“Unclassified Site Museum” is a curious bit of art that comes along at a crucial time in Denver’s evolution.
In this era of record-breaking infill, as we crush, clear and construct a new city on top of the one we already have, the piece offers a show-stopping suggestion that we pause to consider what is lost amid all that gleaming gain, and where we are headed into the future.
It’s a pertinent idea, no doubt, and the piece goes to extremes to make its point. It is, essentially, a fake underground historic site: two glass-covered vitrines dug into the concrete pavement at the site of the former RTD Market Street Station on the heavily-tread 16th Street Mall.
Beneath the flat, foot-level windows, viewers look down to see the preserved ruins of an ancient civilization that lived in Denver hundreds or thousands of years ago.
Of course, no such society existed. Denver’s history, like much of the country’s, is relatively short in the scope of human urbanity. The indigenous people who did live here were mostly nomadic, and not interested in constructing walls of stone and brick.
Things were different in the rest of the Americas, especially around Mexico City, where Teotihuacan culture began building metropolises around 100 BC, followed by the Aztecs, then the Spanish and presently by a multi-cultural mix of forward-looking inhabitants. Mexico is a place of layers, and you can still see them through a multitude of excavated sites that are similar to the one fabricated on the 16th Street Mall.
It is, no surprise, the product of Mexican artists, in this case René Godínez Pozas and Carlos Lara, who create work together under the name Sangree, and whose odd bit of art-making is supported by Black Cube nomadic art museum, which sets up temporary installations across the region.
Sangree’s work exists at the intersections of cultural change. They are known for creating sculptures that look sort of like Mayan ruins and sort of like skate parks. They recently had an exhibit in San Francisco of elaborately designed cell phone cases, built at great expense for phone models that are now obsolete.
When Black Cube brought the duo to Denver last year to begin developing a piece here, they sensed, as many visiting Mexicans do, the lack of a tangible, tactile past. There were workers everywhere putting up new structures, but it was hard to see the historical foundation upon which they were built.
And so they loaned us the ruins of their own culture. Teotihuacan was known for its elaborate, multi-family residential compounds, — systems of houses, courtyards and temples where different economic classes co-existed. Working with an architect, the recreated one of the compounds to fit the Market Street Station site, which covers a full half of a city block, stretching along Market between 16th and 17th streets.
Then, they identified two random areas of the artificial site — in once case, a section of wall from a residence, in another, a few steps at the corner of a large patio. Construction crews dug out small rectangles and masons came into make mock walls and stairs out of stone and mortar. Glass panels came next and then signage, marking the place as an (almost) real anthropological landmark.
The pieces take viewers by surprise. Because the installations appear to be authentic, it takes a while to wrap your head around the fact that they are fabrications. That adds a little bit of shock to the experience of seeing them and, at the same time, makes an opening to digest their meaning.
That, of course, is up to the viewer. In some ways, “Unclassified Site Museum” makes connections that cut across both time and geography. There is a sense, looking at it, that all human societies, living and dead, north and south, share the same plot of land in the form of planet earth. We may be separated by language and custom, but we’re all just trying to figure out how to get along with our neighbors. We are all building things. It’s what our species does.
In the context of the site’s surroundings — up and down the street the are construction crews and cement trucks, orange cones, guys in day-glow vests directing traffic, the constant smell and taste of concrete dust, the beeping of bulldozers backing up — there is a stark realization of just how fast we are changing the look and feel of our hometown.
“Unclassified Site Museum” isn’t making judgments, but it does point out that we seem to be in a hurry to get things done. It raises questions about the wisdom of tearing things down that aren’t all that old. Mexico’s pre-Hispanic shells have lasted thousands of years and they are a source of pride for the cities that have evolved out of them. Where are Denver’s ruins? Or its future ruins? We clear things out before they have a chance to make and hold history. Preservation is always a fight in this city; nothing is safe or sacred.
“Unclassified Site Museum” evolves with considerable depth (and success) as you digest it. The artists have also included a few contemporary objects inside the vitrines, some discarded trash, a cell phone, a bong, and that turns the piece relevant to our existing age. Curator Cortney Lane Stell chose wisely in locating the piece at the station, which was closed in 2014 as RTD moved its commuter bus lines to Union Station, which was recently rehabbed.
The Market Street Station is only a few decades old and it is soon to be gone itself, replaced by a $150 million project by local developer Continuum Partners, that will combine high-end retail and office space with, at last count, 225 micro-apartments to help house Denver’s booming population. Continuum is supporting the art piece by loaning it the site temporarily.
It’s a bold move, since “Unclassified Site Museum” — whether it intends to or not — challenges the role developers are playing in the city right now. Continuum can stand the scrutiny. It makes well-designed, people-friendly places; the firm is a model for how things ought to get done in Denver. But it’s also at the center of an urban transformation that is, at best, inconvenient, and at worst, insensitive and exploitative.
There are, interestingly, no plans to de-install “Unclassified Site Museum.” When Market Street Station comes down, the piece will simply be clawed out and removed along with other parts of the facility, which is largely underground itself. The work will become the thing it makes us consider: a missing relic of our past, a thing made invisible as we move forward as a city.
“Unclassified Site Museum” is free and accessible 24 hours a day. Black Cube has a shipping container on site with a scale model of the complete “ruins” that is open noon-4 p.m. Thursdays, and Fridays. More info at blackcubeart.org.