In her column “Detroit Archives,” Aisha Sabatini Sloan explores her family history through iconic landmarks in Detroit.
For a period of time in 2014, I couldn’t stop watching the surveillance video of a person setting fire to the Heidelberg Project, a world-renowned art installation by Tyree Guyton in a residential area of Detroit. The recorded arson struck me as a performance piece in itself. In what appears to be the very early hours of the morning, a figure approaches the threshold of a structure called “Taxi House,” a home adorned by boards of wood that have been painted with yellow, pink, green, and white vehicles labeled “taxi.” There is a painted clock, real tires, and toy cars. A meandering, peach-colored line has been painted along a sagging corner of the roof, then it comes down onto the siding, where it moves geometrically, like Pac-Man.
The installation as a whole is like a painting brought to life, imbued with the spirits of Kea Tawana, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Robert Rauschenberg. In a recent profile in The New York Times Magazine, Guyton describes how he began the installation with his grandfather, an act of reinvention rooted in nostalgia. M. H. Miller describes the collection of carefully planned assemblages as “an act of Proustian reclamation, as if Guyton were creating a new neighborhood out of the one he’d lost, embellishing his and Grandpa Mackey’s memories out of the wreckage that surrounded them.” In the video of the fire that destroys “Taxi House,” the figure holds something that resembles a gallon of milk; after a short time, a fireball blooms, and the figure runs away.
The Heidelberg installation has the vibe of Plato’s lost city of Atlantis, the mythic civilization that sank into the ocean overnight after its people lost their sense of virtue. It also brings to mind Jason deCaires Taylor’s undersea sculptures, human figures engaged in activities like typing, playing the cello, or watching TV; cement bodies surrounded by schools of fish. What’s so remarkable about Guyton’s effort is that he’s constructed a frame around the present moment. The collapse he draws our eye to is not a myth or a dream of the future, it’s now.
Though Guyton had originally hoped for the installation to be a solution of sorts, the traffic it brings (around two hundred thousand people a year) also serves as a reminder of the tension inherent to a city undergoing gentrification. In a book written about the project, Connecting the Dots, one neighbor explains, “Every summer night we’ve got people riding up and down looking at what we’re doing. It’s an invasion of privacy. They look at us like we’re animals on display.”
From what I can tell, no motive ever emerged for the arson, and no arrests were made. The one person who checked into an emergency room for severe burns on the day of the fire had been trying to deep-fry a turkey. More fires have been set at the installation in years since.
Guyton exhibits widely, and has a special fan base overseas. Recently, he has decided to take the Heidelberg Project down. According to M. H. Miller, Guyton and his wife plan to “transform the buildings that still stand into a series of cultural and educational centers dedicated to the arts, and then build housing and work spaces marketed for artists out of this central core.”
As buildings around the country were set on fire in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, I thought about the Heidelberg arsonist. Widely dispersed memes featuring the Martin Luther King Jr. quote “The riot is the language of the unheard” have encouraged more and more people to see fire in the context of social upheaval not merely as an act of destruction but as an act of ritualized desecration. What language looks like at wit’s end. A kind of screaming. Read More