Monuments of Latin America, reconsidered, at the Museo del Chopo

Pablo Helguera, O gran Tlatoani, aqui esta el plan de arte publico, 2009

The exhibition Monuments, anti-monuments, and new public sculpture opens with a joke: Pablo Herlguera’s Artoon about a fictitous pre-Columbian ruler’s plans for a new monument ends with the punch line: “public art is not for the public but for the government.” A healthy skepticism runs throughout the exhibition at the Museo del Chopo in Mexico City, whether looking back at the optimistic modern sculptures erected along the 1968 Ruta de la Amistad for the Olympics games in Mexico to a critical reappraisal of the monument among a later generation of artists across Latin America.

Helen Escobedo & Paolo Gori, exhibition copies from Monumentos mexicanos. De las estatuas de sal y de piedra, 1980

A selection of photographs from a photo book published in 1980 introduces the turn toward critical reappraisal of monuments in public space. The black-and-white images of public sculptures across Mexico suggests their plethora and diverse contexts. In the range of historical figures represented, it also begs the viewer to question the history that it represents: why these men (and they are mostly men), and why these moments from Mexican history? Looking at their dynamic, impressive poses in a serial fashion, one after the other, each becomes less individually powerful. It creates the impetus in the viewer to question the root of society’s desire to memorialize personages who are tied to conquest, now-defunct political parties, and war as well as the manner and style in which the statues are made.

Exhibition view of models for the Ruta de la Amistad

The ambitious project of building monumental sculptures along the Ruta de la Amistad in Mexico City is represented here through models, photographs, and a 1970 dance video with Raquel Welch dancing in a space-age bikini in front of the sculptures. The ebullient tone of the colorful models and the gyrating dance both speak to a hopeful future. The different ways of learning about the Ruta de la Amistad show not just the sculptures, but their reception and later their fall into neglect. Care of public sculpture can easily become a monumental task as well.

Installation view with sculpture by Juan Fernando Herrán and photographs by Iván Argote

As the show broadens out, into the present and beyond Mexico, curator Pablo León de la Barra asks us to rethink the real and symbolic occupation of public space in Latin America. Occupation is a key word for these countries with their colonial histories. Juan Fernando Herrán’s series A Thousand Heroes is represented here with a rough wood base for an absent sculpture. Its function, to subvert the basic mechanism of power on which such monuments rely, speaks to the particular context of the artist’s native Colombia. Many of Colombia’s 100-year-old statues were imported from Europe, so that its nation-building project was made through the techniques and hands of its colonial masters. At the same time, Herrán’s empty pedestal speaks across that particular history to any society where heroes and leaders are absent from memory. Two photographs by Iván Argote, from a series called Turistas, likewise questions the stone leaders of Bogota. Argote photographed sculptures of European leaders, carved in western attire, wearing traditional ponchos. Below, Christopher Colombus points south, but the gesture is hollowed out by the poncho he is wearing. The colors of the poncho echo the colors of the graffiti that has accumulated at the statue’s base.

Iván Argote, Christopher pointing out the South, at Bogata, 2013

Across the course of the show, the optimism of the massive modernist sculptures created for the Olympics in Mexico city in the late ’60s gives way to criticality and suspicion in several works that consider the destruction and movement of monuments. The shows ends on a political jab, bringing the monument, or a satirical reversal of it, into the present moment with a grotesque plaster form of a florid Donald Trump laying on the floor. Created by a collective of Puerto Rican artists in the past year for an exhibition at Proyectos Ultravioletas in Guatamala City, Radamés “Juni” Figueroa, Melvin Laz, and Rafael López use the opposite of the glory and power of the monument by putting a form of the current U.S. president on the floor, shirt unbuttoned over a protruding gut, tongue sticking out. It is titled Bad hombre.

Installation view featuring Radames Juni Figueroa, Melvin Laz, and Rafael Lopez’s Bad hombre (2017)


Pigeons Light Up the East River: Last Week for Duke Riley’s “Fly by Night”


“Wanna go to a pigeon art thing in the Navy Yard?” Generally, when I’ve asked this, my friends give me skeptical looks. I get it; pigeons are not usually the vehicle for art and I myself am not a huge pigeon fan. Living in New York, I tend to ascribe them all the health and cleanliness of our subway rats. But Creative Time‘s latest summer intervention in public space is changing my mind.


The premise of the Fly By Night is that artist Duke Riley has raised and trained some 2,000 pigeons that he keeps in coops on a retired war ship in the Brooklyn Navy Yards. As dusk on weekends, the pigeons are released to swoop and sweep across the sky with very small but bright LED lights attached to their legs. Against the night sky, they create a shifting constellation of lights that is sweet, subtle, and enchanting. When I viewed it from the roof of a nearby wine bar, I and the rest of the crowd were entranced for the long show, like children watching quiet fireworks. When I saw it last night, after waiting in the stand-by line for tickets, the crowd was excited, letting out big gasps of excitement as the pigeons were shooed by handlers off the coops and flew out right above us.

