The two sculptures couldn’t be more diverse or distant — multiple interlocking lips on the grounds of a Los Angeles hospital and a panda peering over a building in China.
For all their differences, both public art projects share a common thread: The work of University of Denver art Professor Lawrence Argent, they are whimsical, arresting, outsized, thought-provoking and, at first glance, even jaw-dropping.
He wasn’t looking to do another animal sculpture, let alone another bear, after the 2005 installation of the internationally celebrated “I See What You Mean,” Argent’s 40-foot-tall blue bear that seems to have wandered into downtown Denver, its nose pressed against the Colorado Convention Center. 2011 brought the installation of “Leap,” a 56-foot red rabbit suspended high in a terminal in Sacramento International Airport.
But Argent has created “I Am Here!,” unveiled Jan. 14 in Chengdu, the fourth largest city in China. A panda nearly 50 feet high, weighing almost 12 tons and made of 4,600 stainless-steel triangles, is climbing the Chengdu International Financial Center, a high-end downtown building that includes a hotel, upscale shops and residences. The giant panda is native to south central China and is particularly revered in Chengdu, which is two hours from the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding.
“We’re using it as a vehicle for an awareness,” Argent says. “I mean, the piece is called ‘I Am Here!’ Which had to do with the idea of the (panda’s) presence. ‘I am here. Why am I here? Why am I looking at you? Why am I the size that I am?’ Questioning the nature of its own physicality and its own presence in the place where it is, because obviously Chengdu is renowned for its pandas.”
Argent also intended “to create something that was playful and a reminder, perhaps, of the situation of the panda and what we need to do to try and save it and keep it in perpetuity.”
His objective was rather different in “Pieces Together,” a work that will be installed in late January outside a new wing of the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Hospital but will remain covered until the wing’s October dedication. The hospital is located in South Los Angeles’ Willowbrook neighborhood, a low-income area between Watts and the city of Compton.
Argent saw his aesthetic task as engaging the community and did so with 26 pairs of interlocking lips made of solid pieces of gray granite fitted together to form a 220,000-pound work 20 feet high, 4 feet wide at the top and about 7 feet at the bottom.
“I wanted the idea that the lips projected a voice, that they were about each individual making up the component,” Argent says. “Every person is integral to the whole. And every voice is as important as the next. So this was the whole idea I started to do on community.”
Argent taped interviews with members of the community, at the same time three-dimensionally scanning their lips. From this digital data, granite blocks were created and chosen to be included in the sculpture.
“I tried to get the lips to be active,” Argent says. “And there was one clean scan of a set of lips that was pursing. So that’s the one that I placed in the center.”
It’s as if that particular set of lips is breathing, Argent says, adding life, energy and a sense of discourse to the entire work.
“I think it’s going to be a really magical piece,” he says. “I’m really excited about it.”
The interviews and a picture of each person will be accessible on a monitor in the hospital lobby. The lips included in the sculpture will be coded numerically to the interviews on the monitor along with dozens more.
“Obviously, I couldn’t put everybody’s lips that I interviewed into the sculpture,” Argent says, “so there are other people who aren’t necessarily in the sculpture. But their stories are still in there.”