Ghosts, Dragons & Spiders in Public Sculpture

October 31, 2010 at 3:34 am Leave a comment

Things that frighten us often involve memory and cultural context.
In the spirit of the season, here are three public sculptures that have the potential to shock, scare, and even make us smile.

Ghost Structure, Robert Venturi, Venturi & Rauch, 1976, Franklin Court, Philadelphia. Photo by author.

Philadelphia’s Phantom Place: Architect Robert Venturi ‘s 54’ tall steel sculpture, Ghost Structure in Franklin Court memorializes Benjamin Franklin’s home which was demolished in the 19th century.  Little is known about the appearance of the original exterior. In preparation for the bicentennial celebrations Robert Venturi of Venturi & Rauch was hired to design the monument.  In 1976 Venturi met the challenge by making  an outline of a house with the painted white steel beams.  The resulting form represents both presence and absence.  The haunting, empty feeling is heightened by inscriptions on the stone floor.  Visually this postmodern memorial contrasts with the historic red brick buildings in the area. However, Ghost Structure is a welcome surprise and apt materialization of what is lost, yet remembered.

Scary Parking in Philadelphia?:  Philadelphia is notorious for parking trouble.  So it seems appropriate that since April 2009 four bronze dragons have presided over a parking lot in Philadelphia’s Chinatown.

Dragons Guarding Arch Street Parking Lot, Ward Eliker, 2009, Philadelphia. Photo by author.

When I photographed these lanky, green hybrid monsters a woman asked if I was an art student.  She went on to say that a person would have to be an art student to like these dragons. For her the dragons were too hideous to admire.

Dragon on Arch Street, Ward Eliker, Philadelphia. Photo by author.

Although many people may also find these dragons frightening,  sculptor Ward Eliker had happier ideas in mind when he designed the work.  Eliker was inspired by Chinese folklore.  Similar to the dragons that grace the Chinatown Friendship Gate just a couple of blocks away at 10th and Arch Street, these creatures are symbols of fortune and prosperity. While in European folklore dragons are usually terrifying beasts that breathe fire, in Chinese culture dragons protect areas from fire.

To see behind the scenes images of the production process, check out Eliker’s webpage:

Giant Spider in DC: Many people fear spiders.  However, others find them intriguing. Louise Bourgeois’ monumental bronze spiders elicit this volatile mixture of emotions.  Last year Bourgeois’ spider and other works were exhibited at the Smithsonian Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Unlike Bourgeois’ frightening environments featured inside the museum, the outdoor installation of this giant arachnid generated many smiles.  After recovering from surprise, visitors playfully engaged with the work.

Louise Bourgeois' Spider at the Hirshhorn, DC, 2009. Photo by author.

For an in-depth study of the psychological dimensions of Bourgeois’ work, see Louise Bourgeois. Maman: For the Outside In by scholar Trisha McCrae. McCrae argues that Bourgeois’ work showcases how our fears are exaggerated.


Franklin Court Renovation Plan Needs Reworking, Philadelphia Inquirer, July 23, 2010

There Be Dragons: Behind the Scenes at the Creation of Chinatown’s Newest Piece of Public Art – Philadelphia Weekly

Chinatown to Get Bronze Dragons- WHYY News and Information

Entry filed under: Art, Material Culture, Memorials/Monuments, Public Art. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , .

October ArtHop: Met’s Big Bambú is Worth Experiencing November ArtHop: Slowing Down at Erin Shirreff’s ICA show

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