We have all kinds of definitions of public art--the sculptures you see in front of corporate buildings (often called plop art, due to their ultimate lack of context), murals, street art/graffiti, etc. But the kind of public art that really sparks my interest is usually highly political, historically relevant, and sometimes controversial enough that it encourages not only robust public discourse and debate, but also warrants a reflection of our accepted cultural narrative.
This week, the city of Glendale, California announced that it would move forward with plans to erect a 1,110 pound monument which honors Korean women who were forced to work as sex slaves for the Japanese army during World War II--despite hundreds of emails, mainly from Japan, protesting the monument.
The controversy of comfort women regularly sparks tensions between the two countries of South Korea and Japan, with the former wanting an unequivocal official apology statement from the PM level, while the latter struggles with inconsistent messages that span from past apologies unfortunately tainted with more recent denials of the issue as well as the ongoing visits to the Yasukuni Shrine. China is also not a fan of these annual visits by Japanese leaders that pay respect to convicted war criminals.
Regardless of one's stance on the issue of comfort women, the decision to erect such a monument is very unique and progressive. Not only is it an elegant and subtle way to counter the jarring Yasukuni visits by Japanese leaders, it more importantly serves as a borderless symbol against war and tragedy even if that war or tragedy wasn't technically local to the monument site itself. While many of the protesters disagree with the city "meddling" with the affairs of two distant countries, they fail to understand that human conflicts are ultimately all-encompassing in today's globalized world--and art doesn't have to be burdened with traditional notions of cultural "boundaries."
The city of Glendale, with its high Armenian population, is also no stranger to calling out history as they see it--the Armenian genocide is called just that by the city and commemorated every year despite it not being officially recognized by the House yet.
The bronze, obsidian, and granite statue will be a replica of the infamous statue that sits in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul--the very polar opposite of "plop art," and will be the first of its kind on the West Coast.
[Photo: Glendale mayor Frank Quintero visiting Seoul's monument to comfort women]