The Tile Project, Destination: The World

By Mary Sherman
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Tile ProjectAs the cultural historian Mira Bartok notes, “The great modern architect Stanley Tigerman once said that to him, tiles are both democratic and accessible. The are the essence of what public art has the potential to be – an art form that can be found anywhere in the world by anyone, no matter one’s class, race, age or gender; with a purpose and beauty transcending all difference between all people. Since their origin over 8,000 years ago in Ancient Egypt, tiles have also been the most enduring markers of cultural history.”

On October 11 at the Pauline A. Shaw School, Boston’s Mayor Menino dedicated a new playground and a major, new public art work: Over 100 tiles, made by renowned artists from over 40 nations create a band of shifting color across three blue walls.

This dedication marks an important moment for our nation: This installation is part of a larger global endeavor, The Tile Project, Destination: The World, which I organized under the aegis of TransCultural Exchange. The Tile Project is also the first US project sponsored by United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization; and, in fact, as I understand, it is the only art project to have received this sponsorship since the US mission re-entered UNESCO.

The Tile Project, ultimately, will create 22 new public art works installed throughout the world, from Taipei’s Kuandu Museum of Fine Arts to Berlin’s Bar of Modern Art; Istanbul’s Artemis Art Center to New York City’s Mercer Park. The Shaw School installation is the 16th to be completed, and is the only one in TransCultural Exchange’s home base of Boston.

For each site, over 100 artists made and donated tiles at no cost to the sites—long before any of sponsors such as UNESCO, the Open Society Institute or the Asian Cultural Council joined the effort. The artists did this because they believed in the project’s goal to provide the world with strong symbols of global cooperation, international good will, respect and tolerance for other cultures—in other words, to create a legacy of hope for the world.

A local artist determined the design for the installation of the tiles in each country. No single vision was imposed; and the differences are striking. For the Fine Arts Museum of Ho Chi Minh City, Mrs. Nga of the Blue Space Contemporary Art Space created a small pagoda and tiled the roof with the international tiles. At Cultural Center of the Philippines, Claro Ramirez turned the tiles into a kinetic artwork, built into the landmark building; in Chinchon (Spain), the tiles are each inset into large metal plates with each of the artist’s names; outside of Sarajevo, at a hospital for physical and spiritual healing, the tiles spell out the word for world in Arabic.

In each site the tiles, thus, stayed the same, but also took on a new identity, underscoring the importance of context in understanding and viewing a work of art.

In this way the project unleashed a new kind of artistic understanding–the symbolic gesture that the tiles represent, their introduction of world cultures to the public, along with the international guests who traveled to each site to be at the project’s openings also, seem to me, to represent a real desire to know one another and work together for a common peace and beauty.

Obviously the project will not solve the world’s ills. But it has created important moments all over the world. Where else have a mix of people — often portrayed as being at odds with one another –Muslims, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, and Hindus … even Americans — worked collaboratively (while still retaining their own unique vision) to create so many eloquent public art works, symbols of cooperation and connectedness for all the world to see?

To create small pieces and put them together to begin to unite a fractured world, I think, is important.

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