Sculpture Garden Opens, Northern Spark lights up the night

June 10 is a day that will live on in Twin Cities art infamy. We flexed our art muscles, mopped up our sweaty brow and saw how art and politics mix – sometimes unintentionally.

The day started with the grand re-opening of the Walker Sculpture Garden. The garden kept some of the old (Spoon and Cherry) and brought in some new (Katharina Fritsch’s Hahn/Cock). I love her Blue Rooster and I’d love it twice as much if it were twice as big. (It’s 25 feet tall.)

Fritsch’s work is interesting – deep colors, everyday items. The Walker is showing her work inside right now too in a show called Multiples. It includes a creepy work of matte black rats in a circle with their tails tied in a monkey knot. The Rooster is a nod to feminism but also a playful addition to the garden.

The gardens are much more open. Like a good friend getting a haircut, it’s hard to pinpoint all of the differences but a lot of trees are gone or severely trimmed. The greenhouse (former home of the Frank Gehry Fish) has lost its walls. It’s more of a patio now.

The walkway up the side of the Gallery has some real potential. The sprinklers might be the best part of a visit – when it’s 95 degrees. Right now there’s a lot of no-go space as the flora fills in. The garden feels less like a secret now – but more like a part of the city.

What was missing was any trace of The Scaffold, the gallows turn jungle gym that bore an unfortunate resemblance to the gallows of the 1862 Dakota execution. The structure was completed a month ago and torn down a week ago after mediation between the Walker and Dakota community. New sod lives where the structure was.

If the Dakota community asked that the work be entirely erased, I respect that. If the plan is to replace that piece with something that celebrates the Dakota or other culture, I applaud it. The visual silence wasn’t deafening – but it was heard.

Just hours after the garden party Northern Spark started – a night of art. This year the art took place up and down the Green Line (train from St Paul to Minneapolis). One of my favorite nights of the year.

We started in Minneapolis at the opening ceremony. In the shadow of the US Bank stadium, we arted it up in the park. One of our favorites – the Night Library was there but sadly a 2-hour wait. But we caught a little bit of the cardboard drive-in, saw wonderful birdhouse art and learned that if we don’t’ clean up our act chocolate could be extinct by 2030!!

We also saw an IRL string-art infographic. You chose a color of string based on your age and wove that string through the art based on your survey responses. Love the idea of using interactive art like that to show results.

Next stop – Cedar Riverside. We saw some markets, a Ramadan meal but mostly people bustling about. I love that art brought people to a community that might be new to them. I think that’s the best part of Northern Spark – bringing people to communities. Cedar Riverside can be a little rough – but people live there. Families live there. They take walks. They play soccer. They speak 100 languages (collectively – not just one smarty). A lot of Somalis live in the area now. It’s been a home to new Americans since the 40s – it will be interesting to see who is living there in 10 years – and selfishly what culinary traditions they will bring!

We hit the Weisman next. Perhaps my favorite exhibit of the night was the Un:heard Resonance. It was real time creation of music and video based on interaction with nature. Somehow touch turns to electronic music. Very cool.

Little Africa was next – just off Snelling. There was a super cool VR thing you could try on the train. We were disappointed that we weren’t able to download that in time to use it. I wonder if it works after the event. We also saw a sad movie on what happens to the computers you throw out. People in poverty tearing apart computers for whatever copper or metal could be sold. Tearing apart include the toxic burning away of plastic. It hurt my lungs to watch it on screen! (Gotta plug my buddies at PCs for People if you need to donate your old computers!!)

Then we ran into a hiccup. We were going to take the train to the next stop but there was a 28 minute wait. I love the train. I loved the idea of taking the train stop to stop BUT at 2 am – a 28 minutes wait can be a buzz kill. It would have been nice to have more trains throughout the night. And speaking of trains – I enjoyed seeing the trains but just like it was interesting to get people to Cedar Riverside at night – being on the train reminded me of our neighbors who ride the train at night for shelter. (My friend Monica has been cataloging that journey.)

