Austin's unique "BE"

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Austin: A Temple for You

Public art in a city can reflect and steward its unique meaning.

And so it does in Austin, where we have a number of iconic artworks which convey "be yourself" to visitors and inhabitants. Murals like Hi, How Are You? (Daniel Johnston), Greetings from Austin (Todd Sanders), i love you so much (Jo's Coffee SoCo) convey the care with which we treat each other and our journeys. The HOPE Outdoor Gallery is a collaborative art space where all are welcome to contribute. Three Austin heroes have statues around town. Angelia Eberly (Pat Eliphant, CAST) saved Austin as the capital of Texas by sounding the alarm. Stevie Ray Vaughan (Ralph Helmick) and Willie Nelson (Clete Shields, CAST) embody our live music and the spirit of expressing yourself. And perhaps soon, Leslie Cochran, who was so inimitably themselves, will take their place in the Austin pantheon. Even Eeyore, whose birthday Austin has celebrated since 1963, has a statue.

In the fall "Austin" by Ellsworth Kelly will open on the lawn of the Blanton Museum. The project was introduced in late 2015 and has been in construction. Just as AKHOB reflects Vegas as the City of Illusion, "Austin" evokes Austin's "be yourself" ethos. As if to describe the city of experiences that Austin is, Simone Wicha, Blanton Museum director described it as, "... a space you walk into and experience." Which Austin is she describing - the art piece or the city itself?! Kelly envisioned it as a place of contemplation, a spiritual place. On each of the walls of its three axes are circular panes of multi-colored glass, arranged in different configurations and projecting light into the space. To the ATXequation, these represent Austin's scenes and the communities and experiences for the individual to explore. Along eye level are black and white yin-yang squares, each comprising different shapes. From the spectrum of possibility, a set of choices to be made about who we are and how we express various aspects of ourselves. They remind us that there is no one right way to be yourself and each one of us must find our unique expression in the world. In the chancel is the only object in the structure, a solitary obelisk. It's a literal "I" standing in for the individual for whom this temple exists. It is both a space to reflect on and a metaphor of our (I)ndividuation; the never-ending journey of becoming ourselves.

This fact of our uniqueness was solved by Kelly in a most curious way. As art historian Yve-Alain Bois explains (texthe spent a lifetime eliminating the "artist's hand" trying to achieve impersonality and non-agency. Responding to Picasso, whose hand was so ever-present in everything he did, Kelly went the other way, trying to take individuality out of the frame. In these efforts he arrived at 5 methods: transfer, chance, grid, monochrome panel and silhouette. Through all of these efforts, practiced over many decades, the exact opposite happened. Kelly "proved' that the individuality cannot, in fact, be removed. As Bois points out, "nothing is more recognizable than a work by him and nothing is more idiosyncratic than what it picks doing so, he teaches us there are many more ways to see...his art is an injunction to explore in our OWN terms an expanded field of vision.

Chapels by other artists focus on what's "out there." Christianity as with Matisse, the void with Rothko. Turrell's AKHOB embodies Vegas by discombobulating the viewer and transporting them directly into the illusion. Austin does the exact opposite, gently embracing and holding space for us, providing illumination to and reflection for our unfolding journey.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Vegas: City of Illusion

If Austin is "be yourself" and LA is "be famous" what about Las Vegas? "Be your alter-self" is the phrase that often comes up. And indeed, Vegas is the place to indulge our novelty and stimulus-seeking primal brains, where we can participate in the activities that allow us to let loose and have a good time. Its monikers "sin city," "adult Disneyland" and tagline: what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas -  perfectly capture the city's unique ethos. More over, when Vegas tried to be family-friendly a decade ago, it completely flopped and returned back to its core.

How does Vegas pull off its "be your alter-self" theme? By turning the whole city into an illusion, a magic trick, a mirage. First, and most importantly, Vegas is a mirage in the desert of Nevada. It appears, most improbably, out of nowhere, especially when approached by road. As if to exemplify the point, one of the marquee hotels on the strip is called the Mirage. Vegas has housed the largest number of literal illusionists, including Penn and Teller, David Copperfield, Criss Angel and Siegried and Roy and Cirque du Soleil's incredible shows transport you to different worlds. The illusion continues as you walk into Paris, New York, Luxor and Venice. You listen to musicians playing cover songs, either of themselves or others. Elvis finished his career in Vegas, playing the Elvis of a bygone era. You engage in the illusion that you can make money at a casino, whose odds are setup against you. And even on the streets, the illusion continues as buskers and street artists help to complete the illusion. In that sense, it's even more impressive than Disneyland, where all the performers are employed by one company. In Vegas, thousands of "independent actors" human and non, work side-by-side to co-create the fantastic illusion. 

And soon enough, you will hit the limit of your primal brain's enjoyment and it will be satiated. It seems the average is 3 days, but it's likely not much more than 5! At whatever place you hit your cut-off point, you're ready to get back to your real life, having fully enjoyed the illusion. Vegas has done its good work as the temporary off-road for your primal brain.

In 2013, Vegas got AKHOB, created by James Turrell, whose artistic statement reveals his fascination with illusion and created realities which perfectly captures the city's unique meaning. It sits atop the Louis Vuitton CityCenter Store and can only be viewed by appointment. After you enter the chamber and stay for a while, things start to distort and your sense of time and space warp. The illusion is at work!

The stewardship of a city's unique meaning, is incredibly important because it orients visitors and inhabitants alike. Interested in illusion-making? Come to Vegas! Interested in fame and the creation of personal brands? Come to LA! Interested in discovering and expressing yourself? Come to Austin! And so on.