The Power of Art in Austin’s Overlooked Objects

Defining the city's personality from the moonlight towers to the railroad bridge


Photo by Jana Birchum

Austin's character is made by its people, objects, and places. Combined, they form our city's personality, its genius and fragility, its power and swerve. I consider any object wielding this kind of totemic force as worthy of the name "art." By art, I don't mean the things we look at in a gallery or public works commissioned by professionals. What I'm talking about may not have been made by anyone claiming to be an artist and can be as simple as an experience.

Contemporary artists have taken us far from the gallery. Michael Rakowitz's paraSITE includes temporary housing for the homeless that takes its shape and warmth by stealing it from outdoor building vents. The shelters are found in alleys and out-of-the-way places where an art audience may never see them. Performance artist Rirkrit Tiravanija cooks and serves food as a vehicle for people to gather and interact. Creators have made art from food trucks, building facades, libraries, garbage, and their own bodily waste. Art has expanded until the line between it and life has totally blurred – perhaps evaporated entirely.

When was the last time you looked at Austin? This may seem like an irrelevant – or trite – question, but I believe it's crucial. For example, in a city with a dismal dependence on cars, every day many thousands are forced into the mindless, often harrowing, ritual of traffic. We sit, hunched over, and stare. It's a mechanical exercise, like working in a factory. In these moments, we may be most rewarded by looking: noting the oddly decorated house or the shirtless cowboy at the bus stop. It was while I was stuck in traffic that I came to love the graffiti paint wall discussed below. Austin isn't just a collection of laws and infrastructure. It's our landscape. It's a canvas of the made and the lost (much has been lost).

I'm often troubled by the obliteration of the city I was born into for a more polished, more exclusive, less soulful one. I take some comfort in the notion that those residents whose hearts are not invested here – but who have the capacity to influence it – may protect Austin's future by forming genuine intimacies with its minutiae. That they might make a true home here by taking possession of the objects that belong to it – even the smallest ones, the ones no one else may ever see or notice. We might all benefit if, by looking, we make of Austin a place so unique to our hearts that it can never be replaced once it has been lost, and in this way cherish it now – immediately – before it's too late. From this may come a sense of ownership, even greediness, for the city's well-being, one that has less to do with "progress" and more to do with joy.

Intention counts for a lot in the art world. In this case, it is the intention of the viewer – us – that carries the burden.


Moonlight Towers

The storied moonlight towers rise from Central Austin like bulbous dandelions of light, extending upward like tall insects or lithe Giacometti sculptures. I tend to forget them until I come across one. Every time I do, I say to whoever is around, "moonlight tower," as though it isn't obvious.

They have illuminated our shadowy corners for over a hundred years – our quiet caretakers, our sentinels. Some say they were built in response to a streak of 19th century murders, but others point out the towers came years afterward, that the two are unrelated. It doesn't matter either way. What matters is, the towers have history.

The Lightning Field is a piece of land art by Walter De Maria. Steel rods are stuck in the ground forming a vast grid somewhere in New Mexico. When lightning strikes, it bounces across the rods making a light show that brightens the desert.

Our own interspersed towers also make a light show, only instead of a grid, they form a more unwieldy pattern – a messy one resulting from their unwieldy past.

The moonlight towers are luminous. They're unexpected. They are awesome, silent, and watchful.


East Sixth Street


Photo by John Anderson

In 1974, German artist Joseph Beuys completed a performance titled I Like America and America Likes Me during which he traveled to New York and was immediately transported to a gallery where he was put in a room with a wild coyote. For days, Beuys and the coyote stayed together in the room. Beuys covered himself in a heavy sheet, which the coyote tried to shred. When the performance was over, Beuys left the gallery and was taken directly back to the airport. He left New York without having seen any of it. "I wanted to isolate myself," Beuys is quoted as saying, "insulate myself, see nothing of America other than the coyote."

This piece comes closest to what East Sixth Street is on those temperate weekend nights when it's taken over by the masses: wild and uncontrollable, a savage strike that could come at any moment. It's a varnished wonderland for tourists and frat boys with nothing better to do. Over the years, countless young people have converged on Sixth Street and environs craving the unsanctified. It is a mishmash of worlds and temptations, some enticing, others horrendous. The poor and the wealthy, the sober and the sick, arrive here to clash.

It is also the most alive place in the city, a corridor lined with doors and buzzing with people, each offering a possibility for discovery and experience. It may be the last street Downtown that largely looks like it did in the 19th century, which means it is also a museum, a time capsule. Sixth Street not only combines the actions of today, but the actions of many decades past, layering the many movements of history in a single place. This is what it is to be haunted.

I'm compelled to turn my head every time I drive past East Sixth. Sometimes I change my driving or biking route simply to visit it. It pulls like a vortex. It is a performance, like Beuys', that is reckless, grotesque, brilliant, and completely human.


