Blog Archives

Renovating Ruins: Ruination, Consumption, and Art

Karl Bitter's 1898 installation The Races of Mankind was placed on pillars when it came to Holliday Park (image from Donna Cazadd).

Karl Bitter’s 1898 installation The Races of Mankind was placed on pillars when it came to Holliday Park (image from Donna Cazadd).

At the heart of Indianapolis, Indiana’s Holliday Park sit the remnants of an artwork its designer hoped would be known as Constitution Mall.  The remains are typically referred to simply as “the Ruins,” though, and in the heart of the city park they are a picturesque if unexpected backdrop:  ambiguously evocative of a deteriorating heritage, the Greek columns, a reflecting pool, and a scatter of limestone statuary are today fenced-in and grown over with weeds.  The centerpiece of the remains is an 1898 sculpture designed by Karl Bitter known as “the Races of Mankind” depicting three kneeling figures who represent “the Caucasian, Negro, and Mongolian races bearing mankind’s burden.”

The Ruins in April, 2013 (image from netmonkey)

The Ruins in April, 2013 (image from netmonkey)

The three sculptures were created at the end of the 19th century, but the installation itself was created in the 1960s and 1970s, a faux ruin rather than a genuine architectural shell.  Park boosters’ interest in “renovating” the Ruins now signals that the piece has passed from an artwork evoking romantic ruination to a true ruin that somehow fails to capture an aesthetic ideal and has no self-evident consumable value.  The discussion over how to rescue an artwork that was always intended to be a ruin illuminates the complicated intersection of aesthetics and ruination.

Bitter’s statues came to Indianapolis in 1958 after the St. Paul Building in New York City was torn down.  Architect Francis Keally presided over a committee that reviewed proposals for re-using the statues: the city of Indianapolis, as well as New York University, Columbia, and Farleigh Dickenson submitted plans to re-use the sculptures.  The New York Times’ Meyer Berger reported that “Indianapolis was awarded the figures by a committee because it plans to set them in the middle of a reflecting pool, a lofty setting identical to that envisioned by the sculptor.” The paper indicated that Indianapolis architect David V. Burns “has drawn tentative plans for the future installation.” Read the rest of this entry