Perambulating the Bounds

Sunday, November 13, 2005

More Airport Art, This Time Seattle

OK, so I better start by admitting I’m not getting out much due to the day job. Which leaves me with my default art experience, whatever I find in the airport. Then, this week it’s an airport that’s kind of over-the-top with its art, Seattle-Tacoma. They’ve always had a lot (there’s this Frank Stella painting that for a while seemed like they’d forgotten they had it), but there’s been a bunch of new construction and the airport and there’s even more.

Airports have a way of surprising you. It’s easy to go several years between visits to the same airport, and when you get back you can find that there’s been a massive construction and replacement project in the meantime, and you find yourself in a completely different space. Isolated as you are from the surrounding land except for a few glimpses, there is no practical connection between the place you find yourself and where you were before when your ticket had the same airport code.

I’ve had that experience a couple of times. I flew to Alaska after a couple of year lag, and they’d built a whole new airport (named after Ted Stevens of course). And then this trip west I found out Sea-Tac had added a whole new concourse.

So Sea-Tac has always had art, and they’ve probably got some percent for the arts program for all public projects. It’s the kind of town that would do that. There is talk from time to time of getting the Council here in Nashville to do that, but I don’t know what the status is with that. The result in Seattle is not just art hung on the walls in rotating exhibits, but art built into the structure of the place ( And not just exhibits in glass cases, but ceramics in the bathrooms, sound pieces in the drinking fountains. There’s a set of thick columns in the new concourse covered with mosaics, each by a different artist. There’s one by Rudy Autio, one of the pioneering potters of the last few decades, others with an environmental political message (a quasi-photographic one by Peter DeLory of the blasted remains of a former champion red cedar), Franz Marc-y forest animals by JoAnne Hammer, a tribute by Amy Cheng to her father that crawls dragon scales up to the ceiling, highlighted with blue and gold. There’s a kinetic sculpture by a guy named Trimpkin that runs monkey-driven train-like contraptions along a single track next to a moving walkway. There’s something around every bend.

This display has a couple of effects. It is extravagant and prolific. It lets you know this is a wealthy city that can afford to cover its airport in art. We would never feel like we had enough in the budget to do something comparable in Nashville. It also brags on the city, it says this is an interesting place filled with interesting people – and by comparison different, probably from wherever you got on the airplane. But it also has an undeniable stimulating effect. It makes it worth your while to pay attention to your environment. So often, the institutional corridors of airports and many other spaces in our cities are blank, devoid of features. They encourage you to zone out, the way a parking lot does where there should be a building in a city. I don’t really know if the people who run things in Seattle see this, but towns like this are rich in details. There are interesting shops on the corners, details worked into the sidewalks, thoughtful plantings in the margins of the sidewalks. Some of it is sponsored by the government, but the businesses and residents seem to pitch in and make something of shared, public spaces. It’s hard not to believe that this is part of a complex of mutually reinforcing systems that promote a mix of economic and intellectual creativity. Wealth – of all kinds, not just economic – allows the conditions to encourage more wealth. The legacy of poverties becomes hard to break.

I’ve got one more trip in a long series of trips, but pretty soon I should be back to looking at art in the usual places more regularly. I appreciate a few hours in the Seattle airport, but it’s a tease when you’re on a layover.


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