Projects

Guiding Stars: a public artwork at Bay Meadows, San Mateo

My first terrazzo.

How will you stay on course? What are your guiding stars? What moves you to race ahead or slow down? When do you soar?

Christine Wong Yap, Guiding Stars, 2017, terrazzo, 31 x 31 inches. San Mateo, California // Photo Source: cityofsanmateo.org

The Project

Last year I was invited by art advisor Lisa Lindenbaum to develop a public artwork to be permanently installed at Bay Meadows in San Mateo, California.

As many Bay Area residents know, Bay Meadows was a racetrack. It closed in 2008, and has been converted into a housing development. There’s a publicly-accessible town square lined with shops and restaurants, with Jeppe Hein’s mirror installation in the middle. And a few steps away, you can find my little terrazzo.

 

Research

When I got Lisa’s invitation, I thought about how Japanese Americans were forcibly relocated to California racetracks before being sent to internment camps. But I learned that Bay Meadows was never an assembly center. It was the only West Coast racetrack to stay open and in operation, because owner Bill Kyne made a deal with the government to donate 92% of profits to the war effort.

Over several months in 2017, I conducted research. I knew that Ohlone are indigenous to the region, and I learned about Bay Meadows’ history as an airfield; that the wildlife observed in 1797 included grizzly bears, black bears, antelope, and sea otters; that Bay Meadows was home to Seabiscuit’s records in 1937 and 1938; that there were even Indy car races in 1950-51 and NASCAR races in 1954-56; and more. (For better or worse, to this day, Google’s algorithm informs me of every mountain lion sighting in San Mateo.)

I also had a very pleasant chat with Peninsula Humane Society/SPCA Captain Jeff Christner. He confirmed that there still are coyote, lots of jack rabbits, and burrowing owls in the area. It’s always nice when you reach out to a stranger, and when you explain your art project, they think it’s fun and are happy to help.

 

Paths Not Taken

I got a lot of information, and incorporated some into my sketches. I couldn’t possibly fit everything. The materials of terrazzo—an aggregate like glass or stone in cement—and the small square footage available require limited detail.

Here’s an earlier design I was pretty fond of…

like all who wander, find sanctuary, or savor freedom here, we move to experience the world, our selves, and each other. take the lead, take flight, prowl, sprint, soar, slow down, shift gears, swoop

A preliminary sketch with a thoroughbred racehorse, mountain lion, Mission Blue butterfly, coyote, cyclist, jack rabbit, biplane, and red-tailed hawk.

 

I liked thinking about how Bay Meadows has always been about movement. It made me think about enjoying the body’s capacity for self-propulsion—just how nice it can feel to move your body through space.

Public art projects involve so many partners. Huge thanks to Lisa, who coordinated the stakeholders, met with fabricators, and even checked in with stonemasons who would be setting the terrazzo, not to mention interfaced with the client and architects.

On another note, early on, I’d considered doing a mosaic, and I reached out to Stephen Miotto. He’s created around 40 NYC subway mosaics over the decades. When we talked, he was nothing but friendly and helpful. I hope one day to get to work with him. In the meantime, I’ll enjoy seeing his work around town differently, knowing that a master craftsman made the mosaic by hand.

 

Guiding Stars

Like much of my work, the final design is less of a picture to be viewed, than an invitation to reflect and interact. Here’s what I wrote for the plaque:

Guiding Stars uses a compass as a metaphor for the continual evolution of a place and its inhabitants. Approached from any direction, it invites viewers to center, re-orient, and pivot, as they consider moving forward in space and time. Movement is characteristic to all phases of Bay Meadows, as a place where Native Americans gathered, airplanes took flight, thoroughbreds raced, and people commute, live, explore, and celebrate life.

 

Fabrication

I bought pure pigments from Kremer Pigments in NYC. The sales people were super helpful, which I appreciated since I’d never made a terrazzo before. Kremer is a painter’s wonderland. When I left the store, I felt like my eyes had had an optical experience—I just wasn’t used to seeing so much pure, vibrant color. It was a special treat. I love that small specialty businesses like this still exist in NYC.

From there, I shipped the pigments to American Terrazzo in San Francisco. They were founded in 1906 by an Italian immigrant, whose family has kept the business going in the same location for four generations! They have a huge shop hidden behind a house in the Laurel District in San Francisco.  I hope they get to stay in SF for many more generations. (If you haven’t given terrazzo much thought, start looking around, and you’ll notice how quintessentially San Francisco terrazzo staircases are.)

The zinc water jetting was done by their partners, Manhattan American, in North Carolina.

