On the eastside of Detroit, there’s a neighborhood art installation piece built (and rebuilt) over decades called The Heidelberg Project. Tyree Guyton grew up in Detroit, and instead of succumbing to the soul-crushing urban decay in the neighborhood, he created this work which has taken on a life of its own, growing like a garden playground over the whole city block. Many other people, especially neighborhood children, have helped create it.
One of the neighbors told me Guyton is in Switzerland now, awarded an honorary doctorate. I tried to get her to tell me how she felt about living in the middle of all this; I know what people in my neighborhood would say! She was infinitely discreet and said she was proud of Guyton’s success, and people have come from all over the world to visit, so she lets them sign her house.
All of the materials are found objects, and they remain outdoors in rain and snow despite not being made of durable materials. Rotting stuffed animals nailed to a tree fade in the sun. Shopping carts perched impossibly high on the tree rust. Paint flakes off of panels, wood openly rots, nothing is pretending to permanence here; it is all on the move towards disassembly.
A cracked, headless concrete angel wears a barbed wire crown of thorns as a necklace. The word “god” is painted everywhere, as though the demiurge himself could be conjured by a Masonite panel or a broken television screen. Contorted metal veins seek relief from massive syringes. Doors fold in upon one another forming a trap. Feral cats stalk the garden mice.
Growing up in poverty is a burden most people cannot overcome. Imagine as a child not knowing if you will eat today, and imagine how physically dangerous and emotionally demoralizing undernourishment could be. Imagine how much fear you would carry, every moment of every day, if people got shot in your neighborhood. Imagine you’ve seen family and friends die from an overdose. Imagine you know people who cannot afford medical treatment, so they slowly waste away or die suddenly between ER visits. Would you pick up a paint can, and make big bright polka dots on your house? Would you create a folk art monument?
Responding to an impossible world with humor, joy, and intelligence seems like a great act of will. The Heidelberg Project crystallizes all the problems of the city using its own refuse as the medium. Protest and social commentary infuse the battered crosses and melting roofs, raising the questions of the city: where are the police? What happened to primary care? Is war a family value?
How much stuff can we buy and throw away? Where does it all go? Why do we run from what is old instead of repurposing and rebuilding it? Why do we abandon houses, people, and pets? Urban decay is not really a problem of the city. Urban decay is a problem of the whole culture, with the city exhibiting the most obvious symptoms of the disease of living unsustainably.
Heidelberg is more than one man’s work, an ongoing community project that says children silenced by poverty can have a voice. Everyone can participate; everyone can make art. You don’t need to have a gallery or a patron. You can start doing it right now, where you are, out on the street.
The Heidelberg Project Website: heidelberg.org
Tim Burke, Detroit Industrial Gallery Website: detroitindustrialgallery.com