For the Latvian contribution to Rockefeller Park’s Cultural Gardens, the organizers in 2006 chose a Latvian artist, Girts Burvis, and had him use a piece of Latvian stone. There’s an arch of natural stone with a human silhouette carved into it.
In my opinion, it’s awkwardly executed. The stone is a soft and natural arch shape, and it’s etched with ancient Latvian symbols and embellishments. The stone and these etchings look timeless, Neolithic. But the silhouette is strange and cut sharply—it looks like an angular human form in a modernist abstract painting. It clashes, and the whole piece doesn’t make sense to me. There is no plaque explaining this sculpture, or the other, less prominent but equally cryptic ones around it in the Latvian garden.
When I first encountered this sculpture, I thought: it looks like the metal detector from the Stonehenge druids’ airport.
According to the cultural gardens website, the stylized silhouette carved into the stone arch is a “woman in traditional folk dress . . . representing the passage of immigrants from Latvia to the United States.” This information isn’t available at the actual garden, but even if it was, we would then need to google “traditional Latvian folk dress” to understand that the strangely-shaped head of the silhouette was due to a flat-top hat worn by some Latvian peasant women. The sculptor is expecting a bit much, I think. If public art is to express a public meaning—as this piece purportedly is—then it can’t rely on such esoterica.
The silhouette seems rather to present those brave immigrants as robotic and crisply defined, when in fact they, like most European immigrants, arrived at Ellis Island as ragged clumps of rags covering pitiful human specimens: weakened by the journey, often half-starving and sick, destitute, filthy, exhausted, confused by the otherworldliness of their surroundings, bewildered in the extreme.
In fact, maybe the Stonehenge airport anachronism hits it right: the immigrant’s crossing-over experience featured this level of disconnect. It is humbling to imagine the experience of our forebears—suddenly deposited on a new planet called New York City.
These days, the portal theme is highly evocative and especially relevant. When we hear the word, “portal,” the modern imagination is easily drawn to science fiction, which probably has the most frequent usage of the word: the crossing over to some other dimension, something unknowable, dangerous, far away in space and time. The word, “portal,” is a synonym for “gate,” but has a much larger meaning. It suggests a passage between dramatically different states, a passage that will change you, that might kill you.
But for almost all immigrants, this has always been the experience. Today, most Americans forget the extreme risk that our ancestors incurred. When we see desperate people crossing the Rio Grande or the Sonoran Desert, risking their own and their children’s lives, it’s something of a shock to the system. We think to ourselves, in the words of a New York Times headline, “Why are parents bringing their children on treacherous treks to the US border?”
But immigration has always been the most treacherous of treks. The Irish, for example, chose a much more dangerous passage than any poor soul swimming the Rio Grande with a child on their back. In the mid-1800s, the “coffin ships” from Ireland had death rates as high as 30%.
Many Americans make decisions about where to live based on the quality of the schools, the neighborhood amenities, the local taxes, etc. A move which incurs a 30% chance of death is simply insane. Yet for America’s proverbial bluebloods, the Mayflower pilgrims, their reality was even worse: over 35% of the men, women and children who set sail from England were dead within the first year. Of course they didn’t know the exact percentage when they boarded the ship, but they were well aware that many of the passengers would die, and soon. Today, we are a risk-averse people who have forgotten that the norm of human history involves desperate gambles on our families’ futures. We’ve forgotten the pioneer children whose graves still line the Oregon Trail, and the 20th century Okies who crammed the babies, the grandparents and all the belongings onto aging jalopies and puttered into the Mojave Desert.
A mix of humans from Eurasia and East Asia, who had been cut off from their ancestors by glaciers for a hundred centuries, entered the Bering Portal 16,000 years ago, when the ice grudgingly budged north. Glenn Hodges of National Geographic writes that archaeologists and geneticists believe that “fewer than 5,000 individuals dispersed south” on this coastal route, hopping between islands and open water. These first immigrants to the Americas had some sort of boat that they used to chase the fish and marine mammals of the kelp-bed ecosystem.
Migration is a central theme in human history, and it has often been a choice between certain death in the rear and probable death in front. For those of us lucky enough to avoid the dilemma, we owe nothing but humility, admiration and compassion for those who every day step into the portal.
The Latvian sculptor, Girts Burvis, perhaps has a theme with this stone portal idea. His piece pictured above is at a park on the Baltic coast near the town of Dundaga, Latvia. Google translate tells me that the title of this sculpture is “Marine,” and the text on the stone, “juras panemtiem,” means “sea containers.” I assume these clumsy terms are examples of the untrustworthy nature of computer translations. So I’m unfortunately at a bit of a loss. I’d love input from a Latvian speaker! If you’ll allow me to be fanciful, I’ll imagine that I can detect Indo-European roots in the Latvian. Surely, the amateur etymologist declares, the title of the sculpture is “Jars of the Pan-Emptiness.”
By any name, this is a wonderful sculpture. It seems to have an echo of a Stonehenge triptych, and there’s that human silhouette in the center. If we can consider this shape to be an emigrant, facing the portal on the sea, then it looks like a much more powerful representation of the migration experience than Burvis’ piece in Cleveland: The human at a slumping and depressed angle, suffering, lonely, already lost between two worlds. The silhouette is overwhelmed by the combined, oppressive stone forces all about it and can only head off bravely into—dissolve into—the unknowable and infinite emptiness of the ocean.
That folk hat would’ve ruined this powerful work of art. Burvis created it in 2002, four years before the one in Cleveland. I wish I could give more context, but not knowing Latvian, I’m migrating beyond the limits of my understanding.
And a footnote:
On the Cultural Gardens website, the caption for the Burvis sculpture reads:
Featured sculptures: The center arched sculpture is a granite boulder from Latvia sculpted by Ģirts Burvis with the center arch representing the passage of immigrants from Latvia to the United States. The silhouette is of a woman in traditional folk dress and signifies the strength and spirit of the Latvian people. Latvian design elements are engraved on the stone.