Graffiti/Paint Wall


Photo by John Anderson

Beside the northbound lane of Lamar, just south of Fifth Street, is a wall layered in paint. Usually the wall is gray with some beige patches. The patches cover up graffiti that has been there. The wall has been painted over many times. If you pick at the paint, you can find layers and layers of art. The whole thing is layers, no telling where the original wall is.

Sometimes there are words. Sometimes there are drawings. Sometimes both. As of this writing, the wall is scratched with black marks, big and bold, mostly declaring street lingo gibberish I don't have time for, but all the same, wow, the wall keeps evolving. Paint spatters the ground, looking like a psychedelic rain fell and stayed. Artificial flowers have been strung to a nearby fence, and these too are speckled with paint.

They made their art. It will be painted over. More art will go up. It will be painted over. I want this conversation to go on. I like its ever-changingness. I like the fluidity. Give me art that isn't afraid to be destroyed.


Frank Erwin Center


Photo by Jana Birchum

The artist couple Bernd and Hilla Becher made a career photographing water towers and the like. The images are black and white, spare, severe. The objects may be boring at first, but after looking closely you come to appreciate the fineness of their textures, and the confidence in their everydayness. The monotony becomes fetishized. The Bechers could have made a whole series on the Erwin Center.

I've embraced the clichéd perspective that the new and shinier Austin is a gross insult I could do without. The shinier it is, the less I tend to like it. Like most of Austin – especially those of us who live outside the city center – I probably can't afford to enjoy it anyway, so what do I care? But that skyline sure looks pretty on postcards and websites. Until you get to the corpulent Erwin Center, closer in form to a beige copy machine than a sleek skyscraper. If I could, I would Photoshop the Erwin Center next to the W Austin Hotel so we could all enjoy the beautiful contrast the Erwin Center makes in our tumultuous, laughable, tragic moment. It rises from the Seventies and into our new metropolis like a thumb in the eye, like blood thrown on a celeb's fur coat. I say this with admiration. I'm a real fan of its squatness; I applaud its visual politics.

I began by comparing it to the work of the Bechers, but that's incomplete. It's also a Banksy, a guerrilla tactic with its origins behind us, where the powers that be can do nothing to stop it.


Cranes


Photo by Sandy Carson

Austin's shininess isn't only superficial luxury and valet parking. As the condos are being built, their cranes reach to the sky, asking us to consider something that doesn't exist, a future that seems to always almost be here, but not quite yet. "What are they going to put there? What's going to come next?" Forget those questions for a moment and instead enjoy what we have: a flock of interspersed, graceful, birdlike bodies moving up. The cranes are, like the animals they're named after, thin, ready to take flight. They are ever-present, upside-down L's that come out of tumults, the sparkling, crashing construction sites like furnaces, concrete and steel. The cranes meet in the sky like they know each other.

People climb on these things. Their view is hard to picture, but it must be something like the Andreas Gursky photograph Paris, Montparnasse, a massive building – a solid wall of cubicles. If I were a construction worker at the top of a crane, I'd stare into windows like I owned them.

Our skyline is changed. It pricks like a porcupine or an African tribal figure bristling with nails. Will it go on forever? Maybe, maybe not. Every bubble has to burst. Even the universe is supposed to contract someday.


Union Pacific Railroad Bridge


Photo by Jana Birchum

Austin's version of New York's bombed subway cars in the Eighties might be the graffitied train bridge that crosses Lady Bird Lake. There are all kinds of graffiti. The kind I grew up with in Dove Springs was mostly scratch tag with random letters and numbers that meant little to anyone but the teens who made it, and that went far toward uglifying the neighborhood. Other kinds of graffiti are even worse: sanitized, co-opted versions of street tag that are charming enough to be sanctioned. If the art on the bridge were anywhere else, it might come too close to this cutesy mural work that's more offensive to me than gang scrawl, but the rusted heaviness of the train bridge gives the Pac-Man ghosts and kung fu yang their gravitas. One of the tags is a sweetly fonted marriage proposal to a girl named Erin – I wonder if she said yes.

Most of the artists working there have had some talent with color – they make good use of that orange-red-brown steel. The figures and letters burst from the bridge. They make it pop and move. This is especially thrilling when the train comes through. The train, chugging along, gets a little hip hop beneath it as it goes. The Congress Avenue Bridge may have bats, and the Pennybacker has that whole arch thing going on, but as Austin bridges go, I'd rather have a postcard of this one.


On the Water


Photo by Jana Birchum

On a sunny day you may see dozens of colorful craft on Lady Bird Lake, moving beneath the bridges. If you could shake out flowers on the water, this is what the petals would look like. The craft maneuver slowly. The people are involved with one another. They talk quietly so you can't hear them. Sometimes they look up and wave. This is a performance, a kind of dance.

