lampshade

The Autumn, 2013 issue of Granta (#125), "After the War," has a piece called "Stalkers" by Hari Kunzru in which tourists visit the exclusion zone around Chernobyl, which is notable in several ways, one of which is that nature—forest, animals of all sorts from moles to large carnivores, birds, plants, and insects—seems to thrive in this area made inimical for centuries to man by man. I imagine the busloads of residents leaving everything behind as they evacuated the city of Pripyat, banging over manhole covers on their rush from the radioactivity falling around them, with the wolves and bears peering from the forest, just waiting for them to go.

As they replace the crumbling enormous sarcophagus that currently barely contains the exploded molten ruins of reactor four, including the lava-like fuel-containing material (FCM), with the project called the NSC (New Safe Confinement), the largest moveable structure ever made, we the human race might do well to remind ourselves that the manhole covers on and around it do not portend our extended existence within that place, but rather the exact opposite, which began with the hasty retreat of tens of thousands from that place due to the disaster we made there, by adorning them with the figures that now dominate that landscape: the wolf, the bear, the mole, the glowing mushroom.

But, I doubt that the artist had Pripyat and Chernobyl, or even Ajo and our Palo Verde Nuclear Station in mind (although, with a name like that...). No, those colors, patterns, and bold designs proclaim, look, we made it, we're here, and we know of and embrace those things and creatures which make this place distinct from other places. The flora, the fauna, the history, on manholes we so enscribe. Perhaps something like this:

POW escape tunnel marker by Laurie Lundquist manhole cover that I also passed on this ride today

Although I have a bold imagination. Covering a reactor containment building with brightly colored, bold silkscreen prints of roadrunners, quail, gila woodpeckers, and other local creatures could be the smart thing to do. All things considered.


  1. The Papago Park escape was actually in late 1944, not 1943. The story is here at The ringleader was U Boat Commander Jurgen Wattenburg and the story was featured on the "Mysteries at the Museum" TV series.

    1. I think you're right, Steve, good catch. I need to stick a little silkscreen "4" on it.

  2. I noticed a manhole cover in Tucson, AZ, USA that has lettering clockwise starting at 10 o'clock, "City of Tucson" and lettering counterclockwise starting at around 7 o'clock back around to 5 o'clock, "Made in India." It isn't artsy, just an ordinary manhole cover getting the job done in its presumed final resting place.

    1. Although part of me prefers the ones made in Neenah, Wisconsin, another part of me is full of wonder at this age we live in, where we are able to economically make, and transport around the world, cast-iron covers for our sewers.

  3. Nice shots of Jake Early's work at the Belle Tower. I believe it will be up through January 2014 -- right next to the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts.

    1. Thanks! I really like Sean Deckert's shots of it on the Scottsdale Arts site:


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