Tyree Guyton, Faces of God on Fire: An Update

Justine Lai

 Tyree Guyton. Obstruction of Justice (“OJ”) House. 2013. Destroyed after a second arson fire in October 2013.
Photo credit: Kari Cholnoky

Last October, Detroit artist Tyree Guyton had his first New York solo exhibition at the CUE Art Foundation. In anticipation of the show, I interviewed the artist in late May, shortly after a suspicious fire occurred at the Heidelberg Project, which was Guyton’s outdoor installation located in a blighted Detroit neighborhood. In the resulting essay, I regarded the fire as an isolated event. But by the time the exhibition at CUE opened, this fact was already out of date.

We now know that the May 3, 2013 fire was only the first in a series of arson attacks targeting Guyton’s work. To date, there have been 8 fires set at the Heidelberg Project in a span of slightly over 7 months. Of the 7 main houses that made up the installation, 3 remain. I’ve been tasked to write a short update three months after Guyton’s exhibition at CUE. Yet given that the crimes remain unsolved, an update during winter’s hiatus seems premature. What more can an observer offer right now other than condolences, recapitulation, or conspiracy theories? In trying to make sense of the fires—and resisting the urge to entangle myself in some hoary Narrative of Detroit in the process—I went digging for historical precedents.

In the context of crimes against art, arson is distinct from vandalism. Arson is not merely an intentional defacement or degrading—the scratches, slashes, and splashes that make for lighter Wikipedia-rabbit-hole reading—but rather a total denial of the thing. To destroy cultural objects is to erase identities. This idea echoes throughout history from the Byzantine Iconoclastic controversy to the Taliban regime’s destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan. Yet as art historian Dario Gamboni points out: 

The Byzantine and Protestant attacks can be explained by the religious functions that images then fulfilled, just as [French] revolutionary “vandalism” can find its source—if not its justification—in politics. But with the advent and spread of the modern conception of the work of art as an end in itself…aggression can only be understood as an expression of ignorance and incomprehension, a barbaric regression.

Any barbarism is clear enough if we imagine the target to be a contemporary painting or sculpture. But what about a public, outdoor, long-term work? The Heidelberg Project’s permeable definitions as artwork and site make the destruction all the more complex to process. It’s unclear which, if any, of the Project’s aspects are being targeted: its twenty-eight-year presence in the neighborhood, its aesthetics, its international tourism, its community efforts, its commentary on blight, its real estate, its artist or staff. (It’s also unclear, I might add, how those aspects interplay in our mourning.) The city of Detroit’s high rate of arson offers little clarity or solace. If we perceive arson in general to be a highly intentional and malicious act—born of hate, retaliation, profit, or boredom—then the lack of clear motive is a different kind of barbarism. We bystanders are the incomprehending ones. And because there’s no way to know if the destruction’s over, the present moment has a distinct feeling of waiting—for new incidents or new discoveries—even though there’s absolutely no guarantee that the truth will out.

So we wait, and refresh our feeds. News of last year’s fires broke online first. In fact, I’m a little surprised that social media hasn’t yielded any breakthroughs in the investigation—no bragging statuses, no incriminating posts, no uploaded video. Arsonists are frequently profiled as young, so they’re hardly exempt from making online mistakes. (Be assured that I didn’t invent the profile on my own: back in May, when I originally interviewed Guyton, the arsonist was rumored to be a lone retaliating local youth. The Heidelberg Project went so far as to issue a public statement in October after the second fire, directly addressing the “same young man” with a statement of empathy: “We want you to know that we understand your pain.” More recent reports state there are no suspects.)

Fame is prepared in flames. The frontispiece for Centuria II, Emblema 55 of Sebastián de Couarrubias Orozco’s Emblemas Morales, 1610. Courtesy of the Rare Book & Manuscript Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Emblematica Online Digital Collection. 

However, I bring up bragging not simply because of youthfulness, but rather because of antiquity. Consider Herostratos, who burned down one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, in 356 BCE. In a Bizarro inversion of the contemporary artist’s condition, Herostratos confessed a hunger for eternal fame as his motivation. His punishment was execution and a ban on all mention of his name. Clearly, it didn’t stick. Our concepts of crime, destruction, notoriety, and power are rooted in this story. It fuels us as we wait for the secrets of the Heidelberg Project fires to be exposed. It helps explain why we expect answers at all.

In Terrorism for Self-Glorification: The Herostratos Syndrome, Albert Borowitz traces the Herostratos story throughout literature, history, and current events, and ultimately warns, “[Although we cannot obliterate the name of the glory seeker, as the Ephesians unsuccessfully sought to do, we should resist the temptation to convert him into a media star.”

If infamy is inevitable in relation to the serial arsonist, then how do we resist the simple narrative of the Heidelberg Project’s onward and upward battle? Although this update may seem untimely, perhaps it does a greater service to Tyree Guyton’s work by not assuming that a solved crime defines a more complete story.

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