Saturday, January 02, 2016

Mama! Mira! Caca en la Plaza!

One morning I was intrigued to see that one of my neighbors posted an offer on our Northside San José neighborhood’s yahoo email group to give away a poster of the infamous Quetzalcoatl sculpture that is located at the lower end of César Chavez park.
The infamous sculpture

César Chavez park is a two-acre park in a prime location in San José, and it was the site of the original capital of California from 1849 to 1851. The park has some venerable and dignified neighbors, such as the Fairmont Hotel and the San Jose Museum of Art, which inhabits a sandstone former Post Office building with an expanded wing, across the way from their newer neighbor, the Tech Museum of Innovation. The park is named after Mexican American César Chavez, an activist who did much to improve the lot of farm workers. The statue, which was installed in 1994, is titled "Plumed Serpent." It was supposed to honor Mexican Americans. Just about everyone agrees it does no such thing. Most people describe it as resembling nothing so much as an eight high by twelve foot wide pile of dinosaur droppings.

Here's the posting. Someone took the Quetzalcoatl poster within a few hours.

I bid on this at an auction and won and got it home and realized I just don't have a place to put it. It is done by a local artist (whose name escapes me) so I would like it to stay in the neighborhood. I think it is a colorful, fairly detailed rendition of the statue, with a nice representation of the surrounding area, with a humorous nod to the controversy around the piece.

The humorous nod to the controversy that my neighbor mentioned seems to be the silhouettes of two chihuahuas on top of the sculpture. People actually do pose their little dogs on top of the statue for gag photos, sort of like how people have their photos taken in Pisa so they look like they are holding up the Leaning Tower. It is a shame that a public art project that was planned to stand for the city of San Jose turned out to be such a nasty joke.

One reason that the city used to justify paying $500,000 for the almost universally hated and ridiculed representation of an Aztec idol from the era of human sacrifices was that it was a symbol of Mexican culture, because San José has many Mexican Americans among its long time residents and more recently arrived immigrants. (I never realized until I moved here that some of the Mexican Americans who live around here are descendants of people who lived in this area since before the founding of the United States.) The fact is that vast numbers of Mexicans would be highly likely to have an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe in their homes, and it would be hard to imagine any Mexicans honoring Quetzalcoatl anyway. Especially in the form of a pile of dinosaur droppings.

"Quetzacoatl! Who knows what he meant to the dead Aztecs, and to the older Indians, who knew him before the Aztecs raised their deity to heights of horror and vindictiveness?" D. H. Lawrence, The Plumed Serpent

Aside from the flawed rationale used to justify the sculpture, there is the appalling lack of aesthetics in the final version, which is a far cry from what the city commissioned. The original statue that was approved by the city arts commission from noted L.A. sculptor Robert Graham was to have been a gleaming, three story high, cast bronze image of a winged serpent on a pedestal. Some accounts say that Graham became angry at the city for not giving him another commission he had been seeking and/or because the city rejected his early designs, and in retribution he changed the design to a squat pile of concrete, as an apparent insult.

There are other explanations. One of them is that the artist realized that the bronze would cost too much to make. Still another explanation is that Graham derived his image from similar statues displayed at the National Museum in Mexico.
Quetzal is a brightly plumed tropical bird with brilliant bronze, green and red plumage. Imagine a cross between a parrot and a Las Vegas show girl. [Coatl means serpent.] ... The original design called for a three-story edifice of gleaming cast-bronze - it was discarded as being too expensive. The bronze would have echoed the plumage of a Quetzal, as well as the association Quetzalcoatl had with corn.

Graham's Quetzy is derivative of existing statues displayed at the National Museum in Mexico, described by D.H. Lawrence in 1926 as, " ... snakes coiled like excrement, snakes fanged and feathered beyond all dreams of dread." That is the problem. Graham's slavish re-creation of this ancient, snake-focused motif, albeit authentic in origin, is hardly what a city yearning for a nationally recognizable icon needs. The esthetics of the Aztecs are hardly the esthetics of chic and worldly San Joseans."-- From an unmaintained  website called Soft Underbelly of San Jose
Whether either or both explanations are true, Graham contracted with a company to pour the much-revised sculpture from a very small model he gave them, using a substance called Quickcrete. The casting was imperfectly done, spaces between the joints are noticeable. The tautness and shine of a snake's skin are not part of the work, instead the concrete seems to sag. The Aztec markings fade to indistinctness at any distance, so to anyone driving by, the serpent looks just like a dump.

One wag said that to this day little Mexican American children can be heard calling out, "Mama! Mira! Caca!" when they see the statue."

One final absurdity is that this foul image of a pagan idol is permanently installed in the same park where for some years manager scenes were forbidden to be displayed during the annual Christmas in the Park event. The ban on temporary manger scenes has been lifted, but the inconsistency of allowing an image of a pagan deity to stand permanently in a public park while a Christian statue would never be allowed still remains.
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