Moments in Durango’s history
New public art project now fully installed

Shan Wells kneels next to a historic photo now affixed to the sidewalk outside the El Rancho on Monday afternoon. The photo is part of the moments project, a history-based conceptual public art project that consists of 20 green, metal stanchions placed around the city, each presenting a historical photograph of the location where it is mounted./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

by Jules Masterjohn

The year was 1917. French/American artist Marcel Duchamp displayed a porcelain men’s urinal on a pedestal in a New York City gallery, titled it “Fountain,” signed it “R. Mutt,” and called it art. His rationale? He was an artist, so whatever he made was art. This off-the-wall act shocked the art world and proved that Duchamp was walking his talk. He stated his avante garde ideas about art in the comment, “The creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.” The idea that the viewer participates in art making is fairly new and is one of the foundational principles in conceptual art, a genre that would find its roots 50 years after Duchamp’s sculpture outraged audiences.

In a recent story at BBC News, Duchamp’s “Fountain” was voted the most influential modern artwork in a poll by 500 experts. In the article, one of the experts, Simon Wilson, commented on the top choice. “It reflects the dynamic nature of art today and the idea that the creative process that goes into a work of art is the most important thing – the work itself can be made of anything and can take any form.”

Begun in the 1960s as a reaction to the commercialization of art, conceptual artworks communicate more through the idea than through the tangible object. A challenging art form, even to the art informed, conceptual art removes art’s reliance on a physical manifestation and depends upon the viewer’s ability to interpret concepts and understand ideas. Basically, the “art” happens in the mind where the object, if any, and the viewer’s intellect interface.

This oftentimes misunderstood art form – conceptual art – has literally hit the streets of Durango. Local artist Shan Wells recently finished installing the moments project, a history-based public art piece that consists of 20 green metal stanchions placed around the city, each presenting a historical photograph of the location where the stanchion is mounted. There are 11 stanchions in the downtown area, mounted on the sidewalks and oriented in a specific direction to assist the viewer in “seeing” the past by comparing the historic photograph to what is seen in present day.

A historic view of Hogsback and Perins Peak from a stanchion on E. Second Ave./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

In keeping with the history of its conceptual genre, Wells’ public art piece has not always found sympathetic reception among locals. One artist, who asked to remain anonymous, doesn’t believe that the project is art but merely historical interpretive signage. “Why is it any different than the sign posts about Animas City along the bike path?” was this artist’s challenge. Like Duchamp’s “Fountain,” we can identify it as art because the artist places it within an art context. And in doing so, asks that the viewer think differently about the purpose of the work. The moments project is intended to do more than give us information. “It employs the ‘canvas’ of interpretive signage as a user-activated mechanism of engagement,” Wells wrote in the brochure that accompanies the work. The brochure offers a map of the stanchions as well as a description of how one might understand the project as art.

For Wells, a native Durangoan and sculptor who first practiced the conceptual art form during his undergraduate studies in California, there is no identity crisis about this public art project. During the moments project dedication in October, Wells shared these words with the crowd: “This insertion of the past into everyday life enables viewers to make an immediate, real-time comparison, which in turn allows the weight of years falling between the frozen moment of the photograph and the present instant to be keenly felt … a gentle bump against the most powerful of nature’s forces – time.”

Like many contemporary artists, Wells is very interested in time as an operative element in life and has created this public art project as a vehicle to encourage one’s journey, using the mind’s eye, to arrive at a predetermined destination. “Time is a huge part of the universe, and in many ways the least understood. The idea of traveling in time is quite possible as an intellectual and imaginative exercise, you just have to leave your body behind. It’s a learned skill that you get better at with practice and research.” Through the moments project, Wells offers an opportunity to “make the sudden passage of time felt.”

The idea for the project began when Wells and his wife, Regina, decided to return to Durango to raise their children. Wells identifies strongly with his hometown and knows much about its history. Many of the photos he chose for the project stimulated a flood of memories and feelings in him. “I could look at the 1890s Strater Hotel and mentally overlay today’s building, and in so doing, feel the rush of a hundred years of time flow past me, whispering about world wars, the Spanish flu, depressions, moon shots, miners and ranchers. I could see John Kennedy making a campaign speech in the banquet room. I could hear the clatter of the horse-drawn trolley as it rolled up Main. I could see the pain in the eyes of our Ute brothers and sisters as they watched their lands slowly shrinking away from them, see the hope in the eyes of settlers looking to start fresh and be judged by the fruit of their labor, rather than their skin color, or their station in life. I could feel the rustle of generations of Durangoans still moving in 1887, 1920, 1953, 1978.”

After the last few years of attending council meetings and submitting documents of all kinds to keep the project moving forward and receive the city’s stamp of approval, Wells is relieved to see the artwork finally installed around town. His greatest satisfaction is in convincing the City Council and related commissions to view the moments project as art, not as interpretive signage. More meaningful for Wells, however, has been the gratitude he has received from some community members. “I’ve been stopped by many people who are deeply appreciative in a familial way. That is to say, they see it as an expression of love of place. And they’re right! One fellow, an amateur historian, actually showed me where Juan Rivera crossed the Animas in the middle 1500s. The trail is still there. Brilliant.” •

The moments projects brochures are available at the Durango Arts Center, Public Library, City Hall, Recreation Center, Center for Southwest Studies, and the Visitor’s Center.

Present day pedestrians are juxtaposed with Southern Utes parading down Main Avenue in this photo captured circa 1932 at the corner of Main and Eighth Street./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

 

 

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