Visual Arts

Flag Me Down

"Don't Eat Tuna More Than Two Times a Week" was the unforgettable advice you may have received while driving north on Mill Avenue past Gammage Auditorium last spring. The posted chalkboard-style signs bearing wacky wisdom at the side of the road were part of Arizona State University's first "Shared Terrain" public art project, a collaboration between ASU and the city of Tempe. The exhibition got students and Tempe residents chatting, wondering aloud what each sign meant and comparing notes on favorites. Simply put, it made people think — which made it a success.

Pulling off a public art piece can be extremely tricky. Typically, people are uncomfortable with changes in community spaces. In order to be successful, a concept has to be appealing and compelling enough not only to survive the public's initial reaction, but to eventually bring us around to a genuine interest or appreciation of the work. The first "Shared Terrain" exhibition set the bar high early on; there was plenty of reason to anticipate more good things to come.

Unfortunately, this year's effort — Grow Where You're Planted, by Tempe artist Chris Coleman — dashed such hopes.

Co-sponsored by the ASU Office of Public Art and the City of Tempe Public Art Program, the "Shared Terrain" program offers $5,000 to the artist chosen by ASU representatives, City of Tempe staff, and Tempe community members. Coleman is a student at the ASU School of Art. His background is in metal design and sculpture.

Over the last three weeks, the lawn of Grady Gammage Auditorium turned yellow and orange with 51,000 small flags, each representing an ASU student, poking out from the grass, carefully arranged in an approximately 8,000-square-foot circle. Of course, the only way you would have known what the flags represented was by reading a press release or ASU's Web site.

Two large wings, one in each color, join in the middle at a column of alternating orange and yellow. This is enough to get a driver's attention, and on a sunny day when the wind is blowing, the flags do look nice and springy, fluttering against the backdrop of bright green grass. The yellow (considered gold) flags have maroon text that reads, "Grow where you're planted" and represent ASU's school colors. The orange flags read, "Reap what you've grown," in blue letters: the colors of Tempe. Each sentence is printed four times on its flag.

After a week, Coleman began the process of moving the flags across the street to Tempe's Birchett Park, a few feet away at Mill Avenue and 13th Street. Two thousand flags are moved and rearranged each day in an organic, plant-like pattern in the lawn of the park to represent the "journey" of ASU's students who leave campus life to spread their knowledge.

Sometimes an artist can pull off a simple concept with a little quirky humor, but here, there's no joke — the piece is just corny. But the worst part is that you can see Birchett Park from the Gammage lawn. This makes it tough to justify the use of the word "journey." There is nothing gripping about this installation, and it certainly lacks the ambition, grit, and humor of the previous project.

And as a recent college grad, I hope that the University has higher hopes for me than a mad-dash jaywalk of a couple hundred feet.

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Lilia Menconi
Contact: Lilia Menconi