Just this week, production of internationally-acclaimed artist Olek’s installation piece began with the help of a handful of local volunteers.
The group spent months intricately crocheting the orange, yellow, and red camouflage and technicolor doilies that covered the notable King Neptune statue, a staple of Virginia Beach’s boardwalk.
Covering Neptune’s face was a gas mask, made of rubber and lace, which drove home Olek’s message concerning polluted oceans the statue’s subject matter serves to protect. The flamboyant piece was hard not to notice, and may have forced tourists and locals strolling on the boardwalk to step back and not only rethink the landmark, but to look beyond it at the beaches they enjoy, and reflect.
Unfortunately, the hundreds of folks flocking to the oceanfront this weekend will not get their moment to enjoy the mammoth work. Due to a lack of communication and compromise, the statue was stripped of its recently added duds on Wednesday. This just days before Logstradamus Surf + Music Festival and, more crucially, the MOCA Boardwalk Art Show, which the piece was commissioned for in the first place. The piece was scheduled to stay up until August, and meant to perplex viewers all summer long.
However, the addition of the gas mask was last-minute, and not cleared in the city-approved, contracted proposal for the piece. It was a creative vision Olek was not able to unsee, so when MOCA called for the removal of the gas mask, the Polish-born artist called for the removal of the entire piece all together.
Much like the statue itself, which was designed by Paul DiPasquale but was actually transformed and brought to life tirelessly by generally uncredited Zhang Cong, its coverings were a collaborative effort. Olek’s call for removal not only breached her contract, but undid the months of hard work of local crochet artists, their labor now in vain. It’s unfortunate that an artist’s ego coupled with a non-negotiable vision couldn’t overcome common sense and basic humility, and in this sense Olek is clearly in the wrong.
However, compromise should have came from MOCA as well when Olek put her foot down about the gas mask. The museum argues that “Olek took liberties beyond the scope of her contract and inserted her personal agenda,” but isn’t art all about conveying a point of view, and be something deeper than a visual aesthetic? It’s surprising that MOCA failed to entertain the expression of this idea in a process they know all too well is constantly evolving throughout a work’s lifespan.
Where is the wiggle room, and shouldn’t a contract on a creative project leave room for further creativity?
While the final decision for the gas mask’s removal lay in the hands of MOCA, they probably considered the city contract set in stone; they understandably wanted to avoid any further rustled jimmies of sensitive city officials, already upset once before about another piece in the same Hi-Fructose exhibit Olek’s work served to promote.
A “blasphemous” work by Mark Ryder came under fire shortly before the exhibition’s opening, which is the largest and arguably most notable in MOCA’s history. City commission members threatened to cut the museum’s funding, which already receives only 6% of its $2 million budget from the city. The move made national art news, much like the short-lived King Neptune installation did, providing a brief positive blip in Hampton Road’s art scene nationally. However, with its removal comes more bad press, further denting Virginia Beach’s hope of being known as a creative epicenter.
MOCA and the City of Virginia Beach’s failure to find middle ground with Olek on the gas mask could leave less room for creative ideas to flourish in the city, but this story doesn’t have to end this way. It could stand as a lesson to artists that contracts are vital documents that must be respected when working with museums and cities, and a nudge to Virginia Beach to be more open to daring art that doesn’t always follow the script.