The power of the pen

Zippy continues his visit to North Carolina — yesterday Salisbury, today Charlotte — with Xmas pleasure and puzzlement about the antique technologies of pen and paper:


The public art work is The Writer’s Desk (2005, by Larry Kirkland) at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Public Library:  a bronze quill pen in an inkwell at the top of a stack of books, surrounded by typewriter keys, pencils, and hand stamps.

(#2) A panoramic view of the installation, made of granite, marble, stainless steel, and gold

Note: pens (of all sorts) and columns are both phallic symbols, and a quill pen in an inkwell is easily seen as an ejaculating penis, but such symbolism is of an everyday sort that scarcely merits comment. But wait! There will be more (below).

More about the installation, from the Public Art Archive:

Description: This sculpture was commissioned as a tribute to Rolfe Neill, longtime Chairman and Publisher of The Charlotte Observer. Mr. Neill is beloved by Charlotte for his involvement in the community and is referred to as a Patron Saint of the Arts. The artwork is placed in a plaza of ImaginOn, a building which serves the children of Charlotte – part public library, part theater, a place which encourages learning.

And about the artist, from his website:

Born in 1950 in Port Hueneme, California, Larry Kirkland moved with his military family throughout the U.S. and abroad during his childhood. He received his undergraduate degree in environmental design in 1972 from Oregon State University and his Masters of Fine Arts degree in 1974 from the University of Kansas, both with honors.

Since then, he has collaborated with community and business leaders and design professionals to conceive and create his large-scale, multi-dimensional public artworks. Kirkland’s installations can be found in institutional and municipal buildings, transit hubs, research facilities, libraries, universities, cruise ships and urban parks and plazas. Among his many commissions are artworks installed at Pennsylvania Station in New York; the American Red Cross Headquarters and National Academies of Science in Washington, D.C.; Putra World Trade Center in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; and Kansai International Airport in Osaka, Japan.

Another of his public works, Capitalism:

(#3) Some compound of social criticism and playfulness

From Wikipedia:

Larry Kirkland’s Capitalism (1991) is an outdoor marble and concrete sculpture and fountain installed at the corner of Northeast 9th Avenue and Northeast Multnomah Street [in Portland OR] by the Lloyd Center. It was chosen in a regional art competition during Lloyd Center’s renovation. The sculpture depicts fifty coins stacked on an Ionic column and is set in the center of a circular fountain basin with four water jets. Half of the coins have serious or humorous inscriptions on their edges relating to capitalism and commerce.

The work is a notable and very visible feature of a temple of commerce, a shrine of capitalism. From Wikipedia:

Lloyd Center is a shopping mall in the Lloyd District of Portland, Oregon, United States, just northeast of downtown. It is owned by Arrow Retail of Dallas and anchored by Macy’s, Sears, and Marshalls. The mall features three floors of shopping with the third level serving mostly as professional office spaces, a food court, and U.S. Education Corporation’s Carrington College. A Regal Cinemas multiplex is located across the street. The mall includes the Lloyd Center Ice Rink where Olympian Tonya Harding first learned to skate.

Understood unironically, Kirkland’s work is a hymn to Mammon, and maybe the Lloyd Center’s owners thought of it that way. But it seems clearly ironic, with its humorous texts on capitalism, and with its flagrant phallicism: the massive cyclindrical column standing for the phallus and the prominent Ionic capital supplying the testicles. (There’s probably a joke on the word capital in there.)

Bonus 1. While search on “pen statues” to get information on and images of The Writer’s Desk, I came across this wonderfully phallic miniature, from the Design Toscano firm:

(#4) Art Deco strongman pen holder (cast in solid pewter in Brescia, Italy)

The accompanying ad copy:

As they say, the pen is mightier than the sword…and your pen will never look mightier than when in the grasp of this Art Deco strongman. You’ll love this functional sculpture of the human form in motion as he lifts your pen above the fray of paperwork and letters. A finely detailed replica of an Art Deco original, this sculpture is two pounds of solid pewter handcrafted in Brescia, Italy. Makes a great executive gift for a home, office or library.

It’s often the case that a pen is just a pen, but sometimes it’s a dick you can write with.

Bonus 2. More on the interpretation of symbols (as in my earlier discussions of flags — the American flag and the Pride flag — and the like), with another item from my “pen statues” search:

(#5) The Monument to Party Founding in Pyongyang, North Korea

In democratic contexts, a writing implement (a pen, for example, or a pencil or a calligraphy brush) is a powerful symbol of freedom and protest; writers (and artists) are seen as the guardians of liberty and the vanguard of social criticism. Things are different in authoritarian contexts, where all activities (including the making of cultural productions like writings and artworks) are to be bent to the will of the state and its purposes (which are likely to be articulated as springing from the noblest of motives).

From Wikipedia on the monument in #5:

The monument is rich in symbolism: the hammer, sickle and calligraphy brush symbolize the workers, farmers and intellectuals. The element is 50 meters high to symbolize the 50-year anniversary of the founding of the Workers’ Party of Korea. The number of slabs comprising the belt around the monument and its diameter stand for the date of birth of Kim Jong-il. The inscription on the outer belt says “The organizers of the victory of the Korean people and the leader of the Workers Party of Korea!” On the inside of the belt are three bronze reliefs with their distinct meanings: the historical root of the party, the unity of people under the party and the party’s vision for a progressive future. Two red flag-shaped buildings with letters forming the words “ever-victorious” surround the monument.

All that is, of course, the way those who commissioned the work intended it to be interpreted. To others, it will read as a ghastly monument to forcible oppression. To still others, it looks like a giant penis having its way with a worker and a peasant: homosex on the commune. And so it could be a symbol of defiant survival in the bleakest of circumstances: sex as life force. (I get all of these interpretations except the one the Pyongyang government officially intended.)

One Response to “The power of the pen”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    Or as one might say: The penis — mightier than the sword.

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