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Giant Marilyn Monroe causes a Windy City stir

by Los Angeles Times
07-31-2011

The new Chicago sculpture, capturing her famous billowing-dress pose, elicits outrage and glee — and often just a smile.

Reporting from Chicago—

Marilyn Monroe stands tall on Michigan Avenue, high enough to see passing boats on the Chicago River, but she’s fortunate to be aluminum and stainless steel. She can’t hear the nasty things being said about her — or see what the little people are doing beneath her.

The statue erected this month in Pioneer Court has been called “creepy schlock” and “a giant, silent avatar of nonconsent.” Some observers are appalled at the seemingly endless stream of tourists hugging her legs and voyeurs young and old unabashedly shooting upskirt photos with their cellphones.

But Marilyn has fans among the crowds that encircle Chicago’s latest piece of public art.

“I think it’s terrific,” said Joe Guerra, who lives in Missouri. “And I think it’s terrific that some people are troubled by it. Art should always elicit some kind of reaction, whether it’s positive or negative.”

Members of the group that owns the sculpture by J. Seward Johnson Jr. concur.

“Public art is all about creating a dialogue,” said Paula Stoeke, director of the Sculpture Foundation, based in Los Angeles and Princeton, N.J. “When you can get people talking, in particular if they’re not saying the same thing to one another and they have differing views, that’s an exciting thing. That’s something that people who are interested in placing public art are happy to see happen.”

Stoeke said Johnson was not available for interviews because of recent surgery. But, in a statement sent via Stoeke, Johnson said he wants people to “easily come close and actually touch” the statue.

Monroe’s famous pose, in which she’s laughing as air from a subway grate blows up her skirt, was captured during the 1954 filming of “The Seven Year Itch.”

“There is something about her pose; the exuberance for life without inhibition, which is quintessentially American,” Johnson said. “It expresses an uninhibited sense of our own vibrancy.”

That’s not how Bren Ortega Murphy sees it. The associate professor at Loyola University Chicago’s School of Communication views the statue as out of place in Chicago and fears it’s sending a negative message about women as sex symbols.

“This is disturbing to me,” she said. “It’s not that feminists don’t have a sense of humor or any sense of aesthetic. But there are whole bachelor parties taking their pictures underneath her.”

Part of the problem, Murphy said, is that it’s hard to imagine anyone putting up a provocative male statue. ” Tom Cruise when he comes out [in] his underwear, that’s an iconic figure too,” she said, referring to a scene in the movie “Risky Business.” “But would someone erect a statue like that? I don’t think so.”

Jessica Reynolds, 21, a senior at Loyola, said she’s more concerned with how Marilyn makes the city look.

“Chicago is swarmed with tourists in the summertime, and I’m sure they appreciate it,” she said. “It’s like going to Vegas. But for everyday Chicagoans passing by, it seems kind of trashy. You have this pinup girl whose skirt is blowing up in the wind. It just doesn’t really fit in Chicago.”

But for every person who views Marilyn as a pink flamingo in Chicago’s front yard, several more think she’s fun to have around.

Donald Allen, 81, of Evanston, Ill., was on Michigan Avenue for a business meeting. Afterward, he paid his respects to the statue.

“I decided to come down, have my engagement and then touch Marilyn’s toe,” he said.

Hannah Higgins, an associate professor of art history at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said she’d call the statue “art in the direction of billboards and kitsch and films — it has no edifying value.”

But the experience people have with Marilyn should not be over-analyzed, Higgins said. “What I wouldn’t want to do is make up a bunch of phony-baloney theories that turn it into a transformative experience. My kids would certainly run up to it and take a picture up the skirt. I’d put the experience right up there with their cartoons and the kind of kitsch in kid movies.”

Paul Zeller, president and chief executive of Zeller Realty Group, which curates Pioneer Court, said he hopes the statue harks back to a simpler time.

“I find the adults are almost uniform in their reaction,” Zeller said. “They look at it and they sort of get a smile. That smile’s reminiscent of a lot of things that happened years before. People think back on where they were as a kid when Marilyn Monroe was a figure in entertainment. It brings us back to a time when we felt more positive, more optimistic. Maybe we were even a little nicer to each other.

“I don’t see anything wrong with that.”

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