Empires of Illusion

July 27, 2011 //

By Les Adler

A quirky, but striking piece of public art, leavened with a twist of Central European humor, marks a downtown street corner in the Slovakian capital city of Bratislava.

One comes across it suddenly: a life-sized bronze figure in a hard hat or helmet, head resting on hands, partly emerged from a man-hole in the middle of the sidewalk. Is it a peeper peeking under women’s skirts? Is it a political satire on working life in this former Communist land, reflecting the old bargain that “we’ll pretend to work and you’ll pretend to pay us”? Is it a modern philosophical reference to Plato’s Cave? A playful reminder of the largely invisible underworld of pipes, sewers, power lines and workers it takes to sustain civilization? Perhaps just an artistic prank designed to add a distinctive flavor and draw tourism to this newly-independent, lesser-known half of the former Czechoslovak state?

Or is it, as I’m now thinking, a larger comment about the world of illusion in which we all live, and our only partly-successful efforts to pull ourselves out of individual or collective states of unconsciousness into the clear light of day or reason? Nearby Vienna, only a few miles up-river, after-all, was Freud’s hometown.

Often it takes a piece of absurdist art like this—or a view of staggeringly absurd political theater like Communism in its dotage or Washington in its current debt-limit manifestation—to stop people in their tracks and cause them to reflect on where we are and what we have become.

Like the statue in the sidewalk, we’re in constant danger of being ignored, trampled or even swept away in the crowded rush of unfolding events and ever more manipulated images surrounding us. But look more closely at his pose and what he might have to say to us. A thoughtful, even faraway look and the curve of a curious smile animate his face. His left forefinger is slightly raised, as if to draw attention to a point or object he wants to discuss that has just come to mind.

This is definitely not Rodin’s Thinker, fully emerged, naked, alone and lost in profound thought on his rock, but perhaps an equally recognizable human reference. It may be the anonymous individual, only partly visible or realized, taking time out to reflect, think, and most notably, engage in an ongoing dialogue both with unseen colleagues and with those of us willing to stop and listen.