Chloë Bass Invites Personal Reflections And Public Encounters Outside The Pulitzer
Anyone walking around the Grand Center neighborhood in St. Louis for the next several months may find themselves in the middle of a public art installation.
The area around the Pulitzer Arts Foundation is host to 32 signs and images, some with questions printed on them and others bearing statements.
They are ruminations on life, love and the nature of intimacy. Some signs are large, including four mirrored billboards. Others are tucked in among shrubbery as if to identify a species of plant.
One key to the public art exhibition is that there’s no one place to begin or end. Artist Chloë Bass intends visitors to wander around the scene, perhaps spending an extended visit with some pieces and leaving others for another visit.
“They could walk around here, they could walk over there,” Bass said on a recent afternoon, standing on the sidewalk in front of the Pulitzer Arts Foundation and pointing around at possible routes through the show. “There’s a bunch of ways to do it.”
“Wayfinding” is an adaptation and extension of a show with the same name the artist displayed last year at St. Nicholas Park in Harlem, presented by the Studio Museum of Harlem. The title refers to informational signs placed in public to let people know where they’re going. But the intent of these signs is less concrete.
“This is emotional wayfinding, not practical wayfinding,” she said.
Bass is a New York native who has made several visits to St. Louis in recent years, participating in projects at the Pulitzer and the Luminary — including one for which she interviewed 23 St. Louisans about their views on personal safety. For the past year, she’s lived in St. Louis part-time with her partner near Tower Grove Park.
Some signs display declarative statements meant to provoke thought: “I want to believe that bodies can be different without being threatening.” Elsewhere there are four tightly cropped photographs of families, culled from a collection at New York Public Library.
The thematic centerpieces of the exhibition are four mirrored billboards bearing open-ended questions: How much of care is patience? How much of love is attention? How much of life is coping? How much of belief is encounter?
Bass added the fourth question for this iteration of the show. It is rooted in her observation that St. Louisans simply don’t encounter each other on the streets as much as people in New York do. She said that can lead to a relative lack of mutual understanding.
“In New York you’re going to have encounters that become meaningful, frustrating, beautiful, tragic, disgusting — no matter what you do. You really can’t get out of it. And here, I think, if that’s something that you want, you have to work really hard to find it,” she said. “People's perspectives of St. Louis are strong, are really personal, are really unique. And [people] don’t necessarily encounter each other to discuss or really feel through what a different experience might be like.”
One of the four mirrored billboards sits atop Park-Like, the Pulitzer’s artfully landscaped green space across the street from the museum. As a visitor approaches it from the museum, the words on the sign seem clear, then hard to read, then disappear into a reflection of the sky. Closer to the piece, the words become clearer again, and viewers might glimpse their reflection.
“What’s beautiful about the reflective sculptures is that they do change so much with a slight move of your body or with the light and the time of day,” said exhibition curator Kristin Fleischmann Brewer, “so you catch glimpses of your environment, of yourself.”
This effect underlines the idea that individuals have their own answers to these questions, and those answers might change depending on someone’s view of things.
Adding another layer of interpretation, Bass constructed an audio collage of local artists reading things related to public space. Poet Cheeraz Gorman reads excerpts from articles about landscape architecture, Black Rep founding director Ron Himes reads some of the policies of the city’s “Mow to Own” program for vacant lots, and artist Damon Davis reads online reviews from visits to the Pulitzer. Bass also reads from her own writings.
The exhibition includes a lot of material to process, and Bass said visitors may take away different meanings depending on how they feel that day or which signs they happen to notice.
“I think that the show has a lot of opportunity to make chance meaning, or meaning through encounter,” she said. “Especially after a year-plus of having so few incidental encounters or incidental experiences due to the pandemic, I’m really excited for people to have that now.”
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