What does the Plensa installation say about the Bull City? | Arts Feature | Indy Week

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What does the Plensa installation say about the Bull City?

A beam grows in Durham

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"Bridge to the Sky" under construction
  • "Bridge to the Sky" under construction

The sweet pretty things are in bed now of course
The city fathers they're trying to endorse
The reincarnation of Paul Revere's horse
But the town has no need to be nervous
The ghost of Belle Starr she hands down her wits
To Jezebel the nun she violently knits
A bald wig for Jack the Ripper who sits
At the head of the chamber of commerce

—Bob Dylan, "Tombstone Blues"

"Bridge to the Sky" is the rather vapid title of a public art piece that will soon illuminate a portion of the Triangle's airspace when the new Durham Performing Arts Center is open for business. Light will emanate from a recess in the ground, an opening covered by a 13-foot-wide cast-aluminum disc that will bear passages about murder and sleeplessness taken from Macbeth, one of Shakespeare's bloodier plays. (Download a PDF of the plans.)

The work is by Jaume Plensa, and it will belong to Durham come Dec. 1, when it will be unveiled for the public at the DPAC plaza.

Although we're told of Plensa's many commissions around the world, Durhamites haven't discussed the aesthetic merits of his work, other than some scattered unease about the presence of the homicidal, ill-starred Macbeths.

The desire of the Durham community, its city fathers and its business captains, to brocade DPAC, its $46 million public investment, with prestigious art is understandable. When one factors in the negligible cost to taxpayers, it's hard for the city to say "thanks, but no thanks" to this particular bridge from Jim Goodmon, Raleigh resident, local media and sports baron, and patron of the Catalan artist.

But there's something slightly amiss in how those few Durhamites paying attention—in the middle of a historic national election—have rushed to embrace the "internationally renowned" Plensa for reasons that have less to do with art and more to do with local boosterism and a need to one-up Raleigh.

Indeed, Raleigh seems to be the counter-example to Durham. In 2006, Raleigh City Manager Russell Allen, after civic debate and feasibility studies, recommended the city reject an ambitious Plensa project that would have brought a dizzying matrix of overhead water and lights to the re-opened Fayetteville Street. The rejection came in spite of $2.5 million proffered by Goodmon that would have covered a quarter of the initial cost.

Kimerly Rorschach, director of Duke's Nasher Museum, is an enthusiastic backer of the DPAC Plensa plan. She says that other than the common figures of Plensa and Goodmon, the Durham and Raleigh scenarios aren't analogous. "These things can be contentious," she said by phone while traveling in California. "In Raleigh there were traffic issues, and public money was to be used in a way [the Durham project] doesn't. It was an elaborate process, and the more elaborate it is, the more things can go wrong."

In contrast, the approval process in Durham has been so sudden and free of red tape that there scarcely was time for public comment, let alone the formation of public opposition. Indeed, such protests have come from distant corners of the Triangle, including two amateur astronomers, one from Raleigh and one from Apex, who are concerned about the light pollution from the project. They've posted a Web site, stopthelightsculpture.com, where they hope to build opposition.

Chris Waldrup, of Apex, told the Indy: "People say, We're not from Durham, so it doesn't concern us. But it does concern us: 7,000 watts shining up, reflecting off clouds. At a time when they're asking us to conserve, use less energy, it seems wasteful when we need to spend money on other things."

Waldrup says he's heard from Durham city council members Diane Catotti and Mike Woodard, who reported that the council is addressing the environmental issues by buying a $30 carbon offset and arranging to place a filter over the lamp that will cut the part of the light spectrum that affects birds.

So, with a carbon offset purchased, the birds' safety assured, and private funds for its installation and upkeep, what's not to like about a project that Rorschach calls "the right work, at the right place, at the right time; a great thing for Durham"?

11.6-plensa.jpg

Well, for one thing, Plensa has done his light-beams elsewhere, including a very similar piece in Gateshead, England, that was erected in 1996. Photos online reveal an industrial cityscape dominated by a piercing blue beam. It's an unmissable spear of light—beautiful or annoying, depending on your point of view. When "Bridge to the Sky" opens, Durhamites will have a point of view.

Plensa's most famous American piece, the "Crown Fountain" in Chicago's Millennium Park, is certainly prominent: Two 50-foot glass brick towers are superimposed with digital images of Chicagoans' faces; occasionally, water spurts forth. It's an undeniable draw for children and tourists, but the Chicago Tribune was less impressed:

"'Crown Fountain' ... offers too little for contemplation, substituting tenpenny humanism and playground action. [...] So decades hence, when downtown Chicago looks like the Los Angeles of Blade Runner, we can point to 'Crown Fountain' and say with pride, the blight began here."

Also, the presence of Shakespeare's scary power couple isn't new to Plensa, who has used lines from the sanguineous Scottish play as long ago as 2000, according to The New York Times.

Still, most artists work just a few tricks, and the similarity of "Bridge to the Sky" to other Plensa works doesn't necessarily diminish its merit. But, it does bring home the fact that Durham, which prides itself on being different, is getting something that exists elsewhere in very similar forms.

What if the city were to think more progressively about its choices of artistic symbols? What, after all, is the light sculpture but a phallic obelisk that boasts for miles around of its own magnificence?

One Durhamite, Ross Grady—a WXDU DJ, IBM employee and past winner of this paper's Indies Arts Award—says "we should be having a legitimate dialogue about Durham's willingness to say 'Thank you, please, may we have another' anytime Jim Goodmon opens his mouth/ wallet, and ... about light pollution in the Triangle."

Grady points to a recent New York Times story about sky-darkening efforts in Tucson, Ariz., a decades-long project initiated by area astronomers that has become a civic mission that may gain traction in other communities. To Grady, the article's point is that "we don't have to accept the current brightness levels of our urban night skies."

Corresponding by e-mail, Grady characterized himself as a skeptic of the Plensa project, rather than an opponent. Still, he says, "I think it would be a lot cooler if Plensa could come up with a plan to make a cone of actual darkness in that sector of downtown's skies, perhaps by refitting all the outdoor lighting within some radius around the DPAC, and then giving us a viewing platform above the level of the lighting, so we can see what it's like."

That's an interesting idea, but it's also not what Durham's about right now, for better or worse. Durham clearly isn't about making things darker or more modest. Durham is rising, and it wants everyone to know it.

"Bridge to the Sky" will be unveiled at the DPAC open house scheduled for Monday, Dec. 1.

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