I drove by the much-talked about Ice House today. I was not impressed.
It didn’t help that half the ice had melted from the roof. But I just didn’t find it compelling. Covering an empty home in ice is a novel idea, and it draws a crowd, just like those homes that go overboard with Christmas lights and life-size Nativity scenes. But it doesn’t mean a thing.
The Ice House, half-melted after a sunny day in Detroit.
The fact that two Brooklyn-based artists were able to do this just reminds me how little Detroit’s East Side is valued. Within a block of the house, you’ll find burned out homes, old tires dumped on the side of the road, and stretches of sidewalk completely overgrown with ground cover. There are also a lot of friendly, hardworking folks trying to make a living. I don’t see the Ice House — or any of internationalmediacoverage it’s received — connecting with any of that.
What’s more, it’s not even the prettiest ice sculpture in Detroit! That honor goes, of course, to the Belle Isle Ice Tree, a Detroit tradition since the 1960s. I’m a big fan of cutting edge social art, but I think I’ll stick with the home favorite this time:
The Belle Isle Ice Tree -- a wonderful sight, even at dusk on a cloudy day.
After visiting two artopenings in Detroit last week, I’ve been thinking again about the role art might play in enlivening the city’s open spaces. This has been a pet subject of mine since 2008, when I first read Rebecca Mazzei’s great cover story in the Metro Times on “Waking Up the Neighborhood.” Drawing inspiration from the work of Detroit innovators like Tyree Guyton and Scott Hocking, her manifesto called for “a public art fund that commissions major contemporary projects beyond the conservative traditions of public art. And it needs to happen everywhere — in the urban center and in remote locations across the city.”
Scott Hocking's "Midden Mound." Photo taken from the artist's website.
A year later, her vision came to life — in New Orleans. A new biennial, Prospect New Orleans, placed works by both local and internationally-recognized artists in every pocket of the city, from the French Quarter to the Lower Ninth Ward. The event drew rave reviews and had wealthy out-of-towners brushing shoulders with local residents in neighborhoods they might otherwise not visit. A less critically acclaimed but similarly exciting event took place in Grand Rapids last year. Tens of thousands of people strolled Grand Rapid’s streets for Art Prize, which promised $250,000 to the artist with the most votes. Most of the work was kitschy, but it was a huge success for the city.
"Mithra" from Prospect New Orleans. Photo by New Orleans Lady on Flickr.
Nothing on this scale has yet been tried in Detroit, but the city’s landscape continues to serve as both canvas and inspiration for artists. Two recent examples include the Power House — a project by locals Mitch Cope and Gina Reichart to retrofit an abandoned home as an energy independent, cultural hub for its neighborhood — and the less community-sensitive Ice House — a project by two Brooklyn artists to coat an empty home in ice to dramatize the foreclosure crisis. Together with more traditional draws like the DIA, MOCAD, and the city’s many publicsculptures (like the iconic “Fist” downtown), Detroit’s outdoor art installations could both fill some of city’s open spaces and make Detroit a year-round arts destination.