Ilya Kabakov Monument To The Lost Glove
23rd & Broadway, Public Art Fund, New York
Is an object worth one thousand five hundred and twelve words?
A monument to a lost glove is something of an oxymoron. One would think that something small and completely useless could not, by definition, be monumental. But one would be wrong.
monument to the lost glove sits on a traffic triangle surrounded not only by the Flatiron Building, a pretty park, and a Victorian street clock, but two monuments of the traditional monolith type.
The glove lies some ten feet from the main pedestrian traffic across the triangle. Although it is red, this little, odd plastic object would be hard to notice if it were not for the half-circle of no less than nine placards standing beyond it. Each is engraved with a passage about 150 words long, which is presented in Spanish, Russian, and Chinese, as well as English. Judging from the English and Spanish versions, they all probably say the same thing. Given the location of the title of the piece, I think you're supposed to read the placards from left to right (I did it backwards, more on that later), and I will summarize them individually, in that order.
1. The writer sees the lost glove which brings a nostalgic longing for much better times past, when people wore hats as well as gloves, no one hurried, the city was safe, conversations were about pleasant topics rather than horrors, and people smiled and "were happier."
2. The writer sees her own loneliness in the lost right hand glove, mourns a man who left her all alone in a dangerous city.
3. The writer notes that the glove has been there a week already. This brings forth his anger regarding garbage: he sees it everywhere, accumulating even though he pays his taxes, the collection of it keeps him awake at night. He tries to calm himself because of his heart condition.
4. The writer celebrates finding the glove he's been searching for. Another glove "was NOT HER SIZE!" and it was "FOR THE OTHER HAND." There is another glove left somewhere else that he must hurry to retrieve.
5. Another meditation on loneliness. There are so many people, in such close proximity, but everyone keeps to himself, thinks only of himself. If he were to fall to the ground, no one would stop, just like they don't stop and ask, "This glove, what happened and why is it here?"
6. The writer is suspicious of the glove. Everything can be dangerous, no matter how innocent it may appear. A bomb is probably not in the glove, but could be.
7. This is an aesthetic appreciation. The red of the glove brings the whole site to life. The writer then yearns for the good old days of "Monet, Pissaro, Renoir." He laments that now "there are only 'concepts' all around, abstractions, 'installations,' and other talentlessness and stupidity."
8. The writer waits and wonders whether anyone will notice the glove. Someone finally goes to look but "Doesn't see." A man collecting cans, mistaking the glove for one, comes to look and is very disappointed.
9. The writer takes a good look at the glove and is upset that it is plastic rather than leather. Thoughts about other imitations lead to his conclusion that "Interest in the real was lost long ago . . . ." We will end up "murky shadows amongst other such shadows."
I saw this piece on an absolutely gorgeous Spring morning. The square looked wonderful, the park was lovely--tiny green leaves on the trees, flowers in bloom. I dutifully read all the placards. But I confess I did it with increasing speed. I photographed the text so I could read it more carefully later, rather than wasting any more of such a perfect day. All these words of elegiac nostalgia were ruining my good mood. I thought they had to be ironic, but I wasn't completely sure. The passages all desperately needed editing.
I decided to spend an hour watching other peoples' reactions. Mr. Kabakov, in a recent Public Art Fund lecture, talked about "forcing" the viewer to read, but I've always assumed that most people won't. Here, then, are my very unscientific observations:
A "WALK"/"DON'T WALK" cycle took about a minute and a half, and it probably averaged out to one person stopping per cycle. That adds up to 40 viewers in that hour. Everybody started at the last placard because it is so much closer to the path of foot traffic than the first. At most, a fifth (8) of the viewers looked any further. Smokers spent more time than non-smokers. People eating took the most time. More people probably read further during the lunch hour.
About a fifth of the viewers (but not the same individuals) took a closer look at the glove. A few touched it with their shoe, a couple almost touched it with a finger, but no one actually did. One person stepped on it, but he was extremely agitated about something else.
Of the eight who got beyond the first panel, two got halfway through the readings. Just as I was about to leave, a man and woman arrived, who got all the way through the piece. And they actually read, rather than just looked at, the placards. Aside from a group of teenagers, they were the only ones who really seemed to enjoy the piece. Puzzlement was probably the most common reaction.
Lessons learned: Give out cigarettes and food if you want people to read. Two good viewers per hour doesn't sound like much, but it adds up--24 per day times six months totals to 4224. That is a sizeable audience.
It's time to get back to the initial question. No, an object is not worth 1512 words (give or take a few, depending on how you count hyphenations). And that is precisely the point of this project. The object is on the ground, the explication is on the pedestals. The real monument is not the glove, but the commentary. These cranky musings build up with as much grandiosity as any stone pile. Kabakov has very neatly subverted the viewer's expectations of what is of primary and secondary importance, and quite wonderfully turned them on their head.
New York, New York