What I love: Charles Simonds

Some of the most magical times in my childhood were provided by artists, and no artist had more captivating dominion over the streets of early-1970s NYC than Charles Simonds.

From this video, you will hear that Simonds has his own idea that he was cultivating these properties and building his tiny houses for a population of “tiny people” who traveled around the city. His creations were meant to shelter these creatures, who were not so very different from us. His ethos, I believe, was to highlight the decrepit and encourage fallow land (like vacant lots, where he often put his buildings) to to be brought up to higher uses, like playgrounds or community gardens.

For me, a child viewing the work, I didn’t care about his agenda; it was wonderful enough to have art that could open the eyes of us big people (and whew! Something that made me feel big!). My own personal belief? Aliens were living in those tiny buildings. (Some looked like Hopi structures, and is there any culture more alien than the Hopi?)

In the video, Simonds’ narration states that the works are damaged not by natural elements, but by “greedy” people who want to take the works home with them (he’s also not happy about children playing with them. So I’m glad no one told me then!). I remember crying when my mother was firm: not even one single brick. I was an avid miniature-maker myself and wanted Simonds to be my mentor or brother, or to play by his side. I adored small, I made small: I dreamed often that I had a real living horse (sometimes it was a tiny other child — not my sister — with other animals) living in a matchbox to carry around in my pocket. I dreamed this over and over as if it were real, which I guess is how you know something is really important, a wish that has captured you someplace deep and private. (The matchbox was always a secret).

The closest I could get was to hold a firm and unfulfillable desire to take these treasures home, to compare the precious handmade bricks with my own, to provide cool housing for my tiny plastic animals, or even to support my dolls’ study of “ancient” history. I don’t think it occurred to me that the buildings’ residents needed protection — I wanted to preserve the shelters themselves. They were decrepit after all — even when new, they looked to be in the act of falling apart — even, built into crumbling niches of human architecture — what would be lost if I took something home?

Only everything. Any disruption — even rescue — would stop the cycle of wonder that would start anytime a new viewer happened by, spying into a crack to find some junior civilization. I couldn’t have done it, even as a child.

I think often of ephemeral works of art. I hope you can sense my soft spot for conceptual work; if not, don’t worry! I’ll write more on it. Now, in this line of work, I wonder about those legacies, not to mention the business aspects of an ephemeral or performative work: how to value a James Turrell or a Beuys chocolate bar? I admire collectors who can deal in the intangible and artists who choose to send something so uncertain ahead of them.

So I loved finding the film relic of these works by Charles Simonds, even as I know they’ve long ago dissolved, that their legacy, in part, built my grown up heart.

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