David at American Terrazzo was upfront about how working with new pigments would require making test tiles. When I visited their shop, they had this 14-foot rainbow waiting for me.

Color test terrazzo tiles.

After we adjusted the colors, they made the final artwork. I love how it all came together.

Finished terrazzo, before installation.

 

Guiding Stars, installed. // Photo source: cityofsanmateo.org

 

I feel so honored to create a public artwork in San Mateo County. I grew up on the peninsula, and my family still lives there, including many relatives in the city of San Mateo. My mom and aunts and uncles may be immigrants from Vietnam, but the peninsula is where they feel most at home now. The compass in Guiding Stars sort of marks a spot where you can think about where you are coming from and where you want to go, and how you will get yourself there.

Guiding Stars is installed in the plaza at the corner of Delaware & Franklin Parkway, in San Mateo, California. You can go see it, and answer for yourself:

What are your guiding stars?

What moves you to race ahead or slow down?

When do you soar?

How will you stay on course?

 

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Citizenship

Notes on Monuments

I am fascinated by the debate around Confederate monuments. (Anti-racist, anti-white supremacist action is, of course, paramount. I’ll return to that in a follow-up post.) Here are some reasons I’m fascinated with the dialogue around monuments.

Statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee being in New Orleans last May. Photo: Scott Threlkeld/AP

We are having a national conversation about public art.

Usually, art and artists are on the margins of society. It’s rare when art or issues around art are widely discussed by the mainstream.

Most Americans have never studied visual criticism, art history, or public art. They may have never made art, cast sculpture, or considered the role of public art. Some people even think they hate art and talking about it (“I like art that speaks for itself”). It’s very interesting to see so many Americans having strong opinions about monuments right now.

 

Monuments are an unlikely lightning rod.

I probably pass a dozen historical statues every week and rarely take notice of them. I take it for granted that they valorize dead white men. They don’t relate to me and they don’t appeal to me; I often find realism and portraiture visually boring. These statues mimic classical Greco-Roman style; they’re elevated on high plinths. This creates hierarchical assertions of power. I’d rather see democratic spaces that are flexible and responsive to local communities and contemporary concerns.

Statues of historical figures mostly convey significance. As didactic tools, their efficacy is limited. They lack the multiplicity of voices and perspectives that makes history compelling and relevant.

For white supremacists and anti-racists/anti-facists/Black Lives Matter activists (activists for racial justice), Confederate monuments are a battleground for a dialogue about race in America. It’s interesting that much larger, and more intangible cultural and political forces—ongoing systemic and institutional racism, of which police brutality has become increasingly visible and publicized due to digital technologies, and Trump’s fear-mongering nostalgia and xenophobia inflaming a base precarious due to neoliberalism and deindustrialization—are manifesting in a dialogue about relatively boring public art.

It is also fascinating how these sculptures have existed for decades, but their meanings have become heightened via political climate, political will, and people’s organizing.

 

What I learned in art school

It’s easy to ridicule the impracticality of art school. But ideas and skills I learned in art school inform how I understand monuments, which I find especially helpful right now.

  • Monuments are subjective. Via critical visual studies, one may deconstruct what is shown (i.e., a depiction of an idealized general, emphasizing honor and bravery, in a neoclassical style that lends prestige and timelessness) and what is not shown (i.e., the horrors of war, the people affected by war, slavery, and racial injustice).
  • Monuments serve agendas. Monuments are very expensive, heavy, space-taking tools for memory. That memory is crafted by the powerful. Many of the contested monuments were created in the Jim Crow era. They depict Robert E. Lee, but the contexts of their creations suggest that they memorialize a past when white power and privilege were legally and violently enforced.
  • Monuments are contestable. Everything is up for debate. Meaning relies on context, and context is variable. In fact, one of the most indisputable arguments for removing a Confederate statue is bad context to begin with (e.g., Lee’s connection to NOLA was insignificant, thus the statue was out of place anyway). And nothing is permanent. Only a small proportion of art is preserved. Museums regularly acquire and de-accession artworks. Preservation is subject to re-evaluation. (Though monuments aspire to look like they have stood since time-immemorial, societies decide if they’re going to maintain them, power-wash the pigeon poop, fix or ignore oxidation, patch erosion of the plinths, etc.) Monuments are parts of cities, and cities are layers—palimpsests that are constantly rewritten. Displaced monuments tell stories too.

 

Artists helped spark this debate.

Wynton Marsalis played a pivotal role in the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue in New Orleans. Artists can have political power. This is an important example of how artists make change by writing an op-ed and speaking to public officials.

 

What makes good public art?

