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Art Goes Under

Arts on the Line: Art for Public Transit Spaces At the Hayden Gallery, MIT, 160 Memorial Drive, Cambridge Through March 16

By Lois E. Nesbitt

IMAGINE walking into a subway station to the tune of a chiming windmill, descending an escalator plastered with rumpled bronze gloves, and waiting for the train while staring at a mural of life-sized cows.

Fun, maybe. A novel experience. Only thing is, it won't be so novel when the same chimes, gloves, and cows confront you every time you ride the T. These projects, and seventeen others, are scheduled to be installed in Cambridge subways by 1984.

No one would deny the novelty of the projects--clever creations that run the artistic gamut from humorous to grave, from monumental to miniscule. The works make a wonderful display, and the exhibit "Arts on the Line" now at the Hayden Gallery at MIT captures the lively innovation and ingenuity of the schemes.

But the exhibit, for all its slick and professional presentation, can not convey the experience of seeing these works in their subterranean homes. We see four rooms of scaled drawings, meticulous models, and sample fragments. What we get is four subway stations filled with some pretty outlandish ideas.

Arts on the Line is a pioneer effort in the realm of Public Art. And public art always creates inflamed debate over the validity of commissioning artists to embellish our environment. At stake is both public space and public tax dollars, and many citizens are reluctant to have the government decide what affects their eyes and their wallets.

Those who support the concept usually think in Utopian terms: happy habitat, happy citizens. Planners, architects and governments, notorious optimists, constantly envision a Better Future.

"Arts on the Line" has all the earmarks of social idealism, a plan to improve our cities by making the subway stations enjoyable and aesthetic spaces. The city commissioned artists to create works for the four stations of the Red Line Northwest Extension (Harvard, Porter and Davis squares, and Alewife Station).

In 1977 the Urban Mass Transportation Administration, a federal agency, granted the MBTA $45,000 to run "Arts on the Line" as a pilot for similar projects in other U.S. cities. Over the past 18 months, the Cambridge Council for the Arts selected twenty projects (five for each station) from among works submitted by over 400 artists. A computerized Artbank now stores information on all the artists for future projects.

The works selected are eccentric and imaginative. They progress far beyond the bland walls done by the government-sponsored WPA artists in the 1930s. Each represents the artist's concern for integrating art into the subway environment. As the organizers of the project point out, few places could provide more problems for artists than crowded subway stations.

The artists have gone to extremes to adjust to the setting: most of the art screams for attention. Gyorgy Kepes creates a nine-foot-high, 100-foot-long stained glass window that transforms passing headlights of underground buses. Stephen Antonalos pins arcs of neon along an escalator. A windmill makes music when people walk by it; a metal mobile shatters light through prismatic diffraction.

IN CONTRAST to such special effects, several artists create a physical obstacle course for subway patrons. David Phillips collects granite boulders and deposits them at random on the plaza at Porter Square. (Harvard's own) Dmitri Hadzi amasses sculptures composed of objects--mostly fragments of building materials--found in the Cambridge area.

Mags Harries casts bronze gloves arranged in a "narrative sequence" throughout Porter Square station. James Tyler's work is the ultimate object-installation: he sculpts life-sized human figures to be arraned in the park at Davis Square. I worry about these last two schemes. Dismembered hands and frozen bodies could have strange psychological affects on the less sober among us.

While all of the artists speak of integrating their work into the stations, the large part of this integration is a matter of avoiding the elements: vandalism, grafitti, normal wear and tear. Almost everything is armed for the onslaught. Materials such as stone, bronze and brick defy mutilation. Destructibles are out of reach. The message is clear: give the kids plastic, keep the china in the dining room.

Not only are the projects removed from the public, they are isolated from each other. It's a little hard to tell from models how things will look, but it's clear enough that each artist received a section to fill individually. Harvard ends up with stained glass, Hadzi's found objects, and (at Brattle) a twenty-foot brick pylon. Porter Square gets the gloves, the boulders, a mobile, and a huge granite ripple. Art remains object, isolated appendages tacked onto architecture.

Arts on the Line suffers the flaws inherent in any guinea pig planning project, and formidable economic and bureaucratic obstacles promise to bog down subsequent programs elsewhere. Yet there is something contagiously exciting about relating Art to Life. I'd like to be around when this funky new stuff gets moved into the T stops. I can't say I'd want to stare at those cows every day, but these people are on to something.

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