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Archive for August 21st, 2011

Cloud Gate?  Nobody calls it Cloud Gate.  It’s “The Bean.”

Cloud Gate/The Bean, a 110-ton stainless steel sculpture with a mirror finish, was installed in Millennium Park in Chicago in 2006.  I’ve been fascinated by it ever since, not just by the object itself, but also by how it affects people who flock to it—and under it.  It seems to be both ridiculous and sublime.  The behavior of the visitors, also both ridiculous and sublime.

Just calling it The Bean makes it cartoonish and trivial.  The fact that it offers a distorted reflection turns it into a carnival piece.  People go there to goof off, to strike a pose and be photographed with their distorted reflections.    These observations seem to explain the ridiculous part.  But I don’t think the love of distorted reflections is ridiculous at all.  No matter how you slice this Bean, it is sublime.

The “gate” in the original name suggests that the sculpture is intended to be seen as a transition from one domain to another.  What are these domains?  We don’t know.  The hollow under the dome of the sculpture is said to be reminiscent of the omphalos of ancient mythologies.  Omphalos is Greek for navel.  It was represented as a hollow stone, with the opening wider at the bottom. Omphalos stones were believed to allow a glimpse into the future, into one’s fate and the will of the “gods.”  The oracle of Delphi functioned as an omphalos, a supposed gate between the known and the unknown. Turns out, the woman who voiced the oracle was bribable.  If she advised against war but you were itching to attack, she could be persuaded to see things from your perspective.  The oracle, in other words, could be distorted.

Anish Kapoor named his sculpture Cloud Gate, going for the sublime.  But notice, he didn’t carve it out of granite or marble or sandstone.  If he had, the thing might qualify as an omphalos and no one would care.  Its essence, to use another Greek word, is in its accident:  the façade of the mirror.  And what the mirror gives us is a distortion.  You call this distortion a gate?  That’s ridiculous.  So ridiculous, it’s sublime.

For the first three or four years after it went up, people would just go there and gape at it and find their tiny reflection and take pictures.  Then a shift occurred and I can’t be sure exactly when.  People started to touch the surface of The Bean.  Now everybody does it.  Everybody.  It’s THE way to be photographed at The Bean.  Children, adults, folks from Buffalo, folks from Bengal, everybody poses with fingers—or feet or chest or knees—touching the mirrored surface of The Bean.  But it’s not a mystical kind of touching. You wouldn’t go there when no one’s around and then have this omphalos moment because you’re communing with your fate, none of that.   It’s all about posing.  It’s about being photographed –you touching your distortion.  Your distortion touching you.

“You touching your distortion, your distortion touching you ”—we need someone to write lyrics about that.  Swelling music, with violins.

All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.

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