The Torn Off Head …
There’s a little story by the supreme iconoclast and prototypical absurdist, Daniil Kharms, that seems to address well the contradictory polemics on the form and function of public space in contemporary urban planning. Kharms, who founded the Union of Real Art, or OBERIU, movement in 1928 and attained great popularity as a young man before running afoul of Stalin, died of starvation while still in his thirties in custody of a state psychiatric ward for his anti-Soviet ideas during the siege of Leningrad in 1942, which somehow grants even more gravitas to the nonsense he embraced as a poet to articulate the ridiculousness of reality. Short enough to quote in its entirety I take Matvei Yankelevich’s translation of this story from his book of Kharms selected writings, “Today I Wrote Nothing.”
Carlo McCormick is an esteemed pop culture critic, curator and Senior Editor of PAPER magazine. His numerous books, monographs and catalogues include: TRESPASS: A History of Uncommissioned Urban Art, Beautiful Losers: Contemporary Art and Street Culture, The Downtown Book: The New York Art Scene 1974-1984, and Dondi White: Style Master General. His work has appeared in numerous publications including: Art in America, Art News, and Artforum.
Petrov Gets on his horse and, addressing the crowd, delivers a speech about what would happen if in place of the public garden, they’d build an American skyscraper. The crowd listens and, it seems, agrees. Petrov writes something down in his notebook. A man of medium height emerges from the crowd and asks Petrov what he wrote down in his notebook. Petrov replies that it concerns himself alone. The man of medium height presses him. Words are exchanged and discord begins. The crowd takes the side of the man of medium height, and Petrov, saving his life, drives his horse on and disappears around the bend. The crowd panics and, having no other victim, grabs the man of medium height and tears off his head. The torn-off head rolls down the street and gets stuck in the hatch of a sewer drain. The crowd, having satisfied its passions, disperses.
The garden and the skyscraper it would seem are of equal value and beauty, two things our ideal city would have in ample abundance if we could have our druthers, and certainly not the kind of either/or proposition we would want to entertain. While most contemporary metropolises have both public gardens and skyscrapers, few could say to have them in perfect balance or proper distribution. Inequities aside, for surely some neighborhoods are better served than others by the ratio of development to public space or the relative beauty invested in either, the very notion of balance is itself problematic. That is, while collectively the body politic demands a need for both, rarely is either created with the other in mind. Born of very different agendas and serving contrary purposes, the garden and the skyscraper are rather more oppositional forces than complimentary terms.
Our talk, which is ultimately about how individuals, groups and in particular artists, can re-imagine these sites and situations of the city, queries this topography for points of access and weakness. We will begin by considering the visual history of the garden and the skyscraper as cultural metaphors- called different things over time, like parks or towers- that have helped define and design our concept of civilization for centuries now. But we regard them only so far as a kind of reconnaissance, and stay there only long enough to figure out a way to bulldoze them over. We must recognize the metonymic power of garden and skyscraper alike, how each is a kind of synecdoche standing in for so much more, and take their various significations- of innocence, life, purity, power, ill-fate, aspiration, of escape and return, city and country, utopia and dystopia, ascension and the fall- as embodiments of a certain authority or stasis which is there for art and society to accept or defy. These are the nodes of conjunction where we meet, places where we may take our collective stand and try to topple existing orders, diversions for the eye whose deeper meaning is just the stuff we could lose our heads over.