Cradle: Three Stations, Six Platforms

Men of the World

May 15

By Justin Hayford

It’s a few minutes before noon on the first humid spring day. At the Madison el station a handful of weary-looking souls are spread out across the northbound and southbound platforms, immobile, practically inert, making every effort to ignore one another. Trains that are mostly empty dawdle by. Four CTA workers in blue uniforms and orange reflective vests squeegee the panels of the warming booth.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a less interesting spot in town. Even the man who appears on the northbound platform precisely at noon holding a bunch of white flowers before him like an offering draws no one’s eye. Nor does the woman wearing the midnight blue shirt and forlorn expression holding an identical bouquet on the opposite platform. A few trains pass. Riders come and go. The flower holders remain.

Within five minutes about a dozen people are standing along the platforms, white flowers in hand. Some stare intently at the tracks. Others gaze at the ground or into space. One flips through a fashion magazine. They stand far apart from one another, motionless, saying nothing. Each seems lost in a private reverie.

This is the beginning of Cradle: Three Stations, Six Platforms, the latest lyrical nonhappening from Men of the World. Cradle is something of an aberration for artists Mathew Wilson and Mark Alice Durant, who created the work. When they formed Men of the World in 1991, they performed their odd public rituals exclusively as a duo: giving each other water on a sidewalk in San Francisco, shaking hands for 30 minutes at a time in front of “sites of power” in Chicago, walking from LA’s skid row to the O.J. Simpson trial and tagging everything in their path with Men of the World postcards, crawling on their hands and knees around the Houston city hall with flowers trailing from their pants (a piece Wilson half jokingly calls “The Men of the World Grand Prix”). Cradle is only their second group effort (though Wilson has masterminded other group pieces), their first being the 1996 We Want to Believe–White Handkerchiefs of Good-bye, in which 100 or so people lined up at the end of Navy Pier, gazed out at Lake Michigan, and waved white handkerchiefs. They weren’t waving at anything, of course; Men of the World rarely do anything that might be mistaken as having a purpose.

White Handkerchiefs fell a bit flat. While Wilson and Durant had always maintained an intense purposelessness, their crowd of performers–mostly art students–seemed generally bemused and bored, uncertain as to their intention or lack thereof. The challenge this time was to turn the performers’ passivity to some advantage, whatever that might be.

By 12:15 the flower holders are a formidable presence, outnumbering the regular passengers four to one. (They’ve also gathered at the Randolph station to the north and the Adams station to the south–about 30 of them at each of the three stations.) A lone CTA maintenance man sweeping up cigarette butts and gum wrappers strolls among these strange intruders, sneaking sidelong glances at them. The few faces drifting by on the trains look puzzled, and some even seem a bit threatened.

Three middle-aged women saddled with luggage stare quizzically up and down the platform. “What is it?” the first asks. “It must have something to do with summer,” the second suggests. “Those are the kind of flowers I used to pick in the barnyard when I was a kid,” the third offers.

Finally a businessman approaches a young woman in orange-tinted sunglasses and a micromini as she stands with her flowers.

“Excuse me, don’t mean to bother you, but what are you doing?”

“I’m waiting.”

“You’re waiting for the train?”

“I’m just waiting.”

“Oh. I thought there might be some sort of symbolism. I’m from Detroit so I thought something might be happening.”

Men of the World seems to delight in allowing nothing to happen. Once the critical mass of performers has been reached, Cradle doesn’t evolve through time–except insofar as new people encounter it every few minutes. It sits there obstinately, refusing to explain itself, like a rock crashing through the window of your consciousness. In essence the subject of Cradle, as in all the work Men of the World has done, is everyone but the performers. The question the piece seems to ask is: What are our responses when confronted with an inexplicable poetic gesture?

At the Adams station, two Mexican women who look like mother and daughter lumber up the steps and onto the platform. They see the long line of flower holders and stop short. “What does this mean?” the older woman asks one of them. “I’m just waiting,” responds the flower holder. “Is that what this means?” “I don’t know, I’m just waiting.”

On the Randolph platform two CTA officials huddle together, deep in a serious conversation. Are these people going to dump their flowers on CTA property when they’re finished? “I mean, if they had a bucket or something to put them all in, it would be a totally different story,” one says. They think it’s time to marshal the janitors. Still, one of them takes a moment to look at the flower holders lining the platform. “I think it’s a treat,” she concludes.

A train pulls into the station. In the front car an older couple glance out the window, then return to their reading. When their train arrives at the Madison station, they look out the window again, then do tandem double takes. Their momentary confusion is resolved by the time they pull into the Adams station. “It’s some sort of advertisement, promotional gimmick,” the woman says. “You’ll be seeing this on TV or in an ad magazine, you just watch.” The gentleman by her side stares out the window and beams. “It’s not something you see every day,” he says.

Riding through the piece is a most disconcerting experience; indeed, this is arguably the way the work should be viewed. As you pull into station after station, people seem to greet you with flowers–yet they appear perfectly uninterested in your existence. As is typical of Men of the World’s work, the gesture is impersonal even as it suggests some sort of profound human ritual. But unlike White Handkerchiefs, this time the indifferent performers give the work an added poignancy. I longed for some sort of heroic passion, for a band to play and a crowd to cheer as the train pulled in, for the flowers to become more than cheap, store-bought centerpieces-in-waiting. But in the middle of a workday on public transportation, grand moments are few and far between. By the time the train had pulled out of the third flower-lined station, I knew I was not a returning hero–but I might have been a passing corpse.

At one o’clock the performers begin to lay their flowers on the platform and walk away. In a few minutes the train station is all but empty, strewn with flowers, as though some sort of memorial tribute were being paid. Perhaps heroism died today. A deep sense of melancholy settles as the maintenance man wanders through the floral graveyard sweeping up bits of litter–but not the flowers.

After a few minutes a train pulls up, pauses for a moment, then continues on. As it leaves the station, it reveals a half dozen people standing idly along the platform, holding bunches of white flowers they found there. They do nothing; they just wait. For a few minutes, until the next train arrives and carries the replacement flower holders away, the line between art and life is erased.o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Mathew Wilson.