David Bermant Foundation: Color, Light, Motion
A TRIP TO HAMDEN PLAZA, OR PUBLIC ART FOR THE GENERAL PUBLIC
David Bermant is generally thought of as a collector of kinetic sculpture. However, his large collection of sculpture built from modern materials (not only kinetic sculpture) is only one part of his enterprise. Bermant made his money as the developer of shopping centers. Over the years, he has placed around 90 works of contemporary sculpture in five of his shopping centers. These works, placed in direct contact with audiences far from the critical dialogue of New York are on their own afloat among the television tutored of suburban America. To understand Bermant's approach to siting public art, it is necessary to experience these shopping centers firsthand.
Driving into the Hamden Plaza on the outskirts of New Haven, one is not struck by any great abnormality. The architecture is quite unexceptional, the typical strip mall that was prevalent before enclosed malls became so popular in the late 1970's. However, upon closer inspection, the unusual nature of the mall unfolds.
Along the sidewalk that runs in front of the stores, there are works by artists like James Seawright, Art Spellings, Cork Marcheschi, Clyde Lynds, Maura Sheehan, and George Rhoads. The works are generally enclosed in large glass boxes for protection from the elements and vandals. Each work is accompanied by a highly visible sign that identifies the artist, gives brief biographical information, and discusses the meaning of the piece, In some cases the viewer is asked to participate by pushing a button to activate the piece, or. in one case, to play a set of bells.
More than anything else Hamden Plaza is an unpretentious setting for art. We are used to looking at art in a context that valorizes the work: in a stately building with Greek columns on the front, or in a perfectly clean white box. To see art in a shopping center, especially one that makes no attempts to cater to the elite, is startling. As Hans Haacke has pointed out in a career of art/criticism, corporate collecting is often a way for a company to gain power, to reach public relations goals through alternate means. This element seems to be lacking in Hamden Plaza. The people who stop to look at the art are curious, and they may return to the mall to see the work but few if any relate the art to the owner of the mall. The art is not a marketing ploy, nor is it an investment.
Why, then, place his work in the shopping center at all? The work is there because it is felt to be appropriate public art, art that is not simply what the public wants, but also not work that the public cannot understand. The public reaction is a mixture of indifference in some cases (certain people won't respond to art under any circumstances, it is sad to say) and genuine curiosity. While some people simply walk by, others are engaged by the work in a distracted manner -- shoppers stopped by something completely unexpected. The work's presence is not aggressive or overstated. lt is present for those who are interested in a new experience.
The true masterpiece at Hamden Plaza is SITE's Ghost Parking Lot, a huge sculptural installation built for and in the parking lot The work integrates the aesthetic and sociological setting perfectly. In fact, the piece is so well integrated into the site that it seems to be sinking into the lot, or growing from beneath it. Even the white lines that demarcate the parking spaces are continued in the sculpture. However, more than the formal integration of line, texture, materials, Ghost Parking Lot addresses the actual social use of the site. We drive to the mall, park, walk directly to a store, and walk back to the car. Often, if the second store we wish to visit is at the far end of the mall, we move the car rather than walk around the horseshoe of the mall. The whole experience is automotive. (Parenthetically, this somewhat anti-social aspect of the strip malls may have been an important factor in the popularity of the enclosed malls. While there is no meeting place in the strip mall, the enclosed malls are often "hang-outs:' places for social interaction. In Hamden Plaza, this negative situation is mitigated somewhat by the sculpture along the sidewalk. One is drawn down the path by the art work.)
While Ghost Parking Lot reproduces quite well in photographs, its relationship to the site is more complex than it might appear. The entrance to the mall is framed by the sculpture, which bends through the front of the lot. It is like a triumphal entrance, though it seems somewhat ironic. The piece also seems to predict the demise of the car culture, in its appearance as an archeological site, a ruin. The most prominent car in the piece is from the 1950's, already a relic from a former age. The work functions on many levels and informs the site. Equally effective when viewed from car or foot, it makes the viewer (the shopper) stop and examine his/her surroundings in a new way.
Ghost Parking Lot differs from the other works in Hamden Plaza because it is site specific. However its presence in the shopping center is a result of the same impulse: to present the public with challenging work that relates to their lives. Whether the public is included through participation, through the use of the technology that controls their lives, or through the use of objects and images from everyday life, the work reaches out to these people in their routine setting.
Tom Finkelpearl is a curator and artist living in New York. He is the Clocktower Director for the Institute for Contemporary Art.
This essay was written for the catalogue for the exhibition P.U.LS.E. (April- May, 1987, in New York).
This brochure is sponsored by Art For Public Spaces and Hamden Plaza, in conjunction with the David Bermant Foundation: Color, Light, Motion.