The performance is durational, occurring over about half and hour at the onset of dusk, and not precisely controlled. People on deck let the pigeons out of the coops and then wave big flags in the air, which seemed more like gestures that would keep the birds aloft than specific ‘pigeon signaling’ technique. The birds tended to fly in one of two small flocks, but I certainly saw rogue pigeons breaking from the generally cyclone-esque formation of the others. It is both an ambitious and modest approach to nature: ambitious to control so many live animals for a light show and modest in that it does not seek absolute control but allows the birds to fly according to their natures. That is, Riley cannot truly control how each bird will fly. I wonder if he can really know if they will all fly home when the whistle blows at the end.


Fly By Night recalls in its title the night missions of birds used as messengers, and the project as a whole recalls the history of raising pigeons on city rooftops, which Riley has done for some time. It’s easy to forget several things about this teeming, dirty, built-up city–and the ever-present nature in the form of pigeons and the water encircling the boroughs is certainly part of that. Overlooking the East River on a summer night one sees the lights of city buildings rather than stars. But the pigeons’ shifting, live constellations of light bring a semblance of the night sky to anyone willing to pause and look. Sentimental? Maybe a bit. But fundamentally enjoyable and worth being reminded of.


This is the last week of Fly By Night–check it out this upcoming Friday, Saturday, or Sunday night either by showing up early to wait for a stand-by ticket, or viewing the performance from the rooftop vineyard Rooftop Reds or any other roof you can gain access to in the Navy Yards, or from Manhattan’s East River Park Amphitheater.

How to Drift in Daylight: My Advice

Dancing, acting, ice cream, the glimpse of a billboard–throw in dog walking, bicycling, camera-wielding tourists, and joggers and this describes almost any other day in Central Park in New York City. “Almost” is the operative word. Camouflaged within this green oasis are eight performative, perceptual, or participatory works of art sponsored by Creative Time as part of “Drifting in Daylight: Art in Central Park.” These new works shift the busy park from the mundane to the magical, albeit subtly and only if you allow yourself to be open to the experience.

Drifting in Daylight_map

I entered the park through the Westside 81st street entrance and followed West Drive north toward the Pool. Based on Creative Time’s map, I expected to come across Nina Katchadourian’s junk bird’s nests along the way. The refuse sculptural installations were too subtle for me, as I realized when I saw finally saw one later: black net and soccer balls dangling on high like a pair of teenager’s sneakers. I arrived at the Pool and, having missed Lauri Stallings + glo’s dance performance, was pointed in the direction of one of David Levine’s Private Moments. Royal and Etheline Tenenbaum (of the 2001 movie The Royal Tenenbaums) sauntered toward me around the lake, unremarked and alone. I continued to walk toward the actors and, as I came close, felt a sudden awkwardness. Was this definitely a performance? Should I stare and take pictures? I trailed them, listening as they recited a dialogue I remembered from the film. When they finished, they walked to a bench and I walked on, wondering if anyone else noticed this cinematic replay happening in real time.


Black Joy in the Hour of Chaos, Marc Bamuthi Joseph

I cut across to the Great Hill, as much for the restrooms as Marc Bamuthi Joseph’s performance piece Black Joy in The Hour of Chaos. The sight there stopped me in my tracks. Black bodies in red shirts occupied the highest point of the hill, alternatively singing, dancing, and speaking poetically in reference to current events. Black joy is a tough concept given the recent chaos that the country has faced. The performance felt timely and moving, not least because the audience was invited to come and help raise the performance tarp like a floating parachute in a gesture that both completed the performance and felt like an act of solidarity.


Sunset (Central Park), Spencer Finch

I again tried to find Lauri Stallings’ glo dance troop as they contorted and cavorted through the North Woods in a six-hour long choreographed loop, but to no avail. The timing seemed to only loosely match the schedule. I continued on to the Harlem Meer, where a representative of Creative Time informed me that the captain of Ragnar Kjartansson’s S.S. Hangover, an ongoing musical performance on a boat, had decided to dock because of oncoming rain. I was beginning to feel as if luck was not with me.

Walking around the Meer, I soon came upon Spencer Finch’s Sunset (Central Park). You would never guess that title corresponds not to a landscape painting but an ice cream truck, specially outfitted in dreamy pastel hues and with solar panels. I got a good look at this truck, because I waited in a half-hour line of excited children and patient parents. In terms of the pale orange scoop of ice cream churned out by the energy of the sun, it was not worth the wait. In terms of the experience of waiting, thinking about the sunset and simple pleasures, I’m not sure. Without much of a conceptual backbone, it verges on the saccharine.


