By Christine Temin
They look like conventional pedestrian crosswalk signals, but instead of the usual "Walk" and "Don't walk" commands, they show photographs of a woman holding on to a child, keeping the toddler from bolting, presumably into the busy street.
What could be more innocuous? Nothing, actually. But this piece of temporary public art that Denise Marika has created for the intersection of Washington and Harvard streets in Brookline Village has generated a classic public art controversy - primarily because both woman and child are nude. The nudity is so discreet, though, that you can't even tell the sex of the child, and the woman's body is shrouded in shadow and posed so tactfully that there is nary a hint of breasts or genitals. A bus that regularly passes by the intersection displays an ad for Calvin Klein's Obsession perfume with an image of a far more provocative nude, yet no one seems to pay any attention to it.
The woman and child are nude, Marika explains, so they can remain in the realm of symbols: Everywoman and Everychild. Clothing inevitably conveys a particular economic class - whether bag lady or lady with Gucci bag - and the artist was after universality instead.
Marika is "an extraordinary, and established talent," according to Milena Kalinovska, director of the Institute of Contemporary Art, who has shown Marika's work at the ICA, where the Brookline Village piece, called "Crossing," was the focus of a public forum last night.
"Crossing" was sponsored by the Brookline Council for the Arts and Humanities and funded - to the tune of a mere $1,500 - by the Massachusetts Arts Lottery. No one anticipated the fuss the work would inspire. But on Wednesday, less than a week after the piece was installed. Brookline's Department of Transportation fielded 86 calls about it - 60 percent of them protesting the piece, according to John Harris, the department's director. The media is partly to blame for fanning the fire, Harris believes. "It must be a slow news week," he said. Callers objected to the nudity, he added, and to others factors including the physical conflict they saw in the images. Some even read pedophilia into the piece.
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For meaning, not display
"Crossing" is no surprise to anyone who has kept up wtih the work of Marika, who has exhibited from Berlin to Los Angeles and will this fall become the first Boston-based artist to have a solo show in the temporary exhibition gallery at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Gardner curator Jill Medvedow says "Crossing" is consistent with Marika's focus on human relationships, and is "very poignant" besides.
Marika combines advanced technology --video, photography-- with human vulnerability, creating pieces that are both ethereal and powerful. In "Battle," which was shown at the ICA this winter, a video of a nude man and woman wrestling was projected onto a steel I-beam, the cold hard steel a blunt contrast to the warm flesh. In an international group show that curator Judith Hoos Fox is organizing for Wellesley College's Davis Museum this fall, Marika will exhibit "Pacing," an installation of video monitors set into two medicine cabinets: The video depicts a nude woman pacing between them. A Marika work called "After," in a group show at Harvard's Fogg Art Museum through June 12, involves color transparencies that seem suspended in air. They depict two nude women wrapped together, and the work has both a sense of physical ascension and feet-first perspective reminicent of Mantegna's "Dead Christ."
Elizabeth Mansfield, who organized the Fogg show, says Marika's, work uses the body to convey meaning, not for mere display. As, for "Crossing," she said, "it reawakens people's sensitivity to the meaning of those signs, to what could happen if people aren't careful." Mansfield also thinks Marika has taken the crosswalk signals "out of the realm of Big Brother authoritarianism."