-- Rosencrantz (to Guildenstern)
Look around the streets tonight:
Everything's in ruins.
You look good by siren light.
Baby, what are you doin',
-- Fol Chen, "In Ruins"
Earlier this week Tyler Green's recently relocated Modern Art Notes featured the above photo (via the Washington Post and later the front page of the New York Times) by Adrees Latif for Reuters, showing this seemingly unharmed colossal head standing in front of the blazing remnant's of Bangkok's colossal shopping mall, CentralWorld Plaza. More complete details on the work, The Head (2009) by Indian sculptor Ravinder Reddy, are in Green's post and its follow up, in which he proposes
When I see a picture of widespread damage with an art object in the midst of it all left mostly untouched, I think art must have a certain authority. Why else was it spared?
He may be right. I cannot find it again now that I want it -- I will provide a link if I can turn it up again -- but I have seen at least one photo indicating that the bronze elephants of CentralWorld also survived the mayhem. Something tells me that representational sculpture is more likely to pull through than more abstract work.
One thing that struck me most about Reddy's Head was its kinship to other large sculptures of heads. With its Asian origin and location, and its obvious allusion to a long Asian sculptural tradition, one is immediately put in mind of the many enormous heads of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom:
But the enormous head knows few cultural or geographic boundaries. Think, for example, of the Roman emperors' fondness for giant-sized depictions of themselves:
Nor should we slight our own hemisphere, and the perplexing giant heads of the Olmecs (coming soon to LACMA):
What triggered these musings, however, was the combination of Tyler Green's posts and a Friday trip to the San Francisco courthouse, which provided the opportunity to get a look at Zhang Huan's imposing Three Heads Six Arms, now on extended display on the plaza fronting City Hall.
As the Los Angeles Times reported, Zhang began as a self-debasing performance artist, but has changed his focus to sculpture more recently. This work is intended in part as an allusion to the many works of Buddhist sculpture now lost as a result of their destruction in China's Cultural Revolution. Madame Mao would surely disapprove of Three Heads Six Arms.
The East-facing face is in traditional Buddhist style. It wears a jaunty chapeau in tribute to the City Hall dome behind it.
The six long arms sport five long fingers each, and tasteful accessories. I suspect the absorbent booms are for the statue's protection from water, and are not part of the artist's vision.
Heads #2 and #3 are self-portraits of the artist.
Because the eyes are closed, the East face does not see the Asian Art Museum (at left), United Nations Plaza, the San Francisco Public Library (at right) or, in the distance, Thom Mayne's San Francisco Federal Building.
The San Francisco Chronicle has a fine portfolio of photos of the statue's installation. Three Heads Six Arms is scheduled to remain in San Francisco through 2011. Should civil unrest break out in the city any time soon, I would venture a prediction that the statue will come through unscathed.
Photo of Angkor Thom head via Wikimedia Commons. Photo of the Emperor Constantine by Flickr user cloudsoup, used under Creative Commons license. Photo of Olmec head by Flickr user Xuan Rosemanios, used under Creative Commons license. Photos of Three Heads Six Arms by the blogger.
Brian Cox recites "In Ruins," here.