August 6, 2011

Underneath the Light Sword

"Her arm and the sword were raised like in recent days, and the free winds blew about her form."

--Franz Kafka

This statue, located near the entrance of the Graz Opera House, It is a 1:1 reconstruction of the original steel frame that was designed by Gustave Eiffel in 1883 to support the Statue of Liberty. Hartmut Skerbisch, inspired by an early libretto by Franz Kafka, created this variation on Eiffel's structure to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Columbus reaching American shores. Instead of a torch, the right arm raises an enormous sword into the sky, and instead of tablets, a globe is held aloft by the left.

I am unaware of the specific symbolism Skerbisch originally intended, but I found myself feeling a bit unnerved to personally see in this work the idea that American Liberty--once stripped from her superficial garb of progress and law--is found to contain at her heart an instrument of war and a symbol of universal dominance.

This impression brings to my mind a question: is the meaning of an artwork something that should be created by the artist alone? When I look at an artwork and come to a personal conclusion about its intent that is different from what the artist originally conceived, is that in essence a "wrong answer"?

My experience of the "Light Sword" has undoubtedly been colored by recent events and my feelings about what America represents to the world. In the AIMS handbook I received upon arriving in Graz there is a section entitled "AIMSers in Graz" which cautions:

We "Ausländer" are guests of Graz and Austria. Life is not the same here as it is at home. Respect Austrian culture and learn from it. Grazers will remember and appreciate AIMSers who are courteous, who offer their seat on the Strassenbahn, who honor the sanctity of their churches, who try to communicate in their language, and who behave maturely. Maintain an awareness of yourself and observe those around you. We should try to see ourselves as others see us, and at this particular time, the United States needs good ambassadors to improve its image in Europe."

I think of stories I've heard about Americans abroad trying to pass themselves off as Canadians so as to be treated with more open friendliness and wonder who and what I've represented as an American visitor. Yes, I've given up my seat on the Strassenbahn a time or two, but I still fumble over the language and am too nervous half the time to even try to use it. I turned in a lost wallet (credit cards and all) I found behind a tree the other day, but I haven't ever given a single cent to the poor tired looking old man who always stands outside the grocery store across the street, even though most of the time I'm just going there to indulge another selfish chocolate craving. I follow all the rules at the Heim: I keep my door and window closed when I practice, and make sure to observe every posted quite hour, but I've walked into local churches in jeans and a t-shirt snapping photos and ignoring the donation boxes posted by the door.

I only have one week left as a guest of this beautiful and welcoming country, and I hope I'm able to leave behind a positive impression.

1 comment:

  1. Every day you give me another reason to be in awe of you. I'm so honored that you are my daughter. I know you are an exemplary representative of your home.