McSculpture for America
Three fundamental elements are paramount. First is sculpture as a focal point. Created by the renowned Mexican sculptor Victor Salmones, it is eight life-size figures passing through a maze depicting cancer treatments and success. It is placed in the most visible point in the park for passers-by because it needs no explanation. People can walk among the figures, touch them, walk through the maze and generally visualize themselves being helped. It is very moving. The second element in the park is a Positive Mental Attitude Walk. This is an area that a person can stroll through, meditate and read some 14 plaques; four are inspirational and ten are specific suggestions on fighting cancer. The third factor is a Road to Recovery with seven plaques explaining what cancer is and basic actions to successfully overcome the disease.
In Houston, the Richard and Annette Bloch Cancer Survivors Plaza is prominently located off Fannin on a median at the edge of Herman Park. Victor Salmones sculpture CancerTheres Hope is displayed facing a lane of oncoming traffic. Its that thing that looks like a multigenerational band of gnomes skipping through a giant cubist bedspring. Having loathed it from my drivers seat for many years, I had never actually seen the piece up close. Last month I drove over for a visit.
Salmones figures have the banal features of storefront mannequins. The figures seem even more stunted face to face than they do from a moving car, hitting me close to chin level. They sport huge, oddly sculpted hair that feathers into a kind of fin down the back of their skulls. An elderly lady looks like shes wearing an icebag on her head. A guy with a pompadour of Shoneys Big Boy stature holds what appears to be a small child executed with the curious proportions of a shrunken adult. Even within their own dwarfed world, some figures are freakishly out of scale with their neighbors.
Hairstyles and clothing reveal the sculptures 1980s origins. One woman sports a headband and what is supposed to be a tennis skirt. She seems ready to knock herself unconscious as she jogs through the bedspring. A man and woman hold the hands of a child swinging between them; the woman looks like a linebacker in her shoulder pads. The trio has frozen expressions of glee, apparently happy to be exiting the bedspring.
I hate this sculpture. Every time I drive past it, I have to resist the urge to hit the gas, veer to the right and plow my mini-van into it. All the while Im thinking, Ive got airbags and a seatbelt, this is doable.
How can you create a physical tribute to something as abstract as a disease, something that only makes itself visible when it creates human suffering? How do you make a monument about overcoming disease? The Pestsule (Pest Column) in Vienna is one amazing, campy seventeenth- century example. Erected in 1693 at the behest of Emperor Leopold I, the monument marks the end of the horrific plague of 1679. Now theres a monument. Yes, its figurative, but its over-the-top and baroque, packed with Biblical stories and loaded with un-PC allegorical allusions like an old hag with sagging breasts to indicate decay and dissipation. It alludes to triumph over adversity, but it does not illustrate it. There are no plague victims with shrinking boils. Figures emerge from cloud-like masses of carved stone and culminate at the columns pinnacle in a gilded symbol of the holy trinity.
Meanwhile, in sappy, feel-good, ber-positive America, we have a bunch of Barbie dolls skipping through a slinky. The blochcancer.org website also informs us that, The back five figures are cancer patients and their supporters preparing to enter treatment, which is represented by the maze. It asks us to notice the fear, determination and hope on their faces in contrast to the joy on the front three, signifying successful treatment.
Did this idea come out of a Jr. High School poster contest? Something about really bad public art brings out the worst in me, provoking violent fantasies. Dont ask what Id like to do to that fucking David Adickes ghostly cellist at Houstons Lyric Centre. But the Adickes piece is just a local aesthetic gaffe. The Cancer Survivors Plaza is a franchised debacle. Yes, believe it or not, that same awful sculpture can be found in a chain of Richard and Annette Bloch Cancer Survivors Plazas. There is a conceptual difference between a homegrown, dumbshit hustler like Adickes making bad public art and having something that sucks shipped in.
Victor Salmones, CancerTheres Hope
Richard and Annette Block Cancer Survivor Park, Houston, Texas
The Blochs exhibit a very admirable desire to help others, but there is an arrogance in the rigid agenda of their program. The emotional nature of this issue, combined with their financial wherewithal, has allowed them to foist their particular aesthetic vision on an ever-growing number of American cities. Richard Bloch is co-founder of H&R Block and has applied his gift for franchise to the non-profit realm. CancerTheres Hope is a McSculpture for the McFranchised Richard and Annette Bloch Cancer Survivors Parks found throughout the country in places like Phoenix, San Diego, Baltimore, Columbus, Kansas City, Omaha, New Orleans, Dallas, Tucson, Bakersfield, Indianapolis, Clevelandtwenty so far with six more in the planning stages and a possibility of expanding into Canada. Look out for skipping gnomestheyre coming soon to a park near you.
So far the Chicago location on Lakeshore Drive is exempt from the Salmones sculpture. The blochcancer.org website carefully states compromises were made because of the great location. According to a foundation spokesperson, the city of Chicago has a public art regulation that allows only for original art. It is therefore immune to McSculpture. (Imagine that!) But apparently, a more favorable public art commission is now in place, and the foundation believes things are on track for the addition of the sculpture to the site.
