PRINT January 1991


As some spake of the temple, . . . he said, . . . the days will come, in which there shall not be left one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down.
Luke 21:5–6

AS I WRITE, the walls of Jerusalem are being torn apart and its stones thrown down on worshipers. Palestinians and Jews are being martyred in their own holy temples. Saddam Hussein is posing as defender of the holy cities. Holy war is on everyone’s tongues.

The vision of bullet-ridden columns and ancient stones in Jerusalem seems as shocking as the actual images of cobblestoned streets strewn with injured and dying human beings. It’s almost as if the destruction of sacred space were a greater horror than death. Places like Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall retain an intimate sense of awe and distance, even for the agnostic public. Yet they are becoming the targets of secular bloodlettings carried out in the name of religion. Today we seem hell-bent on desanctifying these places, demystifying them by whatever means.

Terry Allen’s art has a habit of arousing thoughts about sacred space, and a curious aura of sanctity surrounds his new public sculpture Corporate Head. Part of the Prudential Property company’s “Poet’s Walk” project, which teams artists with poets in the production of joint public works (here, Allen joins the poet Philip Levine), the piece is installed at the entrance to the 43-story Citicorp Center in the new financial area of downtown Los Angeles. A slightly larger-than-life bronze businessman, briefcase in hand, bends down into the wall of the building, perhaps to worship, perhaps to have his ass kicked. Either way, his corporate head is in the block.

The bow of worship at places like the Wailing Wall becomes an immersion in the polished granite of the skyscraper. The man’s position reminds me of William Blake’s Urizen, the god of reason and architecture, who bends over, suppresses, and merges with the atrophied world he has helped to build. Allen’s figure, however, is not a dominating one. He is a corporate victim, a sacrificial scapegoat like those whose blood blessed the foundation stones of ancient buildings and cities. This is Allen’s fall guy.

There is also, though, something intangibly obscene about this penitential icon, its head lost in a vast expanse of concrete, granite, and glass. You can almost breathe the indecency in the air around the figure. Corporate Head somehow offends the sanctity of the plaza, and our modern plazas are the closest thing we build today to the sacred space of the old temple or cathedral. These pristine spaces, anonymous yet overweening, provide a quiet oasis as a passage from the city’s busy streets to the hushed centers of corporate power. Their iconography of evergreen foliage, potted plants magically always in flower, fountains, and large pacific metal sculptures are their versions of the temple’s symbols of eternity. Allen’s intervention subverts this ritualized space. With its message of failed anthropocentrism, the figure arouses a pathos that brings out by comparison the architecture’s dominating malevolence, its Kafkaesque feel—especially at night, when the place is empty and silent. Corporate plazas stand for an ideology of success, and ordinarily have no room for a representation of loss. Corporate Head exposes the hidden reality of the religion of commerce.

The figure is made to look vulnerable in every possible way. Of human proportions, and standing not on a pedestal but on the pavement, it becomes one of us. Levine’s accompanying poem reads: “They said / I had a head / for business. / They said / to get ahead / I had to lose / my head. / They said / be concrete / & I became / concrete. / They said, / go, / my son, / multiply, / divide, conquer. / I did my best.” These lines are etched on a bronze plaque set into the stone pavement behind the figure. To read it we must adopt his bent-over posture: we complete the picture. Lining up beneath the vertical skyscraper wall, we perform a ritual dance.

Even to allude to the ritualization of business—to mention the sacred and the commercial in the same breath—is of course entirely sacrilegious. But Allen’s work often touches on this taboo. His song “Whatever Happened to Jesus (and Maybeline)?,” 1980, for example, a funny frightening sideswipe at cultural amnesia, mixes lines about the disappearance of Jesus and Mary from the world with lyrics from Chuck Berry’s song “Maybelline.” So we get a blend of the sacred and the erotic yearnings of a secular America. Belted out like a southern evangelical hymn, “Whatever Happened to Jesus?” has a gaiety that deflects any direct confrontation. But it keeps its edge of blasphemy. And Corporate Head likewise keeps its edge of laughter—another incongruity in a place of worship. The piece arouses a lot of humor, both good and bad, from Citicorp employees and visitors. It obviously exposes uneasy tensions, which laughter eases—or airs in palatable form.

The potency of Corporate Head is marked by the way it transforms the space around it. As Duchamp made the Mona Lisa converge on a mustache, Corporate Head brings all the messages inherent in the architecture of the plaza into focus on this diminished bronze figure. In the end, these associations of blasphemy are the viewer’s own responsibility. Yet by involving us in such associations, Allen makes us accomplices in the terrain of his own dark thoughts.

It’s easy to read a moral into the work. And why not? The “messages” of Allen’s radio plays, performances, writings, and sculptural assemblages ring out as clearly as the choruses of his songs. The conflicted pathos of Corporate Head comes from the figure’s obliviousness to the immensity that dwarfs him. He mimics our own indifference, our own channeled blindness in the face of the violence perpetuated on and perpetrated by us even when we are not at war.

The incision that Corporate Head makes in the homogenous space around the center of commerce is an act of violation precisely because it invokes the origins of sacred space in an act of violence. In the mythic geography of archaic cultures, human sacrifice often lay at the heart of the sacred. Allen reintroduces the sacrificial victim, reminding us of the violence underpinning the success and power worshiped in the cathedral of private enterprise. And his allusion to a mythic dimension suppressed in the business of everyday life echoes Mircea Eliade’s assertion that “the sacred is indeed camouflaged within the profane in the same way as the profane . . . is camouflaged in the sacred.”

Rosetta Brooks is a writer who lives in New York.