DETROIT — It is difficult for a young artist to think about her legacy. When you’re just starting out, piecing together a voice, a practice, and some means of support is a full-time hustle; having time to think about the bigger picture is a luxury afforded to few. Legacy is the concern of the older artist, and as longtime stalwart of the Detroit public installation art movement, Tyree Guyton, who turned 60 years old this year, implied that he’s gearing up for the future when he announced last week that he would be taking down his iconic work, the Heidelberg Project, which has been 30 years in the making.
Working on his own and in a largely unauthorized fashion for decades, Guyton transformed Heidelberg Street, host to his childhood home, into a sprawling surrealist landscape, adorned with his paintings and sculptures of found objects and debris collected from around the city. While the city has in the past demolished his work, having bulldozed the unsanctioned installation in 1991 and again in 1999, in more recent years it has received international recognition, transforming into a nonprofit that has seen hundreds of thousands of visitors.
But it’s the beginning of the end, as Guyton unveiled somewhat opaque plans to “dismantle” the Heidelberg Project over the course of the next two years. While the artist and his organization are quick to stress that some version of the project will remain within the original footprint, there are plans to deconstruct the work, piece by piece, with some of it going to museums, and other parts slated for an as-yet amorphous reconfiguration into something more community-based and less dependent on the animating spirit of Guyton himself. More often than not the artist has been found working on the grounds or posted up in the on-site Information Booth, receiving an international coterie of visitors, asking them to sign the guest book, and expounding on his vision and his process to all who ask.
In many ways, it’s astonishing that Guyton has kept the project going this long. First off, there’s the sweat equity invested in the expansive installation, which includes abandoned houses covered in stuffed animals, painted polka dots, toys, and vinyl records; shopping carts lofted impossibly high into trees; scrap metal arranged in mini-Stonehenge formulations, a buried Jeep, and innumerable paintings on plywood featuring Guyton’s recurring subjects: taxis, clocks, faces, and the word GOD — among other things. Then there’ve been the multiple stumbling blocks, including pushback from the city and, more recently, a string of 12 unsolved arsons that targeted and destroyed many of the project’s most iconic structures, including the “Party Animal House,” the “Taxi House,” and the toy-covered “Obstruction of Justice House.” But it’s Guyton’s day-in, day-out commitment to creation and maintenance that amounts to a kind of art-farming. Guyton has demonstrated the true meaning of creating his life’s work.
Few people have the courage to look at all that sweat equity and decide that all good things must come to an end. While it may seem paradoxical for Guyton to consciously dismantle the very thing he has worked so hard to create, there is something to be said for arriving at closure on your terms. Whether Detroit is ready to see the end of a project that has been a part of the landscape for so many years is a different matter entirely, but with respect to Guyton himself — an artist who has spent his life making unexpected moves with little need to justify them to others — this latest decision is true to form. And in the spirit of Detroit, whose city motto translates from Latin as “We hope for better things; it will arise from the ashes,” maybe some new inspiration is preparing to emerge from the Heidelberg wellspring.
Tyree Guyton is celebrating the 30th anniversary of The Heidelberg Project with a career-spanning solo exhibition Face-ology which continues at Inner State Gallery (1410 Gratiot Avenue, Detroit) through early September.