The titanic puppet slowly makes its way down a grassy hillside in Loveland, Ohio. Beneath its canvas body, artist Mark Fox and his crew struggle to navigate the figure's long arms and enormous head. After untangling the puppet from an overhead telephone wire, Fox is ready to continue his journey to the valley below.
Under a sweltering July sky, Fox and other avant-garde performers gather in Loveland's Grailville community, the education center and nature preserve owned by The Grail, a women's movement. They've come to rededicate The Poles, a massive outdoor sculpture comprised of 500-odd telephone poles, installed in 1967 by artist and theater director Robert Wilson. After opening remarks by Cincinnati philanthropist Alice Weston, one of the key supporters in the effort to restore The Poles, an outdoor festival of dance, music and performance art is underway. The Art Academy Shouting Choir howls their non-musical numbers.
Adjacent to a large tent, Fox installs a sign that explains the idea behind his interactive performance: "It's the late '60s/early '70s. Pretend you're at some outdoor event and believe a big, festival-style puppet can actually bring about social or political change. Create your own protest slogan.
Have your photo taken. Go back to your present life and remember the day when ..."
Dubbed Polestock by its organizers, the July 22 event aimed to rekindle the feelings of peace and love that define the overall perception of Woodstock. It doesn't matter that many of the people who attended the famous 1969 music festival describe their experiences in the mud and traffic as the equivalent of surviving a battle. Polestock was born from idealized Woodstock memories. The performance artists who gathered around The Poles tried to recapture a '60s-inspired radical spirit. But the lesson learned on this hot afternoon is that political happenings can't be manufactured. A political happening — as its name implies — simply happens. The promoters behind Polestock ought to be satisfied with their accomplishment of creating an afternoon retreat for members of Cincinnati's avant-garde community.
By the time my T-shirt is drenched in sweat, it's clear Polestock is the one local art event that truly understands Midwest summers. Away from the antiseptic coolness of museum galleries, Polestock offers the opportunity to recline in the scorched grass of a rural field. On the type of late-July day that begs for a siesta, and night fall is welcomed simply for its subtle drop in temperature, Polestock functions as an opportunity for Cincinnati artists to head out into the sticky, country air. Polestock is a chance to take a break from Over-the-Rhine violence and news of the 2-year-old boy who became Cincinnati's latest gunshot victim. In Grailville, the ongoing debate over downtown boycotts is far away. Polestock is a day in the country, something even the most urbane artist needs now and again.
There is harmony in the way The Poles occupies its space in an isolated field. Wilson's use of everyday telephone poles allows the sculpture to be interpreted widely. It might be a statement on ecology, class, race or sexuality. Apart from the ceramic animal eyes, the sculpture is completely natural. The Poles is more interactive landmark than Pop-culture propaganda, encouraging visitors to navigate its many beams. By the time you walk across its sloping poles toward the back row, you've achieved a surprisingly dangerous height.
On this particular afternoon, the field surrounding The Poles is windless. The air hangs heavy and languid over the valley. The most energy one can muster is simply to appreciate the artistry behind Wilson's sculpture. In the distance, I watch my 3-year-old son run across the field. Right behind him is my wife. Just watching them run makes me tired. It's time to go.
From now on, Polestock will play a prominent role in my nostalgia of Cincinnati summers. I'll think of the humid Grailville valley and the salty taste of sweat on my tongue. Polestock wasn't the least bit political, but it was memorable just the same.