Counterpublic in St. Louis Pushes the Public-Art Envelope

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Counterpublic in St. Louis Pushes the Public-Art Envelope

ST. LOUIS — Counterpublic, the innovative public art exhibition in this city that is holding its second edition this spring, cultivates its distinctiveness.

Its first iteration, in 2019, was a hyperlocal concept: a triennial at storefront scale, bringing projects by St. Louis and national artists to parks, bakeries and taquerias on Cherokee Street, on the city’s south side.

This year it follows again a geographic method. But its footprint is much bigger, with 37 commissions along a six-mile axis. They range from monumental to barely-there.

Some are made to stay. Damon Davis, who earned notice for his art around the 2014 Ferguson protests, has built a tribute to Mill Creek Valley, the bustling hub of Black St. Louis that the city abruptly razed in 1959. It is a major public sculpture with eight pillars that embed names and memories of residents. They stand on the plaza of a new soccer stadium, with more pillars planned for other sites along a one-mile route.

In long-neglected North St. Louis, the British Ghanaian architect David Adjaye is erecting a sculpture of rammed-earth walls in a pattern that recalls the symbology of Ghana’s Akan people on the grounds of the Griot Museum of Black History, a gift to this strapped community institution. And Jordan Weber, a regenerative land sculptor from Des Moines, is building a permanent rainwater garden for a community land trust.

Other projects are more abstract. A performance video by the choreographer Will Rawls, for instance, offers a mood map of the intersection of Jefferson Avenue, the thoroughfare that the show follows, and Interstate 44. It features the dancer Heather Himes Beal and screens in locations where it was filmed, including a library and a McDonald’s. (It’s also online.)

In a riverfront industrial zone, a sound-and-video work by the artist X (previously Santiago X) is projected after dark onto a bluff; it evokes how damming and channeling the Mississippi broke human connection to the river. A newspaper box in front of the city sewer agency holds a publication by Virgil B/G Taylor, a Berlin-based artist who has embarked on a kind of technical-poetic study of the sewer system, also yielding an Instagram chatbot.

In a more participatory register, the local artist Simiya Sudduth has created a mural on Jefferson but also welcomes visitors in her vintage travel trailer turned healing space. Juan William Chávez, also based in St. Louis, has opened up his native bee garden.

Woven through Counterpublic is some pointed urban sociology. The Jefferson Avenue axis is not arbitrary. With downtown to one side and the wealthier western areas to the other, it traverses the city’s core. Some stretches bear marks of chronic disinvestment, others of creeping gentrification, still others of brutal “urban renewal” clearance.

This isn’t just context for the show: It’s also the creative stakes. Every project seeks to restore erased histories, uphold people or institutions that were or might be displaced, or bolster those who live in the wake. The methods deployed are wildly diverse. This is a program of experiments, pushing the public-art envelope in many directions.

Counterpublic has lofty aims. Its title — drawn from social and feminist theory — refers to parts of the public excluded from official narratives and resources. For public art, this translates to a challenge: Who is really being served? In a time when cities use biennials and other festivals to promote themselves as creative hothouses and destinations, this show seeks to revolutionize the form.

The goal, James McAnally, its executive and artistic director, writes in the catalog, was to create “a triennial that allied itself with generational, cultural, economic and civic change; a post-pandemic, post-uprising exhibition demanding that we, as arts workers and artists, do more to repair our broken world.”

Put that way, it’s a tall order. According to the organizers, over half the $4.5 million budget will “remain in the community” through local assets or commissions. But the commitment is also to method. The show consulted extensively with residents to shape its priorities. It takes pride in collaborations with local cultural activists. It asserts an explicit stand for the return, or “re-matriation,” of Indigenous land.

Study St. Louis a little, and the heightened stakes that Counterpublic declares make some sense — bolstering the implicit argument that this city is particularly well suited to incubate a new exhibition model, responsible and responsive.

In developing the show, the “curatorial ensemble” — McAnally, Allison Glenn, Risa Puleo, Katherine Simóne Reynolds, Diya Vij and New Red Order — read “The Broken Heart of America,” a 2020 book by the Harvard historian Walter Johnson that presents St. Louis as the country’s epicenter of violent racial capitalism and imperial expansion. The counterpoint, Johnson argues, is the city’s strong radical tradition, from cross-racial labor activism in the 19th century to the Ferguson protests.

