The Little Weed that Could
For Paul Druecke's conceptual project Bright Sun Partial Shade, he commissioned a work of art from another artist and donated it to the city. The work, Weed (Totally Terrific) by Scott Wolniak, was installed in Market Square Park and unveiled in an elaborate ceremony/performance to which Druecke invited an array of city officials who did not show up.
Wanting to create the aura of an officious public art event, Druecke enlisted a series of speakers. There were artists, Jack Massing of the Art Guys and Laura Lark; a businessperson, Dan Tidwell, owner of the Market Square restaurant Treebeards; and even an arts administrator, Carol Laufer, the civic art director of the Cultural Arts Council of Houston/Harris County.
After the speeches came the grand finale. Druecke gave a short talk about the power of giving a gift and then solemnly lifted a draped box to reveal a weed planted in the grass. Painstakingly crafted from brightly colored urban detritus (i.e., trash -- candy wrappers, old pen caps, cigarette butts), Wolniak's object weighed about a pound and failed to reach the spectators' knees. It was a quirky, ridiculously fragile and decidedly un-public-art-like work. And that was the point.
Bright Sun Partial Shade was executed in conjunction with "Cracks in the Pavement," a multi-city, international event organized by Heather Johnson in which artists place ephemeral works in the public realm to be found and taken by passersby -- be they office workers, panhandlers or a city cleanup crew. The project encouraged a populist approach that was the antithesis of massive, bland and bureaucratic public art.
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It was right up Druecke's alley, as he has a history of exploring community and the public space. For one past work, he organized a ceremony to christen a patch of cement. Druecke's selection of Wolniak, an artist known for creating cheerful flora from debris, was perfect for the Market Square Park location, a public space that's a bit of a wasteland. Druecke's performance mocked the pomp that often surrounds public art, and at the same time it caused a group of people to actually gather in Market Square Park.
Massing got a kick out of the ironic unveiling. "I thought, 'Oh, my God, this is fucking great.' It was really funny." The Art Guys -- Massing and collaborator Michael Galbreth -- are battle-hardened veterans of the world of public art, and their Travel Light installation at the George Bush Intercontinental Airport was listed by Art in America as one of the United States' best public artworks of 2004. Massing characterized Druecke's project as "truly one of the best public art pieces I have seen in a long time -- true public art for the small public."
The project might have ended there, but in an even more ironic twist, the very bureaucratic forces the project meant to comment upon got involved. The tiny trash sculpture of a weed set off a brouhaha. Six weeks after the unveiling, Sally Reynolds, chairman of the Houston Municipal Art Commission, sent an alarmed letter to CACHH director María Muñoz-Blanco. The letter said Reynolds had learned of the event via "several individuals," among them Joe Turner, director of the Houston Parks and Recreation Department, who "questioned a work of art 'donated' by Mr. Paul Druecke" at a ceremony with Carol Laufer "representing CACHH."
The bureaucratic fingerpointing began. Turner had "expressed concern" that the work was installed without MAC's making a recommendation to him. Reynolds was in turn coming down on Muñoz-Blanco for not presenting the work for them to review for "temporary or permanent installation." To instruct Muñoz-Blanco on her duties, Reynolds went on to cite Section 2-336 (a) of a city ordinance:
"It shall be the duty of the municipal art commission to examine all works of art or a design or model of same which are proposed for permanent or long-term placement on city property or are to become the property of the city by purchase, gift or otherwise, except for those works to be placed in a museum or gallery, together with the proposed location of such works of art and to make recommendations to the mayor and city council as to the suitability of such works and/or their location."
Reynolds sent a copy of her letter to not only Turner but also the mayor's assistant for cultural affairs, the president of CACHH, the director of the City of Houston Building Services and all 18 (!) municipal art commissioners.
Of course, for Druecke the letter was a boon: The bureaucratic huff added yet another layer to the work. Had Reynolds or the "concerned" Turner actually gotten up from their chairs and walked into the dead zone of Market Square they were so intent upon protecting, their pique might have cooled. There was nothing for them to find. The work disappeared just a few hours after the unveiling. And had Turner read his mail, he would have found a press release from Druecke fully detailing the project and its aims.
Muñoz-Blanco replied to the letter, explaining that Laufer had attended only as a guest and that CACHH had had no involvement with the project. She referred Reynolds to Druecke and included the Web address for the project (www.asocialevent.com). She dryly closed the letter by saying, "Please let me know if I can assist in any way as you further investigate the matter." She attached a copy of the original letter and included Druecke on the lengthy list of cc's.
Despite the element of absurdity the letter added to his project, Druecke had a mixed reaction to it. "At first I thought that it was funny and interesting, and in the end, I was a little disturbed at having been left out of almost all of it." He crafted a response that patiently re-explained his work and the ideas behind it: "My projects examine the organization and control of our public space. I am interested in how the individual fits into the abstract notion of ownership with regards to the public space." Druecke added that when Turner's office responded to say he would be unable to make the unveiling, it "would have been an ideal time to ask me any questions."
In this simple, low-budget work, Druecke explored a range of issues, not the least of which was why public art so often sucks. And why the few good artists who suffer through the process wind up with a case of post-traumatic stress syndrome. Protecting turf and covering your ass -- making sure everyone follows the letter of the law rather than its intent -- is apparently far more important to city officials than the art itself.
Artist, event speaker and master of ceremonies Laura Lark had her own take on the controversy generated by Druecke's gift of a dinky paper plant. "What they should really do," she said, "is fine us for littering."
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