Flying People Belong Only and Always at Eugene Airport

Eugene’s “Flight Patterns” art installation must be returned to the Eugene Airport as soon as its new home inside the airport can be determined and prepared. This should not be considered a matter for discussion or debate.

Flying

David Joyce designed this work for the airport in 1988 and that’s where it belongs. Once the commission check was cashed, the artwork became ours. It does not belong to the airport or the Joyce estate. It belongs to us.

Joyce died in 2003 and an art gallery now bears his name at Lane Community College, but all of that is beside the point. His widow has been consulted by airport authorities, but again, there’s nothing here to talk about except where and how to keep the artwork safe during airport construction and how soon can it be returned to its home.

All art is contextual, but some is more so. “Flight Patterns” can never belong anyplace but where Eugene’s people gather to fly, and that — so far — is only at the airport. Likewise, it would lose its meaning if it were in any other city’s airport. And if we don’t know why that is, then we don’t know ourselves. Don’t blame the art for that.

Betsy Wolfston and David Thompson’s 2007 “Marker of Origin” belongs beside the Eugene’s Train Depot. It wouldn’t make the same sort of sense anywhere else. James Ulrich built for the Eugene Public Library a chair, with a painting behind it and tile beneath it. Library patrons are taunted to sit or not, blurring the line between form and function. It works because of where it is.

Can anyone argue the Skinner Butte Cross wasn’t changed and diminished when it was moved to southwest Eugene? “Flight Patterns” belongs only and always in Eugene’s airport.

Joyce achieved something remarkable, producing a work both intimate and monumental. It tells a hundred stories that lead to a hundred more. Or it tells a single story that just keeps retelling itself.

Eugene is a place where regular people do amazing things, but without giving up their regularness. If Clark Kent had worked for Eugene’s Register-Guard instead of the Metropolis Daily Planet, he wouldn’t have needed a phone booth.

That busy corridor from Terminal A to the ticketing and baggage claim area has fit the work perfectly. The art joins the human procession after each plane has landed. (Reflect on that unanimity.) Frequent travelers cherish how the “flying people” guide their final steps home.

Inside that one message hides a thousand smaller ones. Each viewing reveals new quandaries. Is that a vacuum cleaner chasing a cloud? Why the trombone? Did everyone dress like that? What was a tape recorder?

The work’s presentation context has changed in only one important way. Airports in 1988 had no security perimeter. There was no TSA. The airport experience was less onerous then; flying was more enjoyable. No one was excluded where the work was first viewed. No ticket was required.

Loitering was not unwelcome, nor uncommon. Modern airport designs don’t allow people to stop and think. There are no ponder places, but “Flight Patterns” would be perfectly at home, if there were.

Joyce’s work is contextual not only in space but also in time. This presents a growing challenge. It won’t be very long before no one will have known the local citizens depicted in its seven panels. More than many works, “Flight Patterns” would benefit from some “liner notes” that viewers could refer to or not.

Artists hate, hate, hate to have their work explained. When somebody asked Robert Frost to explain one of his poems, he scolded, “You want me to say what I already said in words not as good?” Joyce probably would prefer his photos and depictions stand — or fly — on their own, without remedial help.

Well and good, except for this. People won’t often protect what they do not understand. Bayeux has its tapestry. Eugene has its “Flight Patterns.” Their stories are fixed in time, whether it’s 1066 or 1988. The people depicted are real, or were.

People flew only in airplanes back then, but they dreamt of more.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.