Finally we landed in Lowertown – by car. We caught the tail end of a Native storyteller and saw some spectacular nature superimposed on buildings and painted on the street.

I say finally but we have some hopes of visiting the Mekong Night Market tonight. Always another summer favorite that was combined with Northern Spark this year.

We took some breaks to meet new people and see old friends, which means we didn’t see everything but we saw a lot. I love the idea of art between the Cities. I love the idea of getting people out and about to see the different corners of the Cities. While I’m a supporter of raising awareness of climate change. I sort of miss the days when the focus on Northern Spark was art and community. I understand the teachable moment – but art and community seem like pretty good lessons too!!

What do you tell a kid about gallows in the sculpture garden?

Aine and I took a trip to the Walker today to get a sneak preview of the new sculpture garden to be unveiled in a week. We have been trying to get sneak peeks for weeks – months really. We have been so excited and anxiously awaiting the new garden. Sadly that’s wasn’t the main reason we went today. We went to see the Scaffold – the work by Sam Durant that was intended to be a commentary on capital punishment but turned out to be a commentary on cultural insensitivity.

The work comprises elements of seven different hangings in US history; most notable for Minnesotans, it includes “elements” of the execution of 38 Dakota men following the US-Dakota war in 1862. The largest one-day execution in American history. (Elements is really a Minnesota understatement – from a distance is looks like the pictures of the scaffold used. A few weeks ago, while scoping out a sneak preview from the bridge by the garden, a friend called it for what it was immediately.)

I won’t go into the details of the war – but there are many questions about the hangings. Native Americans arrested at the end of the war were tried without representation and without knowing the process or procedure of military tribunals. Originally 303 prisoners were convicted of murder and rape and sentenced to death. President Lincoln stepped in to review the cases individually and lowered that number to 38 based on which convictions appeared to be for war crimes versus attacks on civilians. He did so knowing there was great controversy. Minnesota Bishop Henry Whipple asked for leniency. Minnesota Senator Morton Wilkinson warned that many were opposed to leniency.

The men were hanged. They were buried in a mass grave by the riverbank. Rumor has it someone removed skin from some of the men and sold it in Mankato. As if that weren’t bad enough, the grave was robbed and bodies were used for research by local doctors – including William Mayo. (He apparently kept the skeleton in his home. Those remains and other have since been returned to the Dakota Tribe.)

It’s an ugly part of American and Minnesotan history. These men have earned the right to rest in peace and their families need no public reminders of the horrendous acts. We should never forget the atrocity but how we remember is very important. As the protests said – it’s not Durant’s story. It’s not the Walker’s story. It’s certainly not my story.

So it was with some trepidation that Aine and I went – especially since Aine didn’t know the story and I didn’t know all of the details. We showed up and saw the protests signs and the list of 38 names. We heard the drums and got closer to see the drum circle.

Aine had so many questions – mostly why? Why did they want to put gallows in the same garden as Spoon and Cherry and the new Blue Rooster? Why did they think children should play on something so dangerous? (She worried about kids falling; I worried about kids getting desensitized to the structure and the idea of its use.) Why didn’t anyone think about how hurtful it would be the families and tribal communities of the men hanged? Why didn’t they get the Native community involved?

It was hard not to ask all of these questions and not remember the recent Take Over of Twin Cities art by Guerrilla Girls – a reminder to include women and other voices. Or the recent work of Jim Bear Jacobs and others to get legislators to rethink art and imagery of Native Americans at the Capitol. When and how can we learn to consider the importance of our words, actions and art on striving to be our best selves by including everyone?

The Walker is clearly asking some of these questions themselves. They have postponed the opening of the sculpture garden for a week. The Walker worked with the Dakota community to come up with a plan. A native company will remove the structure Friday afternoon. It will be burned ceremoniously by the tribe near Fort Snelling area. The Walker with commission a work by Native artist.

I love the Walker. I believe everyone makes mistakes, it’s just a matter of how you recover from them. I’m hoping to see recovery used as a tool to help shine light on all of Minnesota’s stories – in the first person.