When the hissing trains slink into Baltimore's UNION station and passengers disembark for the cities various odd neighborhoods, the first thing they see of Baltimore is MAN/WOMAN, the giant, brushed aluminum sculptural celebration of hermaphrodism by artist Jonathan Borofsky, which recalls both the robot of The Day the Earth Stood Still and also certain two-faceted gods of the ancient world. This monster sets the tone for the deeply equivocal, paradoxical nature of what must surely follow in their visit to our fair city.
Uniformly loved by all the citizens of Baltimore, who consider this most visible of public artworks to be a sort of spiritual center for the city, it is an oracle that can be approached in all sorts of grave situations for counsel. Young people to approach it to learn if they should dress as males or females or some combination. Steam-heating technicians approach it for augury relating to the tightening or loosening of valves in the caves beneath the city. Public servants approach it for ideas about new legislation and regulation. In the past, it has even been surrounded by groups of cross-dressing citizens (one a middle-aged man merely wearing a 3x5 card with the word "Lesbian" printed in ball-point on it) who worshiped it with wild song & the tintinnabulation of eastern gongs and flutes. According to the security cameras at the station, things have stopped just short of human sacrificse and Dionysian rites.
Symbolically, of course, it radiates from its core on many levels that most cardinal of Baltimore virtues: ambiguity.
Let us count the ways, if they are even countable...
First, as a landmark, it "transvigorates" the area (now known as "Station North" or "The Northwest Passage" or "The Back Passage") around the train station, its science-fiction aura breaking the decisive "camels back" of meaning as it shifts the place's identity from low-profile urbanism to the intense dystopian-future-like wonderland it actually is. Those that don't see that simply haven't looked.
Its like the secret "inner doctrine" of what we now call Station North being nailed to the front of the chapel, Vatican be dammed. I know about this, because I grew up as a frequent (and severely underage, but also non-drinking) patron of The Charles Theatre and The Club Charles, so the statue simply articulates some of the other worldly wonder I've known to be in that neighborhood all my life. There are so many circumstances related the area that defied belief...
- Terry, a way ahead-of-her-time towering amazon punk-rock pool hustler breaking redneck heads one minute in the Club Charles one minute, but sweet as pie the next, impressed me greatly, circa 1984. I must say, over the years, The Club Charles and I together saw an incredible amount of deeply weird behavior take place in the reflection of its Bob Hieronymus-conceived mural (sadly painted over now).
- It was a hub for the boundary-crossing extrovert John Water's scene (for lack of a better term) in the 70's and early 80's.
- An insane Baltimore artist (name forgotten) putting a mattress in the middle of Charles Street in the 70's and stopping traffic by writhing on it for hours while the police tried to figure out how to remove him. Apparently he somehow made himself psychically "very heavy to carry." Finally, a police that he knew was brought and convinced him to give up his obscure quest to lie down in traffic.
- Lanvale Street, which for a time was for my money "the best place in Baltimore to get your car window smashed." This has abated considerably, as far as I can tell, but in the early 90's, it was almost like a programmed machine for silently smashing windows. (Actually, this has continued into the present tense with a Thanatologist friend of mine having all four windows smashed this week.)
- The various Shirker Nests* that were just over the edge of the hill running into the train tracks below, where homeless and hermetic members of city population have dwelt. I haven't checked these in a while, but I suspect there may be less than in the past, due to some changes in the poverty allowed in center city, law enforcement, clearing of brush, etc.
- A strange "luncheonette of limbo" where the grilled cheese had a really funny taste and time had not passed since the last episode of twilight zone aired. This is now an even more limbo establishment at the corner of Lafayette and Charles that has been renovated but never open, its retro-futuristic door soldered shut.
- The American Dime Museum, closed a few years back, which had the worlds largest ball of string, mermaid husks, and many other highly useful artifacts.
- More recently, Velocipede, the utopian-practical Bike-exchange and training project, which is wildly evocative of how great life could be if we only redrew the lines a bit.
- An incredible cast of strange agents, pan-handlers (now mainly shuffled off) with unbelievably inventive and wrongheaded stories, bouncers, and odd hangers on in The Charles Theatre. One of them tried to stab me on the bridge below the Charles in 1986, but was so drunk he dropped his large kitchen knife, and cursed me as I danced around him.
- A mere block away on Calvert (of which more below) and 2-3 blocks north, an unusual density of transvestite and transexual prostitutes. This is of course perhaps most magically resonant with the statue's hermaphrodism itself.
So, in that light, when the statue was erected, it was like the proverbial "rug that really pulled the room together," like a neighborhood coming out of the closet to reveal its true fevered halloween-in-the-wrong-season self. I for one was overjoyed.
It remains to be seen how much of these flavors can be erased by gentrification and "development."
Second, the statue itself in ambiguous. Lets look beyond the obvious. My friend Chiara Giovando pointed out to me correctly that the feet of the statue strangely look like hooves, because of their perspectival distortion(?). What is this statue making "OK" for people? Minotaurism? Remember, a shadowy group of "philanthropists" donated it to the city. Shades of cultic behavior? Further, it is surrounded by police, yet it moves not... no one can mistake it for a "fine art" piece, despite Borofsky's fame as an artist. It is no more limited to the world of "fine art" than are Sargent's occult paintings in the Boston Public Library (check them out!)
Third, the statues instantiation was itself somewhat shrouded in secret, paid for I think by members of the Monte Perlin society or some such, resulting in many letters to the editor asking "who was it that had this great idea so we can thank them?" I love the fact that it dropped out of the sky on the city so to speak, bypassing consensus-reality tastes to provide so much poetic accuracy so efficiently. Much more effectively than in Pittsburgh, by the way, where flawed engineering apparently caused problems--or so I heard last night. It would seem more likely for that sort of technical breakdown to occur in Baltimore, where we have four snow plows masquerading as 25 on the city books (more ambiguity?).
Fourth, the combination of quasi-classical architecture and 2-d robotism provide the sense of "future past" that was so evident in the past, a la Star Trek. In the context of postmodernism, somehow this earlier style of historic contradiction seems vaguely dated, creating a second enclosure of ambiguity within the first. For as we judge the passage of historical sequence, we always judge it from the vantage of a specific moment. And that moment is always gone.
Well, I could go on, but I think I'll stop there. Lets just say that in Baltimore we unanimously applaud this symbol, our towering tyrant of cybernetic hermophrodism, our keeper of the gate, and the loadstone to our Northwest Passage. Thank you Borofsky and as the ancients said... "Si hoc signum legere potes, operis boni in rebus Latinis alacribus et fructuosis potiri potes!"
John Berndt 5/22/10
*Shirker Nests are a term coined by the Baltimore sociological expert Al Ackerman to refer to secret signs of habitation that may be found in the urban landscape. Typically, a bush or bathroom stall that looks lived-in and comes complete with a few socks, an empty liquor bottle, and some toilet paper. Some may be more elaborate than others.