Flying People Belong Together

I love David Joyce’s “Flying People.” Yes, I know the artwork’s official name is “Flight Patterns,” but who has the energy to ask the Eugene City Council to align another name with what people already call it?

I thought it was a travesty when it — not they — was removed to Lane Community College. The Skinner Butte Cross found a new and better home at a Bible college in Eugene’s southwest hills, but Joyce’s whimsical work did a spectacular job of making our airport something more than what it was. Good art can do that sometimes.

So I’m surprising even myself to say I’m displeased with its imminent return. I have fought for the past few years for its return to the airport, but “it” may now no longer exist. Joyce originally conceived of his piece as over 100 images, thoughtfully and strategically placed. The airport plans to break Flying People into smaller pieces.

The artist used the beginning and end of a passageway where it was mounted as his frame. The current plan resembles how art thieves cut a canvas out of its frame for ease of transport. It’s good for somebody, but not for the art.

That long, narrow hallway was perfect for the work as Joyce designed it. Airport security was not what it is today, so anyone could go upstairs to see it. But you wouldn’t dare stand to look at it. You could get run over by distracted or frenzied travelers. It was peripheral by design, like the marginal doodles by Sergio Aragonés in MAD Magazine.

The characters on the wall were ostensibly flying, and yet they were still — while the wingless viewers were constantly moving, lest they miss their flight. Get it? The artwork colored the experience of those passing by — never demanding undivided attention.

As a work of art, it couldn’t have had your undivided attention, even if you had wanted to give it. The hallway offered less than two dozen feet of depth, so you couldn’t step back far enough to take in its width as a single image. Like a modern Bayeux Tapestry, the viewer is forced to follow the art through the space it inhabits.

Commercial airports are built around abdication. We give up a little bit of our liberty. We take an assigned seat. We accept consequences for our tardiness. We know we can’t take certain things with us. But who doesn’t dream of flying on our own terms? Like those people on the wall!

Flying People had to be moved because its original home was a hallway first and a gallery second. Joyce, who died 14 years ago this Sunday, would have understood this. The airport added more windows, so the artwork had to find a new home. Singular.

As anyone who has ever been bumped from a flight, stranded in the terminal, or been forced to sleep on a waiting room chaise can testify — an airport is not a home. You can’t live in an airport anymore than you can live in a ZIP code. You’ll have to get more specific.

The flying people soon will inhabit various corners of the airport, like so many garden gnomes. That will be fun for those who remember the original work. It will mystify those who never knew its original context. Both reactions are worthwhile, but also disappointing.

It will no longer be the work designed by Joyce and commissioned by the city. The characters have flown the coop, escaped the frame, flouting the artist’s original intent. They will become decorations for the airport, like a “Mona Lisa” shower curtain. It’s fun and it’s nice, but it’s not art.

It’s not a manger scene if Mary is behind the United ticket counter, Joseph is near Delta’s gate and the baby Jesus is swaddled in Allegiant’s warning display against oversized carry-on bags.

The city and the airport do not have a One Percent for Decoration policy. David Joyce’s whole is greater than the sum of its flying parts.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com. In college, Kahle posted a miniature paper replica of the Bayeux Tapestry around the circumference of his dorm room.