I needed to look up the term “lawn ornament.” That is to say, the concept is somewhat foreign to me: the need to add decorative structures to enhance or beautify a natural setting. According to the Gardening Know How website, “Wisely placed lawn ornaments in the landscape can create a sense of elegance and warmth.” What this actually means is they exist to create a sense that the lawn, garden, or park is under conscious human management, that it is cultivated and controlled. We see mastery in the well-placed garden gnome that looks like an elf caught with his trousers down, peeing in a corner and looking over his shoulder impishly, or the heavily anthropomorphized deer looking up with warm, doey eyes. This seems like a particularly US phenomenon, to manicure whatever isn’t nailed down, in order to, (again from Gardening Know How) “enhance your life and bring you joy.” What else is that urge about besides fear and the desire to exert mastery?
With his commission to create public art for the Socrates Sculpture Park in Queens, Nari Ward takes the lawn ornament in other directions, to some odd, hallucinatory places. The structures he created include other versions of the outdoor structure: the advertising sign, the monument, and so makes this small swath of public park space a test bed for Ward’s ideas about intervening in natural settings with things that don’t quite belong, don’t fit, and make the landscape a place to explore rather than dominate. His ornaments are goats, ostensibly playing on the acronym for Greatest Of All Time — a meme that’s been circulating in YouTube videos and Twitter hashtags for years. The idea of greatness gets echoed in the huge electrical sign spelling out “Apollo,” which alludes to the Greek and Roman god associated with truth and prophecy, sun and light, and perhaps above all, order. The piece “Apollo/Poll” (2017) also visually mimics and thus references the sign advertising the world famous Apollo Theater in Harlem. Advertisements want to corral our thoughts and attention to sell us a better version of ourselves. Public monuments do as well. Ward’s version of the monument, an object created to commemorate a person or event and, according to its Wikipedia page, “improve the appearance of a city or location,” is atypical though: an enormous version of a hobby horse with a wheel at the bottom and a goat’s head at the top. It’s a plaything, not something to abase oneself before.
These are strange dreams, creatures that are perplexing anomalies: the goats all have rebar thrusting out of (or is it into?) them, the sort of reinforcing steel rods that are typically used in constructing the houses in Jamaica, where both Ward and I are from. Also, several of the goats have the remnants of egg shells and the hardened drip of albumen between their ears as if eggs were broken over their heads. The rebar is wrapped with various materials: firehoses, electronic wires, gauzy ribbons (the sort used to wrap gifts), the cut off tips of shoes, and one of them is tarred and feathered. One goat is even positioned upside down and there is a huge pair of oxidized bronze goat’s testicles hung like a bell to be rung.
Though there are several signs that stand guard over the sculptures, asking people not to climb on them, they do anyway. This landscape has been given permission to be wild, to be undecorated, uncontrolled and as odd as it wants to be. I found the work confusing and alienating, but, on reflection, also found it usefully allied against the notion that a garden space needs to be an echo of the desire to control nature. I found the entire installation in keeping with the ways Nari Ward has been working for several years now: using materials that are typical to the urban landscape, often things that are discarded or repurposed from their utilitarian origins to become tools for rethinking assumptions we make so often that we don’t realize they are assumptions. Here I realize that the god of order may not be the defining aspect of greatness, that we need space for the wild, the unruly, and the strange.
Nari Ward: G.O.A.T., again, features a series of newly commissioned outdoor artworks that were created on site, and is on view at Socrates Sculpture Park (32-01 Vernon Boulevard, Long Island City, Queens) through September 4.