Last spring, when artist Daniel Chen started contemplating plans for a large mural project in Minneapolis's Warehouse District, he knew one thing: He wanted to create something provocative. He initially considered an all-war-themed piece, but had second thoughts.
"We were worried that if we just did the war message it would be too strong for a lot of people," says Chen. "We thought it might get what we call 'buffed.' You know, rolled over."
On the face of it, Chen's concerns might seem misguided. After all, among the people who create murals for public spaces, Minneapolis enjoys a reputation as a relatively welcoming place. The city is currently host to somewhere between 40 and 50 "official" murals--that is to say, murals painted with the consent of property owners and the city.
But for all Minneapolis's fabled receptiveness to public art--or, perhaps, because of it--there is a distinctly nonconfrontational quality to most of the murals here. Under city guidelines, public murals aren't supposed to depict nudity, drug use, or gang signs. (Rogue muralists work such themes in more out-of-the-way locations, of course; there is, for instance, an excellent rendering of Homer Simpson with an enormous bong on a sewer outfall by the Lake Street Bridge.)
And despite the absence of any official edict, most Twin Cities muralists steer clear of overt political content or harsh social critique. As a result, the majority of the city's murals seem more like civic celebrations--of the melting pot, of diversity, of gender, of neighborhood values--than genuine artistic expression.
Chen, however, was not interested in boosting the collective self-esteem. "You see a lot of murals that have a lot to do with community unity. Everyone holding hands, everyone trying to help each other," he shrugs. "I don't feel that's real."
Fittingly, then, the mural that Chen and nine other artists finally created in mid-June doesn't offer much in the way of good vibrations. Located on the side of the Merit Printing building--a low-slung, cinder block structure at 117 N. Second St.--the mural begins with an illustration of a cartoon alien in a spacecraft and the words: "On a little planet named Earth, civilization has reached a new peak. Behold."
What follows is a cascade of dark factoids and blunt social criticism, mostly pulled straight from the headlines: Over 1,000,000 people will be displaced by the 3 Gorges Dam. 10 percent of Americans own 90 percent of America's wealth. 33.8 million acres of rain forest are destroyed each year. After 9-11, security is far more important than human rights, don't you agree? Romance isn't dead, it's big business. The Middle East is in crisis, we must save them from themselves.
One organizing principle for the mural was to connect each subject to the name (or nom de plume) of the artist who created it. "The Three Gorges dam part was mine. The direct relation is my name--Mr. Chen being a person from China who's affected by the Three Gorges Dam," Chen explains. An artist named Eros painted a cupid with dollar bills to accompany the Romance isn't dead, it's big business portion of the mural.
There is a broader theme as well. "The real message we're trying to get across with this mural is that people haven't looked inward to find their own happiness," Chen says. "In a way, everyone is trying to outsource--looking for happiness through consumerism, rather than looking into themselves." Given that premise, there is an apt irony in the mural's location directly across the street from the city's only Jaguar dealership.
As Chen walks through the mural--some two and a half months after its creation--he is not without reservations. "For me, it feels congested visually in the beginning. It's all blocked up. The names are too big. The images are too cluttered," he says. Then he points to the most potent illustration, a depiction of a crusader on horseback that accompanies the Middle East script. "This," Chen says, "is where we hit the stride."
Chen says he has heard little in the way of outside criticism of the piece. After the mural was completed, Ron Boerboom, the co-owner at Merit Printing--which owns the building that serves as the canvas--requested that Chen insert a disclaimer at the end of the mural. Chen, who owns his own contracting business, understood immediately and obliged.
For his part, Boerboom says the disclaimer issue came up after a few employees grumbled about the antiwar message. "I don't agree with everything that's up there," Boerboom says. "But it doesn't bother me. They've got a right to their opinions."
Interestingly, Chen doesn't seem too concerned with how long the mural remains on the building. "I'm tired of seeing it already. After we finished, I didn't come by for a month. I actually avoided driving by here," he says. "I hope it's not up for more than a year."