Radical as Folk: Second of a Three-part Series on the History of the Emeryville Mudflat Sculptures
In the face of great uncertainty, fear, and cultural upheaval that plagued the 1960s an art movement bloomed that inspired millions. Starting in 1964, the Emeryville mudflats along Interstate 80 were home to a sculpture garden that pushed the boundaries of what public art could do. For a hundred years, industrial and commercial waste had collected itself on the shores of Emeryville. The mudflat sculptures that emerged from the muddy lowlands were made out of the flotsam and jetsam of the San Francisco Bay. The detritus of this dystopic wasteland was the fodder for something momentous.
From the 1960’s until the late 90’s, on any given day, you could drive by and see a Giant Dragon formed out of driftwood with hubcaps for eyes, a call for political action shaped by industrial waste, or a sign wishing “Lucy” a happy birthday. Many children who grew up driving by them, including myself, have distant and fuzzy memories of these roadside oddities. The glimpses of driving by these sculptures are permanently lodged into my brain and stored as nostalgia for home. To me and many others, these works of art became an intimate memory but the mysteries of who built these sculptures, how they did it and why, wonderfully still remain.
In part, the artistic practice was designed that way: the builders of the Emeryville mudflat sculptures were anonymous artists. In fact, most of the people who fabricated the sculptures would have not called themselves “artists” at all. Under the power of anonymity, many were ordinary citizens driven to express themselves. This kind of citizen-artist tended to make three kinds of work: the Whimsical, the Abstract, and the Political Expression. Most works were using just what they found at the mudflats, driftwood and the washed up garbage along the freeway. Simple nails to hammer was the action that brought these sculptures to towering heights.
The Emeryville sculpture garden was constantly regulated by its harsh environment that governed the way they were constructed. A living salt marsh is subjected to the natural cycle of growth, death, decay, and rebirth. Even if you wanted to, permanence on the mud takes great ingenuity. This impermanence to the tide and the wind governed the rules of building these sculptures. The Sculpture garden reacted to its environment by a consistent cycle of artists tearing down, defining, building, and rebuilding these sculptures.
No matter if it was vandals who didn’t like what you made, or the tide coming in, the artist’s creation out in the mudflats existed in a finite moment. This finite moment negated any sense of ownership to what you made. Since you knew that it wasn’t going to last, this allowed a focus on just the experience of making.
Traditional art made for outside public spaces are usually made out of materials that are meant to last forever. These statues and monuments are erected to a moment in time, usually from one perspective. Since there was no permanence at the mudflats and ownership was not of importance, the collective voice rang loud. The wide spectrum of people who made work allowed a mirroring effect of the socioeconomic and cultural events of the Bay Area. The collective voice of the many into an artwork allowed greater connectivity with the space.
The sculpture garden were a collection of monuments that commemorated the contemporary, constantly changing pulse of its surrounding environment. The works tone changed over the decades and was reflective of the ever-changing cultures and environments in the Bay Area. The lack of ownership, the impermanence of the work, and the collective voice affectively blurred the lines between the viewer and the maker. The great pliability of this sculpture garden was able to reflect the environment that capital “Art” struggles to do in a public setting.
Since the intended audience for the works were passersby on the freeway, these monuments were sculpted in a way that best suited the viewer, all from one direction at a traveling speed. Similar to the visual language of roadside attraction and advertisement signs, the sculptures with a larger than life presence tended to be the most memorable. There where a handful reoccurring and beloved sculptures that were tended to and fortified such as the mudflat train, the rock & roll band and the pyramid to name a few.
One example of these recurring sculptures was the great sphinx of Emeryville. Mimicking and gesturing to the monumental presence of the Sphinx of Egypt, the sculpture was grand but only from one viewpoint facing the freeway. The only intended audience was the people in the cars that drove by. Heading South, you would have seen the elongated and powerful paws, leading up to this towering head with a headdress. However, the sculpture was a two-dimensional facade. If you were to walk down to the mudflat off of Powell Street, you would have seen a compromised side view. This profile view usually consisted of support beams and forced perspective that was in service to the frontal view of the sculpture. The forced perspective is common to billboards. Many of the billboards you see that look three-dimensional are virtually flat because they serve one viewpoint, the roadside at a cruising speed.
