Dragging the Line
Coming soon to Mall B: aluminum man with cube!

November 8-12, 2003
The Cleveland Free Times

Over the years, Claes Oldenburg's Free Stamp on the lawn of City Hall has provoked a range of emotions in Greater Clevelanders. The mammoth red-and-pink ink stamp sculpture incites confusion, disgust, and even anger. But in the summer, you can't walk or drive by the piece without seeing children climbing on it, or families having their pictures taken in front of it. Great public art is like that; it starts conversations, draws people to it, and it helps brand cities. It also demonstrates to residents and visitors a community's commitment to creative endeavors.

Cleveland is privileged to have a nonprofit organization dedicated to spearheading public art projects and commissions. Cleveland Public Art (CPA) has instituted a variety of permanent and temporary programs and commissions: organizing the City Xpressions graffiti-art festival, colorfully illuminating bridges, and installing Louise Bourgeois' gigantic spider sculptures on Star Plaza at Playhouse Square.

CPA's latest project was a national call for artists to create a site-specific installation downtown on Mall B. The Burnhall Mall Public Art Installation project was planned in celebration of the 100-year anniversary of the Burnham Group Plan of 1903. The 1903 plan called for monumental, classically designed public buildings of similar scale, material and height. The centerpiece of the plan was a 560-foot-wide Mall, running south to north from Rockwell Avenue to the lakefront. An enormous railroad station was planned as part of the Mall, but was never built. Mall B, part of this centerpiece, is a massive, rarely used green space.

Ann Zoller, executive director of Parkworks, and one of the jurors on CPA's Mall B project selection committee, says that a major goal of the project is to call attention the expansive green space. "Most people don't think they are allowed to step on the grass on Mall B," she explains. "We want people to be attracted to the space, and we hope that the new sculpture will draw them in."

Like Free Stamp , the work that was selected for the Mall B project - which will be installed during the summer of 2004 and will remain in place for about two years - is sure to draw interest, controversy, and plenty of family photo-ops. CPA received 80 artist proposals and narrowed them to four finalists. Two of the artists, New Yorkers Brian Tolle and Janet Echelman, were finalists on the World Trade Center memorial project. The third, Pate Conaway of Chicago, has shown his work nationally, and recently performed and exhibited one of his trademark knitting pieces at Spaces. But Jake Beckman, the artist who developed the winning proposal, is exceptional for many reasons. Beckman is a 21-year old art student at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. Beckman, a Cleveland Heights resident, has created a variety of spontaneously installed, "unsanctioned" pieces on the Swarthmore campus, including a monumental pair of pink Converse All-Star sneakers that mysteriously appeared on the college's administration building, and a large-scale Adirondack chair that sprung up amid the Adirondack chairs scattered around the campus.

The Mall B sculpture is a departure from the unsanctioned works. It consists of three basic elements: an aluminum stick-like, 35-foot-tall figure; a white cube, also 35 feet high; and a rope-like element attached to the cube and "pulled" by the figure. "When I came up with the idea, I didn't necessarily have Cleveland in mind," Beckman admits. "The piece is based on some feelings I was having about a very personal event in my life. I started thinking about the issues and thought processes I was dragging around with me. I questioned why I acted as I did. Was it because of what I learned from my parents and society?"

The spare elements in Beckman's proposed sculpture leave room for interpretation, and the blank white cube allows the piece to be used in unique ways. "One idea we've already had is to have film nights on Mall B and project them onto the cube," says Lillian Kuri, CPA's executive director. "We want this public sculpture to push some boundaries, and demonstrate what is possible for public art and for Mall B."

But the most recognizable theme in Beckman's work is tension, as there is a sense of futility - that the figure is dragging a gargantuan cube to no avail. The contextual association of this piece in the midst of downtown, a stone's throw from City Hall, is serendipitous. In Cleveland, civic progress is often mired in arcane politics, old school ideas and old boy networks. Perhaps it will inspire Cleveland's leaders and politicians to cut the cord and engage in new dialogues and strategies. This is wishful thinking, but at least the sculpture and its contextual insinuations will visually mock them as they walk by it every day.