More Than Meets The Eye

This funky fella has been lurking Downtown for the last few months, and I finally got a chance to snap a few candid photos.

I can't imagine transforming into a bridge is all that useful, but I suppose it's more useful than a cassette tape

Transform and roll out! More photos behind the cut...

I bet getting that head to fold back in is a real bitch

I wonder if it sounds like Peter Cullen?

Pittsburgh old and new

Looking to the future (or maybe just PNC Park)

For those of you who still have no idea what you're looking at, that's a giant transforming robot composed of bits and pieces of some of Pittsburgh's famous bridges. Formally, it's an installation by Glenn Kaino called Arch, and it's located in a parking lot at the corner of Seventh and Fort Duquesne, right across from the Andy Warhol Bridge. It was installed last October as part of Pittsburgh's 250th birthday celebrations.

I think one of the reasons I like this piece is that it's open and accessible, while at the same time leaving a lot open to discussion. Does it represent that detritus of a once-proud industrial giant that's transformed itself into something new? Is there a reason that its pose is somewhere between a football player's three-point stance and Arnie's time travel position from The Terminator? Is there any significance to where he's situated? Is he a bridge to the future, a bridge to the past, or Rick Sebach's Bridge to Nowhere? Or is it just a kick-ass giant robot made of sheer awesome? There are a lot of ways to tackle it and they're all perfectly valid.

Arch is scheduled come down sometime in April. I'm hoping the city will buy it and keep it where it is, though. It's just a nice addition to the cultural landscape and I'd hate to lose it.

Don't Be A Vader Hater

After snapping my photos I jogged across the bridge to go see The Vader Project at the Andy Warhol Museum, a collection of replica Darth Vader helmets that have been modified by over 100 artists including Peter Kuper, Gary Baseman, Ron English, Joe Ledbetter, and Marc Ecko. The helmets have previously been exhibited at various Star Wars Celebration events, and given their inherent popism and potential mass appeal I'm surprised that they're only making their way to the Warhol now.

On paper this sounds like it would be right up my alley, but I found it strangely unaffecting. For every artist who re-cast their helmet in resin and buried a luminous rose-colored skull inside there's someone who just painted their helmet pink, slapped some gay pride stickers on the side, and called it "Gay Vader" — and the quality of the work on display is far closer to the latter than the former. So you get Army Helmet Vader, German Biker Helmet Vader, Kabuto Vader, Disco Vader, Blinged-Out Vader, Plush Vader, and so forth. There's even someone who's painted pictures of Bush and Cheney on the side of the helmets. The graffiti-inspired artists like Ecko come off better than the others, but I find it hard to appreciate their work as art rather than design.

What troubles me is that I can't seem to justify why I like Arch and not The Vader Project. In principle they're very similar, lurking at the intersection of high art and low culture, with a little something to appeal to everyone, so why did I enjoy Arch and hate Vader? Is it that for all its mass appeal Arch still seems to belong to a long tradition of public sculpture, while Vader seems more like a commercial project commissioned by Lucasfilm and cynically exhibited to boost museum revenues? Is it that Glenn Kaino seems to have put a lot of thought into the symbolism of his work, while the Vader artists seem to have scribbled the first thing that came to mind on their helmets? Is it because there's an ambiguity to Arch that seems to be lacking from Vader? Is the singularity of Arch more impactful than the mind-numbing repetition of Vader? Is there really that much difference between them or am I just an inconstant hypocrite trying to justify his own strange personal tastes? Can anyone help me out here?

To be fair, I did get a laugh out of Naugahyde Vader, with his jagged little Nauga smile. But there's no accounting for taste.

Just for The Record

Going out to the museum to see an exhibition of Star Wars stuff? Somewhat defensible.
Going in full Jedi regalia? Not so much.

Comments (2)

  1. Michael Collins (02/28/2009)

    Hmm; I recently read an artbook of 'videogame inspired' art, and found that the artists (the majority of whom were referred to as edgy or underground) were fairly tedious. I suspect because on the whole they repeated the same three ideas (in particular, the Konami code as sexual metaphor). It may be that the Vader material has the same problem - could they have achieved the same thing with a bust of Kaiser Wilhelm? If so, then it's pretty much just masturbatory on their part, rather than anything about Vader per se.

  2. Dave White (03/01/2009)

    That's almost certainly part of my reaction — less that they were beating certain tropes into the ground and more that most of the helmets could be reconceived as normal paintings or drawings and didn't do anything to take advantage of the unusual format.

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