An important component to the sculpture garden was that it was not the self-proclaimed “artists” who were drawn to the Emeryville mudflats, but more likely everyday people. It was the factory workers, families, students, and society’s riffraff who were making this radical art. The late 1960s were one of the most tumultuous times in American history. Our country was facing itself, especially here in the Bay Area. Because the voice of the radical was being heard, the majority had to witness its message. Events like The Free Speech Movement, The Bobby Hutton Killing and the 1969 Berkeley Riots were not only happening on the news, they were happening down the street. These kinds of events drove everyday people of the Bay Area to confront these events differently than Americans who watched them unfold on television. To make and view this art was a highly sophisticated way to process the contemporary changes. It was radical because it communicated a message to viewers on a mass level, a message that could be edited or elaborated anonymously by anyone driven to stomp through the mud.
One example of how these factors made The Emeryville Mudflats such a radical art space was the sculpture, “End War.” This simple yet powerful sculpture consisted of very tall letters pleading for the end of the Vietnam War and spelled out in driftwood. This artwork was a reflection of the political awakening of the public and the desire to end the ideological aggression and violence. Even though today many people may recall the 1960s for its bright polyester fabrics, this sculpture best captures the challenges of those times. This was not some slick flowery hippie peace sign; this was garbage and decay rising from the mud. “End War” was a desperate plea for the end of the unneeded death and destruction of war.
All voices mingled at the mudflats. Radicals and conservatives alike shared the space, and they were a reflection of the people who drove by. Since the Emeryville mudflat sculpture garden was a malleable experiment in public art, “End War” changed over the years. As the 1960’s ended and the American administrations continued the war in Vietnam, people became more discouraged and frustrated. This led to the “end” changing into a “f*ck.” Others, upset about the language, would take down the taboo word or change it back to “end.” It is difficult to say how long the revolving back & forth from “end” to “f*ck” went on for. The activity was wonderfully captured in a above cut scene from the movie Harold and Maude. In the scene, the couple watch the sun set behind the work “F*ck War.” As they watch the sun go down, two people run up and kick it down.
From the 1960s until the 1990s, the sculptures like the “End/F*ck War” flourished in Emeryville. In this time of great growth and change in the Bay Area, a wonderful window opened to this socially charged radical space for art. The Emeryville mudflats were open to all levels of society, and the sculpture garden became a place for direct engagement with the environment and ones experience it in time.
As the 1980s arrived, the bay area again was changing. It was deemed unfashionable to have a junk sculpture garden alongside the freeway. By the 1990s, the factories and warehouses that once surrounded the sculpture garden were being replaced with big box stores and residential condominium complexes. People began to live next the celebrated detritus and public opinion became divided. The importance of natural reserves for endangered birds became more important as undeveloped bay lands were shrinking, the need for the space was changing. Whether it was a safety hazard or an eyesore to the residents who lived nearby, the new era in the bay area had more critical views of the radical idea of free expressive environment.
The sculpture garden in Emeryville at times looked unsightly unintelligible mess of junk and debris. It glorified the waste and urgency of the 20th century’s service to progress. The self-expression that once flourished in the sculpture garden became viewed as a dangerous nuisance for this new era. Most people did not want to deal with the chaos following the 1960s, and we are still struggling to deal with it today. We are still being lied to by powers that be and people are still not receiving equal rights in our community.
This chaos was not neatly resolved at the Emeryville sculpture garden, but it was a unique mirror into ourselves, during its time, in this environment called The East Bay. The Mudflat sculpture garden along the freeway in Emeryville was dirty, it was trashy, and it was messy. More times than not, it had great inspiring moments of clarity for what public art was capable of. Everything that could be viewed negatively about the time and place of the Emeryville Mudflats, only clarified the power of human creativity. It provided a glimpse into the possibilities of redefining art made for the public and the ways that art could be in service to the everyday people. This garbage that was fodder for the sculptures, once a shameful part of the human stamp on the earth, thrusted upon us a vehicle for a new art that had to be made, by any means necessary.
The twenty-seven minute documentary “Mudflat” by Ric Reynolds captures the beauty of the Emeryville Crescent, the process of building a mudflat sculpture and some history of the area:
Next month’s piece will focus on the shifting politics of the 80’s, environmental activism and Emeryville’s residential shift that led to the demise of the mudflats. Read the first in the Series “Origins” here.