The dubious environmentalism of modern public art

Plastic netting covered with LEDs, blowing over St. Petersburg’s old pier? Sounds more like an environmental disaster than public art.
Artist’s rendering of the proposed sculpture at night, courtesy of city of St. Petersburg, FL.

The Statue of Liberty has stood in New York Harbor since 1886. Conceived as a statement about the end of slavery, it has come to represent us as a nation of immigrants. Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC is another monument that speaks profoundly to Americans. The National War Memorial looms over the most important government buildings in Ottawa with its message of remembrance. Even the Eiffel Tower was designed as a symbol of modern science and industry. Such meaningful public art exists worldwide, in large cities and small towns.

Enter modernism, with its stubborn refusal to accommodate meaning. “The Kelpies”by Andy Scott rise 30 meters next to the Forth and Clyde Canal. They are best appreciated zooming past on the M9. They capture nothing of Scotland and certainly nothing of the shapeshifting, devious magic of the mythical beasts. There was Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s The Gates. I walked through it many times, trying to catch the magic. The magic, I decided, was in the coffers of nearby stores that catered to tourists. Then there’s Penetrable, by JesĂşs Rafael Soto. These urine-colored plastic shower curtains so disfigured Frederic Church’s Olana that they’ve been extended for another season.
Artist’s rendering of the proposed sculpture during the day, courtesy of city of St. Petersburg, FL.
The latest entry into the debate is a proposed sculpture at St. Petersburg, FL, by Janet Echelman. The $3 million net sculpture will be “made of the same material that is used for astronauts’ spacesuits,” said the Tampa Bay Times. I’m not sure what that means, since spacesuits contain nylon, Dacron, Neoprene, Mylar, Gortex, Kevlar, and Nomex. Another source said the sculpture would be polytetrafluoroethylene, or Teflon. Yum.

It will span about 390 feet and be high enough that it can’t be molested by humans waving hockey sticks, said Echelman. A member of the arts commission asked about fishing poles. Echelman hadn’t considered them. She should. I imagine there are fishermen quite capable of reeling in that sculpture on 130 lb. test line.  

And the sculpture will—of course—be brightly lighted, with LEDs in various bright colors.
Artist’s rendering of the proposed sculpture at night, courtesy of city of St. Petersburg, FL.
Ironically, the park for which it is slated was created to preserve waterfront green space. Spa Beach is officially a passive park, meaning that permanent structures (anything that will last more than six months) are banned. No problem. City Attorney Jackie Kovilaritch has said that “a substantial change of use” ordinance will be introduced to fix that pesky problem.
Echelman assures the city that her work is designed to be wind-resistant and that a consortium of engineers say it won’t end up as junk plastic in the ocean. Pardon me, but we’ve all heard that before.
Artist’s rendering of the proposed sculpture at night, courtesy of city of St. Petersburg, FL
There’s the question of light pollution and the possible impact on seabirds and sea creatures, none of which can be predicted with certainty. But mostly, to me, it’s a question of where people can go to get away from the endless energy, anxiety, and bustle of the ever-expanding human colony.
Let this be a monument of sorts, then—to the death of any sort of real environmental stewardship, to the end of our love of green space, a funeral marker for a planet that once knew how to sleep at night.