You really CAN polish one.
Originally posted 8/8/06 on the old blog.
Several months ago I became semi-obsessed with photographing an art installation on the Microsoft campus: Ursula von Rydingsvard's Skip to My Lou. It offered visually delicious shapes and color combinations, as well as an almost infinite playground for depth of field with otherwise uniform elements of size, shape and texture. It was certainly odd, and I didn't see von Rydingsvard's intended theme even after I read about it. Specifically, Skip to My Lou represents "the awkward handwriting of an elder who can barely read and write, a Native American image of the ocean’s surface motion, and people dancing energetically in a circle, then separated. Skip to My Lou links illiterate immigrants, the site’s original tribal inhabitants, and the workers who built the piece in an organic, passionate, undulating cedar composition." Okay. I believe her.
However, when I decided to hop up to the fourth floor of a nearby building for an aerial photograph, the flickr comments that immediately followed made me see it in a different light.
I later learned that some fellow employees, who shall remain nameless, were known to call it Shithenge.
Regardless of the name which now made me stifle a titter each time I saw the installation, Skip to My Lou remained a favorite place for my son and I to stop on our weekend walks around the neighborhood. He would hide inside the little "forts" formed by its design, or hop from one extension to the other. He could roll around in the grass in the middle. I've seen meetings take place seated on it, and jugglers standing on different sections tossing clubs to each other. In short, despite its scatalogical undertones, it was a lovely little rendezvous point and courtyard centerpiece.
A few weeks ago I was walking to the cafeteria when I discovered something most disqueting: a temporary Hurricane fence had been erected all around Skip to My Lou. The grass had been torn up wholesale and replaced with medium-sized round rock gravel. A team of workers were scrubbing away at the weathered cedar surfaces of the sculpture -- cedar surfaces once treated in graphite and then allowed to take on the inevitable mossy slick sheen of a wooden thing alive in the Northwest. The individual pieces of Skip to My Lou were slowly turning to reddish-brown, like newer cedar wood. I don't know if they did anything as outrageous as actually staining the thing.
Last week, just when I had begun to console myself with the assumption that they were merely improving the finish on the sculpture, and that soon the fence would come down and the sod would be re-laid with little warning signs for us not to walk on it again until it was well-rooted, something even more disquieting happened:
Yes. Flamingoes. The fence was taken down, the round rock gravel remained, and the entire centerpiece of the courtyard was festooned with plastic pinwheel lawn flamingoes, of the most cheap and gaudy construction, coloration, and movement. When I walked through the courtyard with a stiff breeze blowing north to south, the sound of dozens of whirring plastic pinwheel legs reminded me of a swarm of unpleasant hard-shelled winged insects. The flamingoes were placed somewhat unevenly, with a single pair in the center like the king and queen of bad taste. I wondered if they had been installed there by the workers; I daydreamed that perhaps the workers were in Ursula von Rydingsvard's employ, and that she and they were so taken aback by the new bed of gravel that they left the little pink monstrosities as their final artistic protest. Or perhaps employees placed them there under cover of darkness for similar art-dissident reasons. Whatever it was, the net result is horrid.
I can only hope the curator of the Microsoft Art Collection will answer my e-mail.
Sadly, I don't need an answer to my e-mail. I just needed to check my mail from last week, which among other things says:
"With any change we realize that for those that view the sculpture and use it as a seating area it may take some adjustment to the visual and physical transformation of the space. We are sensitive to that fact and plan to install extended outdoor, in-ground signage after the sculpture conservation is complete that will tell people about the artwork and also encourage people to use the sculpture as a gathering place/meeting area. Ms. von Rydingsvard enjoys that people sit on the sculpture, and we sincerely hope that by undertaking this conservation treatment Microsoft employees and visitors will enjoy Skip to My Lou for many years to come, which is why it was so essential to perform the artist-recommended treatments that are now underway."
Apparently, they determined that the sprinkler system was damaging the wood and that any long term sprinkler use would have the same effect. Of course, this is Seattle...
Also, the artist chose the gravel herself and approved its installation. The fact that the flamingoes are still there means they're part of the artist's vision (or at least the art department's vision) too, or they'd have been pulled forthwith.
Perhaps that's what they meant by "extended outdoor, in-ground signage."