At the unveiling Tuesday afternoon of the late Niki de Saint Phalle's sculpture, “Le Grand Oiseau de Feu sur L'Arche” (“The Large Bird of Fire on the Arch”), amid the cheers and greetings and oohing and aahing, a small worry emerged among the spectators: "How are they going to control the vandalism? How will they keep the skateboarders from damaging it?"
I heard this from a high-ranking city staffer, and from the head of one of the city's major cultural organizations, and from other cultural arts types plus some regular folks.
So, taking the opportunity to horn in on colleague Larry Toppman's interview with John Boyer, president of the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, I asked him The Skateboard Question. Boyer was unflappable. "Speaking as a skateboarder ... " he began. Turns out, as a California boy, he was a skateboarder. "The best of them know better," he said, "and so I'm just trusting they understand a good thing when they see it."
The "Firebird" sits (squats?) in a plaza in front of the Bechtler on South Tryon Street. It's a sparkling mosaic of glass bits, depicting a bird standing on a large parabolic arch. People were having photos taken standing between its legs. (In the photo above Andreas Bechtler, whose collection forms the museum, is second from left.) A small girl of about 3 was putting her face right up to it to see how the mirrors changed her view. As I stood admiring it, I noticed how the mirrors showed random spots in the scene behind me: Two or three images of City Council member Warren Cooksey looking cheerful, one of Charlotte Symphony President Jonathan Martin looking pensive, and multiple other shards of the scene.
Boyer wasn't at all disturbed by the hands on the glassy sculpture. "When I see those fingerprints on the mirror, that is a beautiful thing," he said.
I asked artist Linda Luise Brown if she knew why Saint Phalle used the arch form. Brown noted Saint Phalle's work had a strong feminist core.
I did more research. I believe it is safe to conclude the Firebird is a "she." One of Saint Phalle's most famous works was the 1966 Hon-En-Katedral ("She-A-Cathedral) in Sweden, where you entered the exhibit by walking between the legs of (i.e. through the vagina of) a reclining woman. Her early works of female forms, were called Nanas. She once said, "For me, they were the symbol of a cheerful, liberated woman. Today, after nearly twenty years, I see them differently. I see them as heralds of a new matriarchal era, which I believe is the only answer."
Tuesday afternoon, people were drawn to the passage between the Firebird's legs. "A new matriarchal era." On South Tryon Street, no less!