Seeing Life’s Brevity in the Art Poles of South First
Street art goes vertical in South Austin
At first, you think: Did someone die here?
Here, by this utility pole on South First Street, about a mile south of Lady Bird Lake, did someone die? Photographs of people are stapled to the pole, along with artificial flowers, toy army men and plastic warriors, stuffed animals, prize ribbons, printed quotations from Shakespeare – the kinds of items that might honor a lost life, especially one lost along a thoroughfare. We've seen the roadside crosses, the white bicycles, the memorial for "Fair Sailing Tall Boy" Ivan Garth Johnson on Lamar under the railroad bridge.
But then you think: What kind of memorial includes flattened boxes for old Instamatic-camera flashcubes? Or individual jigsaw-puzzle pieces stuck all over the place? And what's with the one word printed on white paper: "found"? Or the skirt – why have a swath of fabric encircle the pole like a skirt?
Then you look at the next pole down the block and see that it, too, has the same kinds of stuff stapled all over it. And on the other side of the street is another pole like it. And another. In fact, you can walk for blocks on South First and find utility poles up and down both sides of the street decorated with photos, flowers, puzzle pieces, words, stuffed animals, drawings, skirts, and other odd items. For every one of these to mark where someone has passed, South First would have to be the deadliest roadway in Austin. So, you think, it can't be that. It must just be some sort of street art.
Which makes more sense, but there's street art and then there's street art. There's the kind that's a single image or message (often a striking graphic) reproduced numerous times and pasted to streetlight poles and utility boxes and dumpsters. Though the art is a one-off, the mass production and wide distribution make it the weed of urban self-expression – and depending on the strength of the fixative, it can be as hard to eradicate. Then there's graffiti, art that's more personal in that every work, whether a small, simple tag in basic black or an elaborate, polychromatic rendering of abstracted text, is unique: handmade and site-specific. Both types are typically two-dimensional and have been around long enough to have developed traditions and art stars (Dondi! Banksy! Shepard Fairey!)
But the work on South First is different – and not simply because it's three-dimensional and tactile, though that does set it apart from other street art nearby. It's that this art is on the street but not of the street – well, not in the way of graffiti, pasted posters, and stickers. Where much of that work has to do with creators making statements about themselves – "This is me! This is my name! This is my belief!" – the pole art is other-directed. Its focus is on the people photographed and the objects around them, with the shrinelike quality of the poles leading us away from a sense of the artist's self-expression and toward ideas of commemoration and tribute. It wants us to make some connection between the humans depicted and the things around them, however odd or arbitrary some of those items appear. We see flowers, which are bestowed upon people when they enjoy victory and endure loss, and stuffed animals, beloved companions in our youngest years, when our affections are at their purest. That's enough to infuse these poles with an air of reverence and celebration, and the photographic subjects are themselves venerated by the fact that they've posed for these shots. If the subjects' likenesses had been captured without their knowledge, if they'd only been observed by the artist, the feel of the images would be distant, indirect. But you can see from the consistency of the subjects' gaze into the lens that these people have been invited to have their portraits made – a kind of honor all its own – and that sense shines through, warming the images.
There's a generosity at work here, an expansiveness, that embraces a larger community than is seen in much – maybe most – street art. The number of photographs and people in them, and the number of poles and the geographic space they cover, speak to a sense of one neighborhood, at least, and perhaps our entire city: faces brown, black, and white; young, old; on the street, on the job; in groups, alone. A community is represented and held up for us to recognize and remember. That munificent spirit is part of what gives these poles an old-school Austin vibe. There's a long tradition in this city of artistic types creating things not for any profit or fame it might bring but because it's a way they can celebrate this place they love, give something back to the city, or just make other people happy. Murals. Yard art. A Cathedral of Junk. A neighborhood street given over to Christmas lights. A birthday party for a fictional donkey. And now some anonymous citizen has given us all some six blocks of decorated utility poles.
Now, you may find them cheap or tacky or think this unknown artist went to a lot of trouble for something that'll be worn down by the elements in no time. Well, cheap and tacky has been the aesthetic of choice for many cherished Austin institutions. (See Eeyore's, Spamarama, the Pumpkin Stomp, et al.) Tackiness walks hand in hand with irreverence, a quality prized by Austinites, and ages ago cheapness replaced necessity as the mother of invention. As no one here ever had any money, they just took whatever they had and figured out how to make magic with it. (See Slacker, El Mariachi, Greater Tuna, Rude Mechs, et al.) In the tradition of Austin creativity, thrift-store production values convey authenticity.
And the fact that the objects on the poles are wearing away actually feels like part of the point. The shrines aren't really there to memorialize people; most of the individuals in the photos are likely still with us. What's passed are the moments when the photos were taken, the instants of contact between photographer and subjects, the brief, ephemeral connection of strangers in a certain hour on a certain day now gone. The shrines exist to mark those moments, to draw our attention to them and give them their due. But just as those moments in the photos passed, the images preserving those moments will pass, and the things honoring them will as well. The rain-sodden stuffed animals, the sun-bleached Polaroids, the wind-whipped fake flowers will go the way of all things. Which serves as a timely message for you and me.
No, no one died beside this utility pole on South First, but the pole reminds us that death awaits us all, so savor each moment. That such a notion should pop up among the bustling coffee shops and food trailers and Mexican food eateries of this cheery street and in the way it does is quite curious, very Austin, and truly, delightfully – brace yourself for That Word – weird.