Move along the route, and there’s little denying how blunt power shaped the landscape. Sugarloaf Mound, at the show’s southern tip, is the last remaining Indigenous mound in a city once known for them. (St. Louis is part of the greater Cahokia area, seat of a major pre-Columbian civilization.) You reach it by a side road in the shadow of Interstate 55.

In 2009, the Osage Nation purchased back the tallest section of the mound and removed the house that stood on it. It is now fenced off, and not part of the show, but the pivot for several projects. Above the highway, billboards by New Red Order and Anna Tsouhlarakis urge motorists to question their relation to the land. At its foot, the mother-son duo Anita and Nokosee Fields have placed 40 wood platforms marked with Osage patterns, adorned with ribbons, accompanied by an audio work.

After the show, these platforms will be distributed in the Osage Nation in Oklahoma — reinscribing the ties between ancestral land and places where people were sent. As for the mound, Counterpublic has pledged its support to Osage efforts to purchase its remaining sections, on which two private houses still stand.

Moving north, you pass a neighborhood where avenues named for U.S. states cross streets named for Native nations, the grid itself a metaphor for order and conquest. At corners like Cherokee and Tennessee — an association that brings up the Trail of Tears — Counterpublic has installed “Erased History Markers” that retell these facts.

Mill Creek Valley too was made to vanish, so much that Davis, the sculptor of the pillars, had not heard of it until recently. The New York-based artist Steffani Jemison tackles this erasure in another vein: Her sound work, a collaboration with the storytellers Jackie and Papa Wright, plays in several gondolas of the Ferris wheel at Union Station. Soaring high, you hear a kind of elegy: names and locations of Black theaters lost in the demolition.

Entering North St. Louis, Jefferson Avenue passes the location of the infamous Pruitt-Igoe housing projects — where many Mill Creek residents landed until those buildings too were torn down in the 1970s. That site remains vacant today. Just beyond it, a military geospatial intelligence campus is under construction.

That facility’s growth at the edge of the once elegant, now rundown St. Louis Place neighborhood has spurred fears of yet another wave of displacement. (Boosters argue that it will benefit the area and spur Black wealth creation.) Counterpublic’s northern cluster here includes Adjaye’s work (to be inaugurated in June) and a massive black sculpture by Torkwase Dyson that looks like a vessel crossed with a giant sundial; enter and you hear sound based on Scott Joplin’s ragtime, a St. Louis invention.

Does it all work? There’s no disputing the seriousness. This is a deeply thought exhibition that has set itself a high degree of difficulty. It aims to create tangible effects while treading lightly; to amplify grass-roots activism without overwhelming it; to model a practice nationally while committed to one city.

It is not entirely an insurgent act. Counterpublic’s co-founder with McAnally is Lee Broughton, who is married to Chrissy Taylor, the president and chief executive of Enterprise Holdings and a scion of one of the city’s most prominent business families. The couple are principal backers of the exhibition overall and have funded the $1 million Adjaye project.

Involved too is St. Louis City SC, the Major League Soccer franchise whose stadium hosts the first set of Davis’s memorial pillars. (Broughton is part of its ownership group, and its chief brand architect.) The pillars themselves are commissioned by Great Rivers Greenway, a public agency developing amenities across three counties.

The point here is that Counterpublic, for all its radical aspirations, remains enfolded in the kind of public-private-philanthropic architecture typical for biennials and public art in the United States. It’s fair to wonder whether curatorial, political and funding interests will stay aligned in future editions.

For now, the exhibition is particularly affecting when its touch is lightest. Take three sculptures by the Detroit artist Matthew Angelo Harrison, installed for the show’s duration at the George B. Vashon Museum of African American History — another community treasure, in a former mansion and funeral home.

Made by encasing African statuettes in polyurethane resin to compelling visual effect, the works are remarkable. But even more so is the museum’s vast collection of Black St. Louis memorabilia, amassed by its owner, Calvin Riley. That Harrison’s works do not deflect from this trove is part of their success.

In the loveliest project, the New Jersey-based sound artists Mendi and Keith Obadike worked with the St. Louis producer Mvstermind and local car clubs to hold a parade on the opening weekend. Two dozen Jeeps decked in colorful flags led a procession on long loops on the north side, stereos playing an original ballad remixed by 10 local producers.

It was a moment when this ambitious exhibition relinquished control to local culture keepers rarely found in biennials or museums. It was also ephemeral by intention. The aim, the artists said, was to wrap the neighborhood in love. Public art often aims for permanence or impact. The truest trace, it felt as the Jeeps pulled in, is the vibe.

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