Thursday, April 08, 2010

The Dream

The Dream

The Dream

So this is the long-promised post about the very worst statue in Portland. Which, it pains me to say, is "The Dream", the MLK-n-Friends grouping in front of the Oregon Convention Center. It pains be because it's a great example of noble intentions -- or at least noble platitudes -- gone terribly awry.

The Dream

There's a plaque on the base explaining these intentions in excruciating length, which is never a good sign in itself. The idea is that everyone shares the same dream of justice, equality, peace, etc., and we're all striding together as one towards the glorious future, or something along those lines. Sure would be kinda neat if the world worked that way in real life, huh?

As an aside, The Dream bears more than a passing resemblance to old Soviet propaganda statues, which often depicted assorted proletarian types (usually a worker, a peasant, a soldier, an apparatchik from the Party, sometimes some token ethnic minorities, occasionally a scientist/engineer) striding together as one toward the glorious Communist future. I'm not trying to draw a moral equivalency here; I'm merely pointing out that the form is strikingly similar.

The Dream

So anyway, there's MLK for starters, stiffly and clumsily strolling into the future, and looking more like Sherman Hemsley's character on The Jeffersons than MLK.

The Dream

The Dream

Surrounding him is a diverse grouping of figures. On his right stands what the plaque describes as "a young man of the working class", at the precise moment he achieves class consciousness (although I don't think the plaque uses that term), rolls up his sleeves, and joins the aforementioned universal struggle. In the US his sort of thing is exceedingly rare, and you're far more likely to spot our blue-collared chum here shrieking incoherently at a corporate-sponsored Palin rally than lifting a finger to advance what you'd think would be his personal economic interests. This has caused decades of hand-wringing and head-scratching in academia, and endless indie documentaries and such, and we're not going to figure it out today.

The Dream

Behind MLK and facing away is a vaguely Hispanic-looking woman who symbolizes immigrants. She's looking around nervously, as if watching out for the Border Patrol, and water laps at her feet. I'm not too sure about this tableau here. It certainly looks like we're watching her sneak across the Rio Grande. Now, I was under the impression that was kind of a negative stereotype. And in any case, if you're trying for a sympathetic depiction of immigration -- beyond preaching to the choir, I mean -- this probably isn't the image you really want to emphasize. Just sayin'.

The Dream

There's one detail here that I suppose is to point out that this is merely the allegorical Rio Grande: If you look closely, you'll note a couple of salmon. You didn't really think it'd be bad art in Portland without any salmon, did you?

The Dream

And finally there's a kid pestering MLK. The plaque goes on for a bit about the allegorical meaning of the kid, but it doesn't make a lot of sense to me. Something about letting go of other attachments and going off to join the aforementioned glorious struggle, but I still don't get what the sculptor is trying to say here. It's as if the kid is here as an obstacle, rather than as a co-striver. It's all very incoherent, even for someone like me who generally views kids as antagonists. And besides, all statues of kids are creepy -- even the most technically skilled statue ever made of a kid still looks like Chucky. And all painted statues I've ever seen are automatically Bad Art.

The Dream

But wait, there's more! The fun doesn't stop with the statues. Look closely at the base of the thing: There's the plaque with the explanatory essay on it, and two more honoring people who apparently didn't make the cut for the main statue, or were added later to bump the diversity up another notch. That's the problem when you try to depict universal struggles: There's always someone else to include. So here we have one panel honoring Gandhi, and the other honoring Chief Joseph.

The Dream

At least I think the Gandhi one is supposed to be in his honor. It's the weirdest part of the whole sculpture, and I'm giving it the unofficial title of "Legalize It". So you've got Gandhi arguing with a lion, and there's a big scary mushroom cloud, and what looks like Indian and Pakistani guys arguing, and even a set of hear-no-evil, speak-no-evil monkeys.

The Dream

Chief Joseph is a bit more sedate, mostly just scenery. More salmon though.

Despite the two panels here, you can tell this dates from the early days of trying to include absolutely everyone. If you made something like this thing today -- not that I'm suggesting it -- you'd need more panels. You'd need a Harvey Milk at minimum, and someone in a wheelchair looking saintly; and others for the transgendered, little people, a fat activist, and probably others that don't spring immediately to mind. This will offend conservative types, and you may end up having to add a Bull Connor statue facing them all down, in order to be "fair and balanced".

The Dream

That's not the only way you could extend the thing, though. Our heroes are basically already arrayed in a defensive circle; why not have them fighting off an army of horribly mutated, inbred, redneck zombies? Ok, so the whole peace-n-love angle wouldn't work anymore, but you'd be adding the sort of awesomeness this thing desperately needs. And just think -- right now nobody makes a trip just to see the statue, and conventioneers likely barely notice the thing. But add some zombies and give MLK a chainsaw, and that all changes. Hipsters would show up by the busload from far and wide, their Holgas and Polaroids at the ready, many of them earnestly making indie documentaries about each other, or writing ironic hipster songs about the whole occasion. And I'd start a bar next door and overcharge them for PBR. So, yeah, the zombies would be in rather poor taste, but it might do wonders for the local economy.

The Dream

Items about "The Dream" from across the interwebs:
  • The artist's website has a page about it. His bio elsewhere on the site shows him wearing tie-dye. This would probably be a bad time to fall back on stereotypes about dreamy hippies and such, so I'm just going to say it's a telling detail.
  • The Convention Center's Art Map has a blurb about it, and the other artworks scattered around the complex.
  • Portland Public Art covers another work by the same artist, an obscure Lewis & Clark scene hidden behind some shrubs at the University of Portland.
  • Washington Post story about DC's new MLK statue, which is much larger and (to some critics) rather "confrontational", a term Dan Savage decodes as meaning "uppity".
  • Another article about MLK and the DC statue.
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1 comment :

Stephen said...

I totally dig your very well done blog. I am very interested in my city's neighborhoods, history, architecture & public art, etc...
your photography is world class & your writing & opinions are cranky & fun to read. Thanks! Consider me a fan.