These craft are quiet. They move with the ripple of the waves. They turn to and fro. Picture dozens of hot air balloons.

Andy Goldsworthy is known for using the processes of nature to make his work. He makes sculptures out of stone that are washed away by tides. He ties twigs together that rock in the wind until they collapse. He also weaves flowers together and sets them adrift on springs and streams, where they lend bright emphasis to the motions of the water. Local artist Jennifer Chenoweth has used choreographed colored kayaks as part of her XYZ Atlas project. Her peopled works spun gently in the currents.

It's all in the movement. In the grace of placid, uncontainable elements.


Overpasses


Photo by Jana Birchum

The overpasses are sweeps that hold us in like parentheses. Where 183 meets MoPac and where Highway 71 meets I-35, we are invited to look up to the smooth streaming silk of concrete ribbons. These are the only places where the freeway's promise of speed seems to match its form, as even though we know they do not move, the arcs of concrete seem swift and easy.

Constantin Brâncusi made his sculpture Bird in Space in 1923. The form is so streamlined that it hardly resembles a bird, but its mimicry of effortless flight is uncanny. Brâncusi wanted to make the most efficient bird; whoever made the overpasses wanted to make the most efficient roadway. The effects are more or less one.

I think of a weeping willow. Something billowing and long, leaning out into the wind. But the overpasses are also fierce. They carve space like jet trails. I think of the ancient statue Laocoön and His Sons: a man and two boys being overtaken by serpents. Only these serpents overtake the sky, and we drive on them.


The Sneed House


Photo by Jana Birchum

Now a history we need to know.

In 1810, German painter Caspar David Friedrich completed The Abbey in the Oakwood. Gnarled trees cloaked in fog surround the single standing wall of an ancient church. Crosses and tombstones are silhouetted against the colorless ground. The church and cemetery are abandoned. They seem haunted with stories of things and people long forgotten. The German Romantics dug this melodramatic stuff.

History matters in art. If it can be old, it can be loved. This thing once was, and the world it came from is dead. And yet, it is still ours. Like the moonlight towers, symbols of another time, there is the Sneed House, a plantation built by slave hands in the 1850s. The house sits on a lot on the South Eastside, behind a chain-link fence. For over a hundred years it stood, sometimes occupied, sometimes not. In the Eighties the house burned down. From architecture to object: sculpture. White stone ruins, much like Friedrich's, were all that was left. Weeds and trees overtook the walls. It was underwhelming and unknown, unless some with-it person pointed it out for you. "Look over the tops of the trees," and under the moon you could see its skeleton creeping past the highest limbs. That was the Sneed House, the secret plantation. Forgotten, like much of Austin's racial past.

The trees have been removed and the ruins are easy to see. You can pull up along the curb and there it is, naked in a flat field of nothing: grass and garbage. Someone has graffitied the stone the slaves hewed, but really, it's okay (what special respect should a teenager – probably a racial minority – offer a family of dead slaveholders?)

You can look all you want, the slaves won't come back. Or, more likely, they have never gone anywhere, and they don't mind you looking. "Look and imagine," they might say. And you will. "Look and imagine what happened here. This object holds ghosts."


West Austin Antenna Farm


Photo by Jana Birchum

They form a bouquet of light towers blinking red. They are peaceful and distant, constellations or humble gods huddled in the west. I only recently learned they had a name: the West Austin Antenna Farm.

They're the only heavenly bodies in our sky that I might touch if I aimed to, though I never will. That would only ruin them.

Untitled (Last Light), by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, is a string of white lightbulbs suspended from the ceiling. It is simple, something basic enough to be found at a hardware store. Gonzalez-Torres made many installations dealing with death, so the lightbulbs can also reference grief – the lighting of candles. It's an elegant statement that lingers on the state of loss while also brightening its space, and the viewer's, with the soft luminescence of a muted hope. In form, Untitled (Last Light) looks almost exactly the same as the radio towers of the West Austin Antenna Farm. With a generous perspective – a generous intent – the spirit of the two is also the same.

As noted in the beginning, this all depends on intention. One person may look on the antennae and see nothing, while another may look closer and see everything. It is a persistent challenge, to make more where it counts and to leave it alone where less is better.

Outside my window now, I can see a street and a parking lot, drab and tuneless. But mostly I see a crepe myrtle tree and its bright pink flowers that bloom like stars.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

public art, Austin art, Michael Rakowitz, Rirkrit Tiravanija, moonlight towers, East Sixth Street, Frank Erwin Center, Union Pacific Railroad Bridge, Lady Bird Lake, Jennifer Chenoweth, XYZ Atlas, West Austin Antenna Farm, Andy Goldsworthy, Walter De Maria, Andreas Gursky, Caspar David Friedrich, Felix Gonzalez-Torres

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