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At the Denver Airport, Art Fuels Conspiracy Theorists

The city of Denver is considering deaccessioning one of the most ambitious installations at its airport, but its art collection has long served as a source of inspiration and consternation.

Leni Schwendinger, “Deep Time / Deep Space, A Subterranean Journey” (1995) (all photographs courtesy Denver International Airport)

A major transportation hub just about smack in the middle of the country, the Denver International Airport (DIA) offers an interesting layover to travelers willing to explore its bustling terminals. DIA and the art in its collection have been the subject of conspiracy theories dating back to the airport’s construction, while new technical difficulties have emerged in the maintenance and display of its ambitious permanent installations. From the so-called “Blucifer” sculpture that greets visitors as they drive up to the terminal, to the newest acquisition — a futuristic installation by Anibal Catalan — it’s hardly surprising that the DIA was deemed the “best US airport for art.” But don’t expect cottage paintings or pleasant abstraction here. The DIA art collection stands out for shunning the niceties of conventional airport décor and embracing the weird, with a focus on permanent installations.

Luis Jiménez, “Mustang” (2006–08)

The airport’s art has been in the news recently because an installation by Michael Singer, “Interior Garden” (1995) — commissioned for the opening of the airport itself — was flagged by management as an expensive liability. This led to outcry against the proposed deaccessioning of the work, with the public weighing in on the piece’s value for the airport and the city. The collection is collectively valued at over $14 million, but the DIA communications department told the Denver Post that some $800,000 has gone into the maintenance of “Interior Garden” in the 22 years since the airport opened. DIA allocated a whopping $650,000 for the removal of the installation, which mimics ancient ruins alive with plant life and flowing water in the airport’s C concourse. According to airport officials who want to be rid of the needy artwork, the installation leaks, attracts pests, and “creates a hazardous situation for passengers.” The final call as to whether to destroy “Interior Garden” has fallen to Denver Arts and Venues director Kent Rice, who has yet to make a decision.

Michael Singer, “Interior Garden” (1995)
Michael Singer, “Interior Garden” (1995)

Catalan’s new installation, which was facilitated by Mexico City gallerist Brett W. Schultz, makes the DIA collection even more diverse and shows a commitment to permanent installations — even if they involve more work and long-term costs for the airport. The cluster of sculptures by Catalan, “Vorticity” (2016), is beautifully out of place among the C concourse’s fast food chains. The suspended swarm of yellow, black, and silver geometric mobiles might be abstracted bees, but more likely they’re spaceships or intergalactic settlements forming the spiral of a new galaxy. The artist’s background in architecture is evident in the installation’s industrial forms and its integration with the hectic airport environment.

The DIA art collection is managed by the city’s public art program and a cultural commission, who provide counsel to the airport about which works to purchase using funds from the city’s Percent for Art program, which sets aside 1% of the budget for any major municipal capital-improvement construction project for public art. Denver’s public art officials may be knowingly fomenting the conspiracy theories surrounding the airport by filling its concourses with works that are so anomalous; DIA senior public information officer Heath Montgomery told the Denver Post that the conspiracy theories add up to “hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars” in free advertising.

Anibal Catalan, “Vorticity” (2016)

Take, for example, two murals by Leo Tanguma that have long been cited by conspiracy theorists as “evidence” of either a secret masonic apocalypse shelter, an alien colony, or a secret CIA base beneath passengers’ feet. (Most of the conspiracy theories surrounding DIA claim that there are up to six additional levels concealed beneath the airport.) Tanguma’s murals, “In Peace and Harmony with Nature” and “Children of the World Dream of Peace,” have been at the center of conspiracy theories because of their apocalyptic imagery, which allegedly references Freemason iconography.

Leo Tanguma, “Children of the World Dream of Peace” (1995)
Detail of Leo Tanguma, "Children of the World Dream of Peace"
Detail of Leo Tanguma, “Children of the World Dream of Peace”

In the left panel of “Children of the World Dream of Peace,” children from many cultures come together to destroy swords and daggers that are sheathed in the flags of many nations. In the smaller right panel, a menacing soldier impales a dove with a saber while brandishing a machine gun. “In Peace and Harmony with Nature,” which also spans two panels, features one scene showing the bountifulness and diversity of natural life, while the other depicts the extinction of animals and cultures at the hands of modern humans. The murals, which were commissioned for the airport during its construction, certainly contain multilayered images of a mysterious (perhaps even apocalyptic) nature, but clues to a secret alien-illuminati plot? I doubt it. More likely, conspiracy theorists are seeing what they want to in the compositions’ charged imagery, rather than Tanguma’s overt allusions to the dangers of war and climate change.

Conspiratorial “experts” like Jay Weidner assert that the airport’s murals and capstone prove the existence of a secret government plan for a “New World Order.” Others implicate the airport in the murder of JonBenét Ramsey. One local Evangelical Christian group, Cephas Ministries,  claimed that the DIA was built as part of a plot to murder the “people that Lucifer hates.”

Leo Tanguma, “In Peace and Harmony with Nature” (1995)

The misreadings by “paranoid doomsday theorists,” as Rachel Cole Dalamagas put it in her interview with Tanguma for Zing Magazine, point to an important facet of the conspiracy surrounding the DIA that has rarely been discussed. Tanguma is an important Denver-based Chicano artist who, throughout his career, has combined symbolism from history and mysticism with the techniques of the 20th-century Mexican muralists. His work at the DIA is part of a larger body of work that deals with American socio-political issues from his uniquely hybrid perspective.

The DIA was planned and built during the administrations of Federico Peña and Wellington Webb, the first Hispanic and African American mayors of Denver, respectively. These two men made a point of hiring immigrant workers and minority-owned businesses, which resulted in uproar among the state’s conservatives. DIA was deemed a disaster during Peña’s administration and Webb was accused of corruption, but the airport became one of the most efficient and profitable in the country. The success of the airport as a transportation and cultural hub more than 20 years later is a testament to the legacies of the former mayors, whose vision for a diverse and provocative Denver can still be seen in the airport’s art collection.

Betty Woodman, “Balustrade” (1993)

Like all airports, DIA contains its fair share of bland, cookie-cutter art that won’t inspire many jet-lagged travelers to look up from their phones. The statue of astronaut Jack Swigert in concourse B, murals of the Old West, and the word “Relax” in giant, glowing letters fit snugly into typical airport art conventions. Many airports, like Houston’s, have big, expensive, and not especially memorable or noteworthy art collections that blend into the background of departure time monitors, advertisements, duty free stores, and fast food chains. DIA’s works that inspire controversy and conspiracy are a special exception.

Terry Allen, "Notre Denver"
Terry Allen, “Notre Denver”
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