The sculpture Spillover II by Jaume Plensa was removed from its location at Atwater Park early on November 16 after Matt Sweetwood, a blogger from New Jersey, discovered what he believed to be an anti Semitic phrase within the letters during a visit with his daughter.
“Truthfully, I saw it instantly — less than ten seconds,” Sweetwood said. His post went up November 8.“Literally the first letters I looked at was the phrase ‘Cheap Jew.’ My heart started beating,” Sweetwood said. Spillover II was installed in 2010, and was gifted to the village by an anonymous donor.
“Before this I found it really enjoyable,” said Scott Yanoff, resident. “I found it a main attraction in Shorewood. I thought of it as a meditative and peaceful piece.”
A few days after the blog post went up, Paul Gray, owner of the Richard Gray Gallery, released a statement speaking for Plensa.
“Plensa is deeply saddened that his sculpture has been so egregiously misinterpreted,” Grey wrote. “The sculpture will be amended immediately to stop further unintentional misreadings of the work. Plensa’s works and beliefs are the antithesis of anti-Semitism.”
The gallery and Plensa decided to take down and restore the piece and will be paying for the entire process.
“I think it’s a shame that the artist took it down,” Yanoff said. “I think that they probably would have been better off leaving it and explaining that it is not an anti-Semitic piece, but instead it is a random collection of letters that a rather attention-seeking blogger has sought out to see odd combinations.”
According to Guy Johnson, village board president, the majority of the community feels it was unnecessary to remove the sculpture, but he is glad the community feels comfortable speaking openly about it.
“I just … hope that we can reach a conclusion through having dialogue to come up with conclusion that will be satisfactory to the various parties involved: the anonymous donor, the gallery, the village, the Jewish community and the artist,” Johnson said.
According to Yanoff, the community as a whole feels the phrase interpreted as anti-Semitic was merely accidental.
“We have gone five years without anybody finding things in this sculpture,” Yanoff said. “These are not linear words. These are scattered random assortments. If you play Boggle, if you do a word search in the newspaper, I will guarantee you will find something offensive in English or any language.” Sweetwood feels that this could not have been accidental.
“I think that an artist knows every inch of their work,” Sweetwood said. “Their hands, theirs eyes, their everything. There was a time somebody actually had the letter C in their hands and they welded it or fabricated it in there and then they had the H and the E and A. And they saw the word ‘Jew;’ it was standing a few inches in front of their nose.”
Yanoff said he thought the odds of this becoming purposeful are very slim. “This particular artist is not a native English speaker,” Yanoff said. “So for those words that randomly appeared, for those to have meaning to a foreign speaking artist, is a real long shot.”
Sweetwood disagrees. “Those are pretty simple English words and he does know enough English,” Sweetwood said. “He is not like this poor, starving artist working in a cave.”
Sweetwood also feels the artist did not do a sufficient job apologizing in his press-released statement.
“Had I done that as an artist is I would first be a little bit upset with myself that I missed it because ultimately what kind of art is that if you got that,” Sweetwood said. “So I would have been upset and then I would have been mortified and then I would have fixed it. But he didn’t do that. He just made himself the victim and he quickly whisked away the sculpture.”
Sweetwood said he will receive nothing from this discovery except for the knowledge that he respected his ancestors who perished in the Holocaust.
“As Jews, we have an expression that says ‘never again,’” Sweetwood said. “You stand up for any, any kind of hate speech. And so even though it’s a relatively minor thing and theoretically no one would have ever seen it, … I couldn’t stand idly by and watch it happen. The thing with hate is that ignoring hate is condoning it.”
Yanoff says the community looks forward to the return of the sculpture. “I think people are going to forget about it for a while,” Yanoff said. “And then when it comes I think people will lean toward being joyful and going back to taking pictures of it.”
By Katie Eder