Love Among the Ruin Porn, Part 2: The Heidelberg Project

 

The Heidelberg Project (detail), a massive outdoor art installation in the East Side Detroit neighborhood McDougall-Hunt since 1986.

The Heidelberg Project (detail), a massive outdoor art installation in the East Side Detroit neighborhood McDougall-Hunt since 1986.

My Mom gets a little worked up when she is exposed to urban blight.  She came to visit this weekend, and, before our excursion around Detroit began, she told me about a time when we as a family had gone to see Andrew Lloyd Webber’s plotless psychedelic mindfuck Cats at the Fox Theater and she had marveled at the sight of a family living inside a building that had no glass in any of the windows.

Twenty years later, she still breathes differently than usual at the thought of it (about the same way I feel about Cats).

In other words, the proverbial “fabulous ruins of Detroit” don’t have the same aesthetic power for her as they do for a lot of people.  Think of it this way: I enjoy Wayne Newton because I see him as “Wayne Newton”, but she hates and fears Wayne Newton because, to her, he is only Wayne Newton.  This is to say that when Mom sees poverty and suffering, that’s all she sees; the third eye, the eye that puts the eye in irony and has the power to give fabulosity to ruins, Mom, perhaps to her credit, lacks.

I suggested that we go to see the Heidelberg Project because it does something unique and amazing with its celebration of the weird, sad, yet undeniable aesthetic beauty of even Detroit’s most dilapidated neighborhoods.  The Heidelberg Project invites visitors to feast their eyes on an almost entirely abandoned neighborhood, but in a spirit of optimism and community instead of irony or sheer cannibalistic schadenfreude.

The Heidelberg Project was founded in 1986 by Tyree Guyton.  He grew up on Heidelberg Street, in the McDougall-Hunt neighborhood of Detroit’s East Side.  

 

The Heidelberg Project is a short drive on Gratiot Ave. from downtown, as this convenient map illustrates.

The Heidelberg Project is a short drive on Gratiot Ave. from downtown, as this convenient map illustrates.

Between his childhood in the 50’s and 60’s and the aftermath of the 12th Street Riot in July 1967, Guyton had a chance to witness a dramatic transformation in the neighborhood.  By 1986, there was almost no one there besides Guyton, his Grandfather Mackey, and Guyton’s wife Karen.  At some point, Guyton got the idea that all of the flotsam and jetsam scattered throughout the neighborhood’s various lots, alleys, and decaying frames could be made into art.  After the three made an effort to clean up the neighborhood, they assembled the various items that they had gathered into a massive series of outdoor installations.

Tyree Guyton.  In 2008, the then-22-year-old Heidelberg Project was selected as one of 15 projects to represent the U.S. in the Venice Architecture Biennale.

Tyree Guyton. In 2008, the then-22-year-old Heidelberg Project was selected as one of 15 projects to represent the U.S. in the Venice Architecture Biennale.

From Campus Martius, Mom, Shannon, and I drove East on Gratiot until we reached McDougal.  Shannon was funny, because she was so hungover that all she could do was lie stretched out on the back seat and ramble like a homeless person.  

Gratiot Ave. on the way to the Heidelberg Project.

Gratiot Ave. on the way to the Heidelberg Project.

After we turned off of Gratiot onto McDougall, it was only a matter of minutes before we spotted trees draped with stuffed animal representations of cartoon characters.  The stuffed animals still looked cheerful despite having been drained of color by many years of wind and rain.

 Stuffed Animals 1

A lot has been written about the Heidelberg Project. It and Guyton have received numerous awards and honors, most notably in 1991, when Guyton appeared on Oprah to discuss it, and in 2006, when Bruce Webber photographed Kate Moss in front of it.

Boat

On the day that I went to Heidelberg Street, it was raining, dark, and cold.  But as soon as we pulled my Mom’s car over to the curb and got out the rain slowed to a drizzle and the clouds turned from black to newsprint-gray, and that about describes my own reaction to what I saw there.  The way that the art crossed the borders between the lots, the lots and the sidewalks, and the sidewalks and the streets made the entire area feel like a completely isotropic space, totally removed of the invisible forces that divide up urban spaces and channel traffic through them.

New York

The area felt so free, the only thing I can think of that feels like it is the feeling of returning to a childhood home after a long trip away.  That feeling, as purely physical as it is sentimental, “OK–now I can stretch out.”  

Being there gave me the real sense that I was safe and didn’t need to hurry or hide anywhere, whether from a mugger, a murderer, or just routine traffic laws.

Smiles

Knowing what I do of the project, and the way it started as an attempt to do something good for a neighborhood that had been depopulated and ravaged by a turbulent period of time, I think that feeling of coming home might be part of the point.  I found it moving to imagine that the many stuffed animals displayed around the area were supposed to represent Guyton’s memories, from early childhood, of Heidelberg Street as a cheerful place full of all different types of people.

Elephant on Boat

I can’t know this for sure, of course.  If anyone gets on my case for identifying Guyton’s former neighbors with stuffed animals, though, please be advised that the loss of humanity from these stuffed animals, as memories, is part of what makes their symbolic role in the installation all the more poignant.  Their loss of human identity reflects the sheer length of time that it has been since the artist has seen these people in the neighborhood, and, over time, memories fade.  I responded to the stuffed animals in the Heidelberg Project because they seem to represent both more and less than just memories of people, that is, they represent faded memories of people from too long ago to remember clearly.

Mt. Elliot Ave.

Mt. Elliot Ave.

The stuffed animals are just one of many aspects of the Heidelberg Project, though; another one, for example, is a vast field of paintings that juxtapose ultra-simple representations of women’s shoes and the word “GOD.”  The truth is that you really should just go to Detroit and see it for yourself.

Shoes

Shannon’s hangover appeared to have been cured by the hangover during the few moments we spent walking through the series of blocks that were included in it.  I envisioned the Heidelberg Project lasting centuries, gradually absorbing the whole of Detroit, and then, with any luck, all of human civilization.  

Faces Friendly

That raises a valuable question, though: How could society persist in any form without infrastructure?  The Heidelberg Project is basically like an ancient city overgrown with vines and trees, after all–the only difference is that, rather than vines, trees, and wildlife reclaiming the streets for nature, here, art has reclaimed the neighborhood for the creative imagination.  Either way, the crucial infrastructural distinctions–street, sidewalk, lot, etc.–no longer exist.

The infrastructure.  Would you miss it if it went away?

The infrastructure. Would you miss it if it went away?

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~ by electrorefutedrobo on August 28, 2009.

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