Don’t look now, but MONA (the Museum of New Art in Detroit) is turning a postmodern innovator into a mere provocateur. At least that’s the effect of setting up Detroit artist Tyree Guyton to Heidelberg-ize a site in a polite Birmingham neighborhood. Guyton, the creator of the controversial Heidelberg Project on Detroit’s east side, was recently invited to transform a house owned by architect Michael Poris, a MONA board member, to the so-predictable dismay of neighbors and city fathers in the squeaky-clean suburb. But was anybody but the uninformed really surprised?
Guyton invested many years and immeasurable brainloads of vision into the Heidelberg Project, with the goal of saving his neighborhood from the devastation wrought by crack houses and the not-so-benign neglect of the City of Detroit. In the process, he attracted worldwide attention to his compassionately surreal art and found himself (ironically) at odds with some of his own neighbors who petitioned the city to destroy the complex. It’s easy to see how a curator might imagine Guyton’s work as some form of “Art Attack” (MONA’s press release is titled “Museum Sponsors Art Attack — Upscale Suburb Victim of Art”). But apparently lost in the scuffle are Guyton’s conceptual achievements: the many ways he made us rethink the use of abandoned space in the city, shifting the focus away from knee-jerk development (industrial, commercial or otherwise) and suggesting through his example that we might make better use of our fields and structures. He wasn’t thumbing his nose at anybody or daring the Man to bust his chops. That his fellow urbanites so tragically misinterpreted his ideas as to think of him as the “garbage artist” is no reason to caricature his subsequent projects in the same way.
Near the end of MONA’s press release is the following: “Now, Guyton’s art has literally hit these suburban gawkers where they live.” Supposedly, it’s these same Birminghammers who flocked to oooh-and-ah at a funky Heidelberg that they’d never let happen in their own back yard. Come on, guys, how many people on Poris’ street even know who Guyton is? In that staid community where the major problems are Valium abuse and nervousness over NASDAQ reports, the reaction to Guyton has been cold and swift: Tear the mother down and within days, not the months that it took in “inefficient” Detroit.
Artists and cultural institutions looking out over the wide open spaces of the Motor City can hold Guyton’s example in mind when they dream of an art park or other community installation. How about extending the Heidelberg vision so that Nelson Smith, Chris Turner, Hugh Timlin, Janet Hamrick, Gilda Snowden, Michael Mikolowski, Peter Williams et al (and hey, Guyton himself) could be given the spaces and means to build a fantastic testament to the imagination right here where the possibilities are endless and the property values still down to earth?The Hot & the Bothered is edited by MT arts editor George Tysh. E-mail him at email@example.com.