The Blochs and their organization insist that the sculpture is an integral part of the Survivors parks. They provide funding of $1,000,000 for such parks in cities of over one million inhabitants. Cities of 250,000 or over are funded on a restricted basis, but the organization will provide sculptures and plaques for all cities with over 100,000 inhabitants. Each city provides the land and is responsible for costs that exceed the amount donated by the foundation. According to the foundation administrator Vangie Rich, There is enough to build fifty-two more parks in large metropolitan areas. Yikes.
I suppose hating a sculpture called Cancer Theres Hope, is incredibly intolerant and insensitive. (What a bitch! Its about surviving cancer for chrissakes!) But human tragedy is no excuse for high-profile bad art or for well-meaning patrons to force bad art upon the public. Look at all the 9/11 stuff that has cropped upbronze eagles and firefighters galore. We dont need bad artists exploiting tragedy. We can all agree that things like cancer and terrorist attacks are awful, but do we have to trivialize them with schlocky art?
In spite of their taste deficit, the Blochs seem to be well-meaning, if egocentric, people. The intended effect of the work is to inspire and to inform. The adjacent plaza dubbed the Positive Mental Attitude Walk has bilingual plaques with inscriptions like Regardless of the prognosis, get an independent qualified second opinion.Richard and Annette Bloch Cancer Survivors Plaza. Or Have plans for pleasant things to do and goals to accomplish.Richard and Annette Bloch Cancer Survivors Plaza. Another plaque promotes the 1-800-4-CANCER hotline. Richard Bloch survived cancer and, since then, he and his wife have been devoting (their) lives to help the next person with cancer have the best chance of beating it. With the evangelical zeal of survivors, they have established cancer information hotlines and a web-based clearinghouse of information for physicians on current cancer research and treatment. Their efforts have undoubtedly helped save lives.
The design of the park spaces are generally mediocre, but things would be vastly improved if they could just limit themselves to didactic bronze plaques and leave out the Salmones sculpture altogether. I suppose the general tendency is to say, Well, if it helps somebody, whats the problem? Grateful cancer patients have sent the foundation photos of themselves walking through the maze. (And the work of Thomas Kinkade gives some people a warm fuzzy feeling!) But still, the Blochs inspirational goals could certainly be better achieved without employing a sculptural public eyesore.
The How to Get a Park for your City part of the blochcancer.org website states Constructing a Cancer Survivors Park is a win-win situation. No one is opposed to it. Statistics state that one out of three Americans will be diagnosed with serious cancer in their lifetime. Everyone has a friend or family member who has been stricken by its wrath. This statement equates sympathy and empathy for those suffering from disease with blind and uncritical endorsement of the Blochs specific agenda. When a project is proposed for a city, what official wants to come off as against a cancer survivors park or opposing an artwork about cancer? So this shitty sculpture keeps replicating itself in the medium of earnestness.
Goofy-looking figures and a patronizing concept demean the very thing they seek to ennoble. The lesson of Maya Lins Vietnam Veterans Memorial has yet to sink in for many individuals and organizations involved in public art. Literalists, unsatisfied with Lins design, insisted that an additional figurative memorial be erected with statues of soldiersas if the names of 58,000 dead werent enough. The Faces of Honor by Frederick Hart is a bronze sculpture of three soldiers standing with their weapons. We are supposed to look at the figures and, according to the artist, understand the bonds of love and sacrifice that (are) the nature of men at wartheir strength and vulnerability are both evident. Harts figures are essentially illustrations; they do nothing to address broader issues of grief and remembrance. Lins columns of names acknowledge the sacrifice of individuals while conveying a mournful totality. Her wall is a wound cut deep into the earth. Its polished black surface reflects the faces of visitors back at themselves, their images intermingled with the names of the dead. Lins memorial is inexorably identified with the remembrance of war precisely because it doesnt spell out how we are supposed to remember.
While the Salmones sculpture is less well-executed than Harts, both works share the same underlying problemsthey are pedantic, flat footed things that assume viewers are too stupid to get a point unless it is remedially presented. The bedspring is the only metaphor in Salmoness work, possibly because radiation therapy would have been too hard to sculpt. An artwork could achieve the Blochs goals of inspiring hope without resorting to figures with supposedly hopeful expressions. Lins work elicits an emotional response from the viewer. The figures by Hart and Salmones simply illustrate feelings for the viewer.
As a side issue, the idea of a cancer-themed monument in Houston seems kind of redundant. We are already surrounded by a host of monuments to cancerjust look at Texas City, Pasadena, Deer Park, and Baytown. Were all just a bunch of lab rats for MD Anderson Cancer Center anyway.
Now theres an idea for a sculpture about overcoming cancerif you are going to be dorky and literal about things, how about a model of a petrochemical plant sitting in the middle of a giant terrazzo plaza that diagrams the structure of a cancer cell? That would be more honest and certainly more locally relevant here in the city with the worst (or is it second worst?) air quality in the country. Throw in a map identifying the locations of petrochemical plants, what specific chemicals they emit, and the kinds of cancer those chemicals are known to cause? Perhaps, a computer terminal to chart pollutant drift patterns in relation to your home or your childrens school? Im certain the city of Houston would give that prime space on Fanninmaybe we could even get ExxonMobil to sponsor it!
But I digresslets all just hold our breath and focus on having a positive mental attitude as we skip through a giant slinky.