This past weekend, I attended a double bill at the Trylon Microcinema that featured a suite of educational short films commissioned by the Church of Latter Day Saints in the 1960s. Some of the films had involvement from legendary Disney animators like Judge Whitaker and Eric Larson, so they were fairly slick presentations. One film in particular was a standard anti-premarital-sex primer, outlining the dating exploits of a very wholesome young college student and her beau. In one key scene, they strike on the idea to go on a date to the airport.
All the jaded urban filmgoers in attendance laughed uproariously at such a ludicrous idea, but not me. I used to love taking dates to the airport, before the dawn of the current pre-boarding security era, when it was still possible to move through the terminals with relative ease. My reasons were like those the young Mormon couple hit upon, which I outlined in a piece I wrote a few years ago:
First, the 24-hour cycle of human drama unfolding at arrival and departure gates — tears, hugs, stoic acceptance, fond farewells, joyful reunions — made for some top-tier people-watching, completely free of charge. In addition to that, watching the planes land and take off from the observation decks was always visually interesting, and an excellent cheap metaphor for the teenage dream of fleeing your provincial hometown for exotic far-off locations.
Since 2001, airports have not generally been thought of as fun places to visit. I mention this because I am writing from Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport right now (and by the time you read this, I will either be in or on my way to an airport once again). I’m not having a bad time, per se, but strolling around the airport with a camera and notebook, in the way that I might stroll around a neighborhood of Minneapolis or St. Paul another week, I mostly encounter people looking really stressed out. I feel stressed out myself, in fact, because the lines were longer than I’d anticipated and I have only a few minutes to dash to my terminal and shoot some photos en route, if time permits. I can’t imagine wanting to come here for a visit unless I absolutely had to.
It’s clean, it’s busy, it’s fast-paced …
Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport is probably a bit like the Mall of America or the skyway system, in that you have to spend a lot of time there to find the truly interesting hidden gems (such as the old Orchestra Hall piano once played by Ray Charles that now lives in the mall area, or the makeshift didactics I have heard sometimes turn up marking the once-famous Sen. Larry Craig “wide stance” bathroom stall). With MOA and the skyway, MSP makes up the third component in the Local Trinity of Mall-Like Cultural Experiences. It’s clean, it’s busy, it’s fast-paced, and it’s highly anonymous. There are some high-profile local establishments present, like Surdyk’s, Ike’s, and the Red Balloon, but most of the stores are chains rarely seen outside an actual mall, such as Sbarros, Brookstone and The Body Shop.
Where there is regional flavoring, it tends to be of the North Woods high kitsch variety, which makes for a somewhat jarring visual experience. I have no idea what an international visitor might make of swooshing modernist sightlines and multilingual wayfaring markers interspersed with timber kiosks and store signage referencing loons, hot dishes, the north shore, “you betcha!” and aurora borealis. I wonder if some visitors imagine that the airport serves solely as a hub for people flying into their rustic lakeside cabins.
Of course, that’s the trick: The airport is not a place where one can linger and reflect. MSP serves about 33 million passengers per year; they’re all in a hurry to catch flights and few of them have much time to wander about looking for interesting local experiences. The visual language has to be tidy, direct and efficient. Most what you see at MSP conveys something like the following: “Hi, you’re in the Twin Cities, which is a big, efficient, clean metropolitan area, but it’s also sort of rustic. Have a good flight!”
A few weeks ago, the art blog Hyperallergic ran a great piece by Ben Valentine called “The Problem of North American Airport Art.” He didn’t specifically mention MSP, but the titular problems relate as much to our airport as any other: “Issues of setting aside, airport art can present us with a sliver of what a city wants to say about itself. Which artists are chosen and what type of work is on display are indicative markers of political, economic, and cultural aspirations.” What, then, does the public art at MSP say about us?
Most notable: floor mosaics in Lindbergh Terminal
Well, there really isn’t actually much in the way of public art at MSP at all, aspirational or otherwise. What art there is integrated into the surroundings pretty seamlessly. Photos of the old Lindbergh passenger terminal, designed by Cerny Associates and opened in 1958, reveal a pleasing, wave-like sculptural structure that has since been built over, and nothing currently existing as part of the building quite matches the modernist grandeur of that original design. There are some highlights, though. The most notable pieces are several floor mosaics in the Lindbergh Terminal by Andrea Myklebust and Stanton Sears, a Pepin, Wis.-based pair of public artists. My favorite is “You Are Here,” in the north terminal rotunda. It’s a map of the area, outlining the rivers, flight paths and locations of all the regional airports, and uses the subtle visual language of mapmaking and official design so well it’s almost invisible. Most people probably blow right over it, but it’s an enjoyable piece to walk through if you have the time.
One recent development is a boldly populist one: an exhibition of artwork created by airport employees and their immediate families. The third annual iteration is going up later this month and will remain on exhibit through early 2013, but I’ve seen the past two exhibitions and have enjoyed them very much. It’s all over the place in terms of medium, size, subject matter and quality – much of it is obviously aeronautically themed – but it’s a really enjoyable look at the hobbies, passions, side careers and aspirations of the men and women who actually do the work of getting those 33 million passengers in and out of the airport. It certainly humanizes the experience of running through the airport to catch a flight and thinking about the sheer number of people it takes to make it all work. It’s still not necessarily the sort of place you’d take a date, but it’s a good reminder that in any large, impersonal structure – and nothing is larger or more impersonal than the airport – you can still find surprises if you look hard enough.