Just as Lunar New Year celebrations are beginning in Chinatown, controversy has erupted over a statue that was supposed to be unveiled in Chatham Square this week.
The Chinatown Partnership and Chinatown BID commissioned the Australian artists Gillie and Marc Schattner to create the, “Good Fortune Dog,” part of their “Travel Everywhere with Love” global sculpture project. But the “Dogman” installation was cancelled after Chinatown activists launched an online petition, arguing that the sculpture, to be placed in Kimlau Square, is culturally insensitive.
According to the petition, initiated by well-known local arts advocate Amy Chin, it would have been demeaning to place the statue, “under the Arch named for Lt. Benjamin R. Kimlau,” who died in World War II fighting for the United States. “This insulting image of a ‘Dog-Man’ has no place next to this sacred and solemn community site where we honor our community heroes.” Questions have also been raised about the process used to select the project for one of the neighborhood’s most visible public spaces.
Wellington Chen, head of the Partnership and BID, told The Lo-Down earlier this week that the unveiling was cancelled due to the controversy and his organizations are now paying to store the 900 pound statue. While efforts are being made to install the piece somewhere else, finding a new location has not been an easy task.
The installation was planned in collaboration with “Art in the Parks,” a program administered by the NYC Parks Department. Reps from the city agency appeared before Community Board 3’s parks committee last Thursday night, offering project details. A handout explained:
The Dogman sculpture will be holding a beautiful red apple. Since 3 is a lucky number during the Year of the Dog, the apple will feature 3 leaves. In Chinese, the word for an apple is ping, the homonym of which is peace. Especially in today’s day and age, the apple symbolizing peace holds particular significance, and will help spread the message of diversity and acceptance for all beings.
Kimlau Square. Photo via Explore Chinatown website.
The Parks Department was not seeking the community’s approval, and there was no vote last week. Karlin Chan, a Chinatown activist, is a member of the parks committee, and he was on hand for the meeting. While the Parks Dept. reps did indicate a general location for the statue, Chan said they were not specific. During the meeting, Chan said he took notice of the “Dogman’s” western-style suit and lack of Chinese imagery and symbolism. He is among the more than 500 people who have signed the online petition.
In the Chinese press, Chan told us, the board has come under criticism for failing to oppose the installation (Chan is the only Chinatown resident on the committee). He pointed out that not a single member of the Chinatown community came to the meeting. Chan argued that opponents of the sculpture had an obligation to show up and speak out, rather than simply relying on the community board to advocate for their points-of-view.
Another longtime activist, Jan Lee, has been critical of the community board’s role in vetting the “Dogman” sculpture. Parks Department officials routinely appear before local community boards to provide information about public art installations, but the agency never asks for their approval. Lee says, however, that board members, appointed by local elected officials, obviously have a responsibility to represent the community’s best interests. Even if the city doesn’t invite it, board reps should be the neighborhood’s “fail safe,” pushing back against projects that fail to reflect local values, said Lee. Separately, he also objects to the Chinatown BID’s efforts to position itself as the local arbiter of public art. The organization, he believes, had an obligation in this case to consult with members of the community, including Chinatown-based arts organizations.
Wellington Chen said his organizations have the utmost respect for war veterans. The Lt. B.R. Kimlau/American Legion Post 1291 was consulted beforehand about the sculpture. Chen noted that Gillie & Marc’s sculptures have been embraced around the world, and have been displayed in numerous locations throughout New York City without incident. He pointed to the artists’ mission statement, which explains, “Gillie and Marc’s beloved Rabbitgirl and Dogman tell the autobiographical tale of two opposites coming together to become best friends and soulmates. Without a definitive race, religion, or culture, they symbolize the acceptance of all people as one.”
Chen said he sees the controversy over the sculpture as counterproductive and self-defeating. The only goal, he said, was to bring a highly regarded art work to the neighborhood, and to create some much-needed foot traffic in the area.
A spokesperson for the Parks Department said, “Parks supports the Chinatown Partnership’s decision to find an alternative location for this public artwork, and we are working closely with them to accommodate its installation as soon as possible.”
UPDATE 2/19 Although we contacted Amy Chin, who started the petition, before publishing this article, she was unable to respond immediately due to the Lunar New Year holiday. Chin replied to us over the weekend, saying that the petition was started on Tuesday, after she heard from several concerned local residents. They were angry, and determined to start a petition, but lacked language/computer skills, so Chin helped set up the campaign. Chin points out that she and others strongly support the presence of public art in Chinatown. However, she believes there should always be, “an open process with more community engagement and input, especially from local arts lovers, artists and arts organizations.” The Chinatown BID is funded through assessments paid by property owners. As a publicly funded organization, said Chin, the BID owes the neighborhood that type of process if it’s going to bring public art to the neighborhood.
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