Lucy Lippard’s The Lure of the Local is a fantastic book for thinking about place and place-related art. She actually says that little public art is actually public—much is private because of whose interests it serves. She defines public art as

“accessible art of any species that cares about, challenges, involves, consults the audience for or with whom it is made, respecting the community and environment.”

Furthermore,

“a public art exists in the hearts, minds, ideologies, and educations of its audience, as well as in their physical, sensuous experiences.”

She also poses these questions:

Who defines public?
What defines a public space?
What kind of art occupies it best?
How does and can an art in the public realm communicate these ideas about place?
What are the responsibilities of a public artwork to the place, and to those who live there?

I like how this resonates with Marsalis’ proposal:

We should transform the current Lee Circle into an inviting space that celebrates the communal intentions of the international community that helped us survive Katrina. This place would fill the heart of our city with something uplifting for us all and for all times.

The removal of Confederate statues provides some opportunities to be more creative and generative.

Where should the sculptures go?

  • We could create a space like Memento Park in Budapest, a Communist statue graveyard for contemplation on dictatorship.
  • A museum of slavery or about the legacy of slavery. The presence there of displaced monuments would add dimension to how memorialization is ongoing.
  • Perhaps the bronze could be recycled into a sculpture that is more interesting, compelling, modern, and progressive. It could become a public park element like a fountain, bench, or shade that welcomes all.
  • Perhaps the statues can be chopped up into small pieces that are distributed as mementos of a successful anti-racist people’s movement. (I am aware of the gruesome resonances of this.)

What to do with an empty plinth?

I really like the Fourth Plinth in London’s Trafalgar Square. Originally meant to house a sculpture that was never made due to lack of funding, the empty plinth became a city-run platform for rotating public art commissions.

Of these, my favorite is Antony Gormley’s “One and Other.” The empty plinth became a stage for 2,400 UK residents to occupy as they liked, one at a time, for one hour at a time, for 100 days and nights. It’s a breath of fresh air to see living, diverse, wacky, everyday citizens use a place of prestige in a public space. Here’s a great video.

Antony Gormley, One and Other, 2009. Photo: Peter Maciarmid/Getty.

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Meta-Practice, Research

many artists who are commissioned by producers are already successful gallery based artists, being brought into the public realm with a support team in place.
The speakers acknowledge the need to change institutional structure in order to allow new forms of public art to emerge, and the need for artists, producers and curators to gain skills to make public art work in reality. Another change that might be interesting to explore is how public art could shift hierarchies, and allow artists at different stages of their career to develop projects they have already initiated.

Katy Bienart, “Lighting the touchpaper: Public art as situation or spectacle,” Public Art (Now) blog, April 27, 2015

Katy Bienart on Public Art (Now)

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Research

Ellen Sebastian Chang’s and Maya Gurantz’ live video feed public art project, A Hole in Space (Oakland Redux), was inspired by Kit Galloway’s and Sherry Rabinowitz’ 1980 Hole in Space. But instead of inviting the public on opposite coasts to interact as in the original version, Chang and Gurantz sited the project for residents of North and East Oakland. See Sarah Burke’s “Artists Create Two-Way Video Portal for Oaklanders to Meet Their Neighbors” in the East Bay Express (January 28, 2015).

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Art Competition Odds

Art Competition Odds: 2014 Art Moves Billboard Art Festival

The 2014 Art Moves Billboard Art Festival received 566 applications for ten exhibition spots, and one cash prize.

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Selected artists comprise about 1:56, or 1.7% of applicants.

The cash prize winner comprised 1:566, or 0.17% of applicants.

See all Art Competition Odds.

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Community

New Rules of Public Art

I love Public Art Now’s latest post, New Rules of Public Art.

Public art is complicated, from the politics to the logistics. There are concerns about its appeal, offensiveness, safety. There’s the convention of permanent monuments. There’s the instrumentalization to serve bureaucratic civic outcomes or constituencies or corporate sponsors. All these things add up to can’t’s and shouldn’t’s about what public art can be.  

These new rules are great, because they’re interesting and enthusiastic. They embrace and celebrate the risk-taking inherent to public art. I love the optimistic, energetic attitude. I dare you not to be inspired.

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Sights

see: nicholas elias’ the geometry of innocence

Nicolas Elias. The Geometry of Innocence, 2009. Acrylic sheets (Perspex). Sculpture by the Sea, Sydney.

Nicolas Elias. The Geometry of Innocence, 2009. Acrylic sheets (Perspex). Sculpture by the Sea, Sydney. Source: nicholaselias.com

Love the simplicity and scale of this work of public sculpture.

More photos of The Geometry of Innocence on the artist’s blog.

Part of Sculpture by the Sea, an exhibition series in Sydney.

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