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Firebird Finds its Nest at the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art

by Sarah Gay

Firebird Finds its Nest at the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art

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Picture by Nancy Pierce

November 5, 2009

If there’s one thing to be said about French-American artist Niki de Saint Phalle’s ‘Firebird’ (or “l’Oiseau de Feu Sur l’Arche” –literally, “Bird of Fire on an Arch”), unveiled Nov. 3rd, 2009 in the plaza of the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, it’s this: you must see it in person. No photographs, even any shown here, will adequately convey the experience of being on the street with it. For one thing, rather than a “disco-ball effect,” which some commentators alluded to, the multi-faceted, mirrored surface produces the sensation of an almost- living being. The reflections are fluid and full of movement: trees, buildings and colors; people coming to look at, walk under and touch the sculpture; vehicles driving past and the changing light and motion of the sky. Its lumpy, organic and definitely hand-made form gives the impression that the whole thing may have just taken a breath. 

'Firebird’, while reminiscent of South American folk art and iconography, is unique and thoroughly modern; and beckons you to let go of old and stale ways of looking at the world. You see the delight in peoples’ faces as they walk up to and through it; as children touch and gaze at it; and as camera after camera is taken out. Although an artwork that may be hard for those with conventional experience with art to understand, no education is needed to feel its appeal when standing next to it. My prediction is that the city as a whole will come to love it, when meeting it face to face.  

This whimsical phoenix and its arch are “confrontationally playful,” to use a phrase coined by Jeff Elder, local social media expert. As a work that is about the age-old, spiritually mythic concept of rebirth and renewal from out the ashes of all-consuming fire, ‘Firebird’ is also a serendipitously perfect symbol for our town at this moment. Charlotte has reinvented itself multiple times over its history, from Native American trading post to Colonial county seat, to cotton supplier and generator of textiles and crafts, to banking center, encompassing NASCAR as well as North Carolina Dance Theatre; it is now in the middle of a rather convulsive rebirth again, into we-know-not-what just yet. Perhaps more than ever, it’s important that our new iteration as a city be, as ‘Firebird’ itself, multi-faceted and expressive. 

Charlotte is also a spiritually active city, and belief shapes what we make of ourselves. In eschewing the traditional Judeo-Christian tradition of stern seriousness in spiritual art and urging us to open up to our own whimsy and imagination, ‘Firebird’ encourages the kind of optimism and flexibility that achieve vibrancy. Perhaps fittingly, the sculpture offers a means of self-regard. Like the ‘Cloud Gate’ sculpture by Anish Kapoor in Chicago’s Millennium Park, ‘Firebird’ causes you to see your surroundings and yourself in new perspectives. ‘Firebird’ spreads its wings over the gateway to a host of new Charlotte centers of cultural safeguard and rebirth that will redefine how Charlotteans view themselves and their place. 

As for its strength as a site-specific work of public art—it works (or as the French say, “ça marche”). The questions asked of contemporary public artists by commissioning panels almost always include how the artwork for a site will be relevant; i.e., how its content or message, and form, are suited to and project an identity the community wishes to either reflect—as in historical—or invent. A happy accident that sometimes takes place, with installation of “plop art,” is that it can turn out to be just the right artwork for a place. And in this case, thanks to the curatorial acumen of its buyer, Andreas Bechtler, a longtime collector personally familiar with both the artist and the architect and sensitive to the nature and power of how art works in a setting, that is what has taken place. 

Although ‘Firebird’ was created years ago and has traveled city-to-city for exhibitions, this is its first permanent resting place; and it is appropriate, just edgy enough, and interactive enough to inhabit Bechtler Plaza as an icon of Charlotte’s new creative energy. Chicago has Millennium Park and its incredible artworks by Jaume Plensa and Anish Kapoor; Charlotte now has the Wells Fargo Cultural Complex and Niki de Saint Phalle, complimenting the artworks across the street at the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Art + Culture. And Bechtler Museum President & CEO John Boyer is enthusiastic about caring for it. “We want people to walk up and embrace it,” he said. “These works were meant by Niki to be wonderful citizens in the community where they reside… or land! She knew art in the public realm requires a certain resilience (and designed her works accordingly) … we trust the community will develop a love for this piece and ownership of it.” 

As primary partners, both the Arts & Science Council and Bob Bertges of Wachovia Bank deserve, along with the leadership of the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, the hearty thanks offered during dedication remarks.

Photo credit (c) Nancy Pierce

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