A man, a woman, a heart

The sculpture proposed for the plaza in front of the train station bends genders and may very well affirm life.

Sculpture: Commentary

November 18, 2001|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Architecture Critic

It sounds like John Waters-meets-bad-science-fiction: The Invasion of the 50-Foot She-Male.

But that's just one way of thinking about the gender-bending artwork proposed for the plaza in front of Baltimore's Pennsylvania Station: Jonathan Borofsky's Male / Female, a 51-foot-tall burnished aluminum sculpture of intersecting human figures -- one female and one male -- with a common red neon heart.

It also can be seen as a three-dimensional manifesto about human rights, or a peace symbol for troubled times.

This much is clear: Male / Female is a $750,000 gift to the city from the Municipal Art Society of Baltimore, a private group celebrating its 100th anniversary by commissioning a monumental work that can become a 21st-century landmark for Baltimore, the Monumental City.

Because it will be nearly as tall as the historic train station, the sculpture will be visible not only from Charles Street but also to motorists passing by on the Jones Falls Expressway.

Any major work of public art carries the potential for controversy, as George Sugarman discovered when he created a fanciful archway for the base of the Edward A. Garmatz federal courthouse. Baltimore Federal was a security risk, judges said, because it could hide a bomb or muggers. It has since been moved farther from the building's entrance.

Borofsky's early design has just been unveiled, and the sculpture won't be in place for a year or more. So it's impossible to know how it will be generally received.

Wide range of support

So far, the project has sailed through the approval process and attracted a wide range of support. That's a tribute to Borofsky, who proposed several designs before the Municipal Art Society agreed on Male / Female. They included a Claes Oldenburg-esque flower, and a 65-foot-tall stack of boulders and human figures. Municipal Art Society president Beverley Compton said he wanted the final design to have unanimous support from his nine-member board in case there is controversy, and it does.

Borofsky's sculpture is composed of metal silhouettes of a male and a female, like oversized cutout dolls, intersecting at right angles. When viewers circle the sculpture, the figure changes from male to female and back again. There are also three-quarter views that show the silhouettes blending together -- part man, part woman.

This melding of male and female forms certainly represents a twist on the traditional man-on-a-horse-with-a-sword statues put up in previous decades, and that alone could make the sculpture an object of derision: the Gender Blender.

Aside from its size and form, there's likely to be sensitivity about its "bleeding heart." Civic leaders might not want their signature sculpture's blood-red chest reminding visitors of the city's stubbornly high murder rate: "Come to Baltimore and get shot!" The artist might want to switch to a heart of gold or white.

At 58, Maine-based Borofsky has an international reputation for sensitively placing large human figures, including male-female pairings, in urban settings. He created a smaller figure similar to Male / Female, but without the heart-light, for a site in Japan. He has other large works in Germany, Switzerland and Monaco and in many U.S. cities.

Borofsky says his new work is not meant to make a political statement, or to serve as commentary about human sexuality.

For him, the male and female forms represent "the life-affirming energy that can be created when separate though sometimes seemingly opposing forces come together in harmony." He says his composition depicts "the most archetypal and obvious pairing of all -- male and female -- a fusion which not only creates life, but also has the potential to bring each of us into balance -- thereby creating a feeling of wholeness and peace in our everyday lives."

Readable on variety of levels

Part of the strength of Borofsky's work, as with any good art, is that it can be read on a variety of levels, and viewers can get out of it what they bring to it. Where some might see a heart bleeding from a gunshot wound, others will see a tribute to good-hearted people. Where some might wink about sexual ambiguity, others will see a positive statement about relationships between men and women.

Borofsky says he welcomes multiple readings but isn't seeking to stir up controversy. "This is what I do as a sculptor," he said. "I take human issues, human thoughts, and create physical forms."

Although the sculpture was conceived a year before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, Borofsky's figures, with their arms slightly raised, hold up remarkably well as a post-9 / 11 symbol of peace.

"In these difficult times, I believe that the message embodied in this artwork is more important than ever," he wrote to his clients on Sept. 21. "It is exactly this balance of male and female energy that is missing from the oppressive Taliban psyche. ... The sorrowful events that have just taken place in New York City are only one example of a male-aggressive people who lack the important male / female balance within themselves.

"Don't get me wrong," he added. "This sculpture will be placed in Baltimore not as an 'anti-Taliban' statement or a 'pro-American' statement. ... I believe that 25 years from now, when people look at the Male / Female sculpture standing in front of the train station, ... the memories of these difficult days will be buried deep within us, but the universal message of the sculpture will always stand, simple, honest and true."

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