For months, John Grade and the Whatcom Museum of Art have planned—and loudly publicized—their intentions to march Grade's sculptures, called Elephant Bed, into Bellingham Bay tomorrow.
The paper and corn-based polymer sculptures are 23 feet tall and made of entirely biodegradable materials that do not harm the sea (Grade experimented for months to get the right materials); Grade instead says the piece is intended to draw attention to the grandeur of the environment.
But this morning, after phone calls from complainers who'd read about the sculptures and parade in the Bellingham newspaper and here in this week's The Stranger, the city, the mayor, and the department of ecology are forbidding the planned parade from culminating in the bay.
The funny thing is, the mayor and several city dignitaries—the same people shutting down the grand finale—not only approved these plans in advance, they were going to take part in the parade by donning sculptures themselves.
And nothing has changed—except a fear of the perception of environmental abuse, not the reality of it, on the part of a handful of politicians and public administrators.
"Nobody will speak with me directly," Grade said, admitting the irony, since he did tell me that he always hopes something will go wrong with this projects—and now it has.
But Grade is also disappointed, since he already hired a dive team to document the brief, rapid process of the sculptures dissolving underwater. That was the original image that inspired the entire creation, and he wants to make a video from it.
The reasoning behind the cancellation seems like a red herring to him.
"All of the city dignitaries were here at the opening event, knowing perfectly well how it culminates," Grade said. "The mayor is saying he didn't know this was going on, even though he was going to be one of the people in one of the sculptures!"
"You have to be what you careful what you ask for, I guess," he continued. "Environmentally, it’s totally benign, so it’s not about that. It’s ultimately that it's just not a good thing politically to have people concerned about this, regardless of what the reality is."
When Grade has tried to contact authorities to talk to them today, he's been told they're already gone for the weekend.
The same happened to me just now when I called the mayor's office—"he's not in today," his assistant said. I left a message with Whatcom Museum director Patricia Leach, and am waiting to hear back.
Call or email the mayor's office yourself and call bullshit: 360-778-8100 or here.
The parade is tomorrow at 2:30. The fire department has kindly volunteered to hose the walkers down at some point in order to make the sculptures dissolve (rain, for once, is not forecast)—but that really isn't the same as this great spectacle:
UPDATE: Museum director Patricia Leach called back.
"We obtained a permit to have our procession of the Grade sculptures, and this is not new information," she said. "However I guess it takes maybe one or two people making a complaint about polluting the bay, and I suspect these are people who have never been to the museum and don't know anything about this installation, because John's whole premise is about the environment, and about protecting the environment, and they're completely biodegradable. I wish that we would have known about this far, far in advance rather than at the 11th hour. We would have appreciated having the time to brainstorm with the artist to work on another alternative."
Leach said one formal complaint has been lodged with the department of ecology.
"The law says that you actually cannot put anything in the water, as the department of ecology was explaining to me, so I think that's why the administration wanted us to back off, unfortunately," she said.
Now this is not just an art-and-environment story, but a political tale, too.
Leach has been on the phone all day trying to reinstate the original finale. Does it have a chance?
"I think very little," she says. "But I'm still trying."