Like the body parts that have been mysteriously washing up on northern Pacific shores for years, the head of an Asian girl has appeared at the water's edge of the Olympic Sculpture Park. This head is temple-like, enigmatic. The eyes are closed. It is pure, sparkling white. Elongated like a stretched hologram, the head rises four stories into the white-cloudy sky. It's elegant and lullingly beautiful.
Dignitaries gather at the base of the neck. This is late May, and it's an occasion: the ribbon-cutting on the largest permanent sculpture added to the Olympic Sculpture Park since the park opened in 2006. The 46-foot-tall head is called Echo, after the Greek myth. She was created using computer modeling. The artist is 59-year-old Jaume Plensa, who traveled from Spain to be on hand. Mayor Ed Murray gives the official Seattle welcome.
"It is just an incredible opportunity to be here to introduce this incredible work of art," the mayor begins. "This is an incredible gift... We also have an incredible exhibit from Spain at the art museum... an incredible example of our two countries and people."
What the mayor says is completely blank, but the blankness of his speech, the emptying out of "incredible," matches the silence of the great blind-mute rising up behind him. Silence is the main aspect of Echo. The girl could be thinking anything. She presents only a blank to be filled in.
Her blankness is, paradoxically, forged in resin, steel, and marble dust weighing 13,118 pounds and costing hundreds of thousands of dollars. Nobody's saying how much Eastside collector Barney Ebsworth (a cruise-ship and Build-A-Bear businessman) paid for Echo, but it was originally created for Madison Square Park in New York with a budget of $620,000 in 2011.
This artist regularly makes monumental, elongated, white heads of girls. (Elongated, they're more like pure light, Plensa told me.) He works exclusively with girls between 8 and 14 years old, because "Women are the future," he told me. Young girls "have special kind of beauty. They are not girls and not women."
A plaque describes Echo as "listening or in a state of meditation." On the morning of Echo's unveiling, SAM's director calls her "monumental but meditative." Other women in the crowd call her "calming," "Zen," "peaceful." The friendly, green-eyed Barcelonan explains he chose Echo because "it's such a noisy time that we don't know anymore if our words are coming from us or from others." His Echo brings his message, "Let's try to say our own words."
I'll start with these: I don't associate female voicelessness with calm. In the myth of Echo, she begins as a vivacious wood nymph with a beautiful singing voice. Zeus is fond of wood nymphs. One day, Echo covers for Zeus's trysting with other nymphs by distracting his wife Hera with conversation. When Hera finds out the truth, she exacts a terrible punishment—on Echo. She takes away Echo's voice, leaving her with only the ability to repeat others' last words in a meaningless torrent. This is incredible, incredible.
Hera is angry with Zeus, but punishing Zeus is out of the question. Husband is more powerful than wife, president to first lady style. Not coincidentally, this has been the rule in nearly every square foot of the human world for hundreds of years, and wives have received equal treatment under the law and in the eyes of their husbands only in certain places, only in recent years. Male domination is less an echo than an ongoing reality for most women, and often a violent one.
Echo is powerless not to do Zeus a favor. In turn, Hera's rage at her husband, frustrated, is rerouted into revenge against an innocent woman. This is how patriarchy works in a nutshell. The voices of two women are lost.
The story of the end of Echo's life is chilling and familiar. Pan wants her. She rejects him. He responds by setting upon her mad shepherds who kill her by tearing her to pieces. Elliot Rodger, the 22-year-old virgin who killed six people, wounded 13 others, then killed himself on May 23 by shooting up "the hottest sorority at UCSB," as he put it, is Pan for 2014. "If I can't have you, girls," Rodger said in a video he taped in his car the day before the attack, with the sun streaming across his face and California palm trees swaying in the background, "I will destroy you."
There are Pans and Rodgers every day. The "more than 11,766 corpses from domestic violence homicides between 9/11 and 2012 exceed the number of deaths of victims on that day and all American soldiers killed in the war on terror," Rebecca Solnit writes in her essay "The Longest War," "but no one declares war on this particular kind of terror." The most distinguishing factor of male-on-female violence is how silent we as a culture remain about it. This is how a beautiful, silenced girl is easily neutered into tranquil metaphor. I don't blame anyone for seeing her as calming.
But other silences in Echo are disturbing, too. In a reference to Zeus's home, Mount Olympus of Greece, the sculpture is planted facing Mount Olympus of the Olympic Mountains across the water from Seattle. The artist, the museum, and the mayor tout this as an important part of Echo's meaning in Seattle. Washington's Mount Olympus got that name in 1778, from a British explorer usurping another name given in 1774 by a Spaniard. Both erased the local native name for the Olympics, Sun-a-do. Mount Olympus is said to hold the distinction of being the first geographic feature in Washington State named/silenced by a European. In Echo, I can't help but also see the famous photograph of Chief Sealth taken late in his life, when he agreed to sit but refused to open his eyes for the camera in a small act of protest. His eyes later were retouched open—forced open—to make the picture postcards less creepy for tourists.
One more. Echo is not just any girl. She is a Chinese Spanish girl named Nuria, the daughter in a family that runs a Chinese restaurant near Plensa's Barcelona studio. (To substitute a woman of color for a woman silenced is especially too-close-to-real.) I am not suggesting Nuria is a victim, or that every artist has to name every subject. But rechristened Echo, Nuria has nothing to say. I discovered her name only because I asked.