The first time I noticed that something was etched on the side of the enormous Hancock Tower in the fall. The tower is a massive, glittering slab of real estate built in the 1970s on the edge of Copley Square in downtown Boston. Its reflective faces catch views of Trinity Church and other surrounding buildings, as well as mesmerizing captures of sky and clouds. It was named for the John Hancock Insurance company, which occupied most of the offices until about a year ago. The tower had also changed hands a number of times over the decades and is now officially called 200 Clarendon after its proper mailing address. But everyone still refers to it as The Hancock because we are Bostonians. We dumped the King’s tea in our harbor in 1773 and have been pretty much doing and saying whatever we damn well please ever since.
The Hancock is the tallest building in New England. Its sheer size—790 feet tall, 60 stories—and its beautiful, glossy facade make it an instant icon. The addition of what looked like a painting scored onto the side of the building seemed a little like ego overkill. I was standing on the steps of the Boston Public Library that sits on one end of Copley Square and faces the tower when I happened to lift my eyes to see the painting. I shielded my eyes from the sun to see if it were a weird trick of the light. A few other people around me did the same, pointing and murmuring to each other, but mostly just looking.
The design is a man standing on floating plane, maybe a piece of scaffolding, maybe a plank. It could be a jetty, the wing of a spaceship, or the very edge of the world. He is featureless, but wearing shorts. Okay. What does it mean? What is he doing here? What’s the point?
Much later, months later actually, I’ll “get on the Google,” as my mother says, and find out that a French artist named JR created the art. His wheelhouse involves canvasing unlikely spaces with giant black and white photographs, and he dwells in secrecy and anonymity like Banksy. It is one of his photographs transformed into perforated vinyl and actually measures 150 wide and 86 feet wide. That day I noticed it and the subsequent times I passed through and stopped again to check it out, I was less interested in knowing than I was in the looking, in the letting the image stick there on the arm of this giant like a temporary tattoo.
Last spring another piece of public art literally went up in Boston. The installation consisted of a web of high-tech rope woven in a brilliant weave of magenta, green, and orange, lashed to several buildings on the Rose Kennedy Greenway. The greenway is a run of blocks that are outfitted with fountains, benches, and plenty of grass, trees, and flowerbeds. It used to belong to the stretch of main highway that circle the city, but was sunk below street level in a complicated and long-suffering development project called The Big Dig (see above “Bostonian” note. If we want to bury a goddamn highway, we’re gonna bury that frickin thing wicked deep). Brookline artist, Janet Echelman designed the piece and spoke in interviews about its evoking Boston’s shifting and changing landscape. None of that was apparent to me the day I walked down to the greenway to take in the ethereal net. I stood underneath the sheath, my neck crooked all the way back, and I watched it float and twist between the buildings like clothing hung out on a line to dry. I wasn’t looking for deeper meaning, I was just looking.
What a subversive act this has become when our eyes are constantly pulled down to the compact super computers held in our palms or strapped to our wrists. What a gift we give ourselves, what discoveries we find when we pull our gaze to take in more of the world than what’s just in front of us.
Arrested on the spot, your sights trained on something far above you, far away from you, flung out against something bigger than you, and suddenly your perspective cracks wide open. The invitation to be startled out of our walking lives into waking lives is always there if you’re willing to look for it.