Here and Now/ Glacier, Shard, Rock, Karyn Olivier

Walking with my cone on the path around the Meer, I encountered Here and Now/ Glacier, Shard, Rock by Karyn Olivier up close. I had registered this billboard as an unremarkable grey rectangle from across the Meer. As I walked up to it, I discovered it contained not one but three images. Depending on the angle I looked from, I saw a glacier, a pottery shard from a local historic settlement, or rocks like the contemporary landscape. All of these images relate to the land during different periods of time, reminding me of the long history of the place.


S.S. Hangover, Ragnar Kjartansson

The sounds of brass instruments wafted toward me. Continuing on, I spotted a white-sailed vessel near the island in the west end of the Meer—the S.S. Hangover was back in action. The small wooden boat, holding a six-piece band in formal dress, was anchored to the island. Gently swaying with the breeze, the sail flapped to reveal the blue Pegasus across it as a slow, melancholic tune spread out across the lake. I sat on a rock and listened with the others around me. Kjartansson’s work first appeared at the Venice Biennale in 2013, where the partially Venetian boat design dovetailed with the site. It bothers me that the piece is not site-specific, but rather a chunk of performative romanticism thrown into any body of water without thought to its specific relations. That said, the boat cuts a dashing figure.

And all directions I come to you, Lauri Stallings + glo

Finally, I headed back down toward the Pond. I would be early, but hopefully that meant I couldn’t fail to see to the glo dancers as they ended their performance, entitled And all directions, I come to you. I waited. Eventually one dancer came running up, under the bridge, up the steps, and away over the field around the lake, out of sight. Then one came who stopped and sat, head bowed, in the field. A magnificent spectacle. Her yellow dress draping softly over her poised body contrasted with the fresh green May grass. Dappled light filtered through old trees covered her. Central Park creates odd connections—this dancer faced an absorbed man reading in the grass further up the hill and behind her three young jazz musicians were busking at the base of a tree. No one but me seemed to be here for a performance, although an audience began to gather.


And all directions I come to you, Lauri Stallings + glo

The rest of the dancers arrived in ones and twos and haltingly converged on the space of lawn where the dancer in yellow sat. All were women wearing long, flowing dresses reminiscent both of Classical drapery and prom dresses. All making movements alternatively statuesque, feral, fast, slow, and occasionally a dance movement I was familiar with. Gradually their bodies came into harmony and they made the same movements, until one or two would break free and change the equilibrium of the line. The dresses in different single hues provided a study in contrasts, and rendered this avant-garde dance almost like a Vogue shoot, given the idyllic setting. The group left the lawn to crouch in a row on the shore of the lake, and then trickled apart and down the rocks of the nearby waterfall. Climbing, laying atop one another, pulling apart. Then, like a force of nature, they began to disperse again. Eventually I was left on the pavement while three dancers alternatively lifted one another up and laid low on the ground, legs akimbo in the sky. And then they too went away. And I went mine, out of the park, tired after four hours tracking down art installations.


And all directions I come to you, Lauri Stallings + glo

I had the wrong mindset when I approached “Drifting in Daylight.” I intended to use the map as a list, checking off works of art methodically. But this meandering experience is not easily contained—indeed I only saw a little over half the works. And my list-oriented, dogmatic self seems to have missed the point. I envy the people who suddenly stumble across a beloved movie made real, or stand in line only to be surprised that their ice cream is free and the color of the sunset. I envy those who are getting lost in the North Woods when suddenly a wild-looking sprite whispers something to them before running by and grinding strangely into a piece of earth. The unexpected mystery and joy of the project was lost on me. One can’t have it all, as I tried to. At best, one can have a small piece—a moment that becomes un-ordinary and magical.

Rather than demanding the passer-by’s attention, these works tempt people into a new openness and curiosity, a difficult task in a place as distraction-filled as New York City’s Central Park. My advice is: don’t be like me. Don’t say to yourself that you’re going to go see the new Creative Time art in the park. Just give yourself permission to take a Friday or Saturday afternoon to wander open-eyed and without a schedule. Let yourself be surprised by a world full of small, good things. Some of it might be the art. Some of it will just be life. And maybe that is the point.

On Fridays and Saturdays from 12 to 6 pm, through June 20. “Drifting in Daylight” includes work by artists Spencer Finch, Alicia Framis, Nina Katchadourian, Ragnar Kjartansson, Marc Bamuthi Joseph, David Levine, Karyn Olivier, and Lauri Stallings + glo. Learn more here.