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Inscribed across the top of a shin-high slab of stone in a shady corner of Seattle’s Volunteer Park are the words: “Set against a series of existing monuments built to honor war, purchase, transport, and forms of expansion we might otherwise call control, finally an opportunity not for waiting, but for repose.” Chloë Bass’s Soft Services, a project commissioned by the Henry Art Gallery and organized by Shamim M. Momim for the new Henry OffSite program, consists of fourteen stone “benches” installed throughout the 48.3 acre, Olmstead-designed park and two more located outside the museum’s entrance. The stones are engraved with texts by the artist and accompanied by silhouettes of plant species rendered in reflective pigment, similar to that used on roadways and municipal signage, which shift from matte grey to brilliant silver depending on the quality of daylight and the angle of viewing. Hovering somewhere between monuments, memorials, and a mode of outdoor furniture, Bass’s installation asks the park visitor to reflect on the layered history of the site, their positionality in relation to the bodies of others’ caught up in ongoing historical traumas, and the human desire to mark moments of loss, mourning, and recovery.
In the text quoted above, Bass draws our attention to her act of spatial intervention. Her language may seem specific to Seattle’s Volunteer Park but it is general enough to be applied to many American civic spaces and the histories they celebrate. While addressing the question of what it means to make public sculpture in a moment of heightened awareness of the role monuments play in constructing a supposedly shared history, she claims a different approach. “Set against” this tradition Bass offers a form of care and an “opportunity . . . for repose” that signals her resistance to the verticality and triumphalism of the monument through the horizontality of her low, benchlike works. The stone on which this text is displayed sits near a towering 1909 sculpture of William Henry Seward, Secretary of State from 1861–69. In 1867, Seward, an ardent expansionist, acquired the territory of Alaska for the United States from Russia.
First known as City Park in the late 1880s, Volunteer Park was renamed in 1901 to honor the veterans of the Spanish-American War of 1898, a conflict that made clear the colonial ambitions of the United States. A plaque referring to this name change (set in an upright stone, not too different from those of Soft Services ) was recently removed over controversy surrounding its characterization of the Spanish-American War as one of liberation. While Bass seems to speak directly to this history of “war, purchase, transport and forms of expansion we might otherwise call control,” the stones’ close relationship to the same ground on which the viewer stands and the large, reflective plant silhouettes also ask us to consider the site’s relationship to the cultures that originally stewarded the natural environment of Seattle—the Duwamish and Coast Salish peoples. Depending on how one reads the “we” in another one of Bass’s inscriptions—“There’s no way to crystallize a glossary of all that we have lost, but if there were, I’d offer it to you”—the statement could refer to any number of populations affected by historical trauma, from settler-colonialism to the AIDS crisis, the event from which Bass derived the title for her work.
“Soft services” refers to the non-medical support received by those suffering with HIV/AIDS, such as massages, meals, or dog walking, benefits that could not be claimed on health insurance but were eventually covered (for a time) by the federally mandated Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency (CARE) Act enacted in 1990. Bass discovered the term during research and interviews she conducted on the history of Volunteer Park: it had been a space of protest and memorialization for Seattle’s gay community and their allies during the HIV/AIDS crisis. One of the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic has been a renewed public discussion of the collective experience of the HIV/AIDS health crisis that emerged in the 1980s. Bass’s framing of her project around notions of care and mutual aid recalls the way members of the LGBTQ+ community worked to support HIV-positive people who were abandoned by friends and family. In Seattle, people often came together in Volunteer Park to honor the lives of those who were refused church funeral services. With its reference to this tragic past, Chloë Bass: Soft Services is in dialogue with Seattle’s recently completed AIDS Memorial Pathway art sites nearby.
Bass’s use of the term “bench” puts her work in conversation with Jenny Holzer’s inscribed stone benches. Inscribing stones with lyrical texts also recalls the engraved sculptures of Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Little Sparta garden in Scotland. Soft Services sits somewhere between a bench and a monument—the benches allow more direct bodily contact than a plinth, column, or obelisk, but don’t quite read as furniture in the same way as a Roy McMakin’s Love & Loss (2005–6), a piece familiar to local audiences at Seattle Art Museum’s Olympic Sculpture Park. McMakin turned the letters of the words “love & loss” into cement chairs and a table around a small tree. Bass’s mournful tone echoes McMakin’s message and shares his engagement with the body in a state of rest, as well as his oblique reference to HIV/AIDS. In my several visits to the park, however, I never saw anyone sitting on Bass’s sculptures, perhaps because the statements displayed on them seem to resist such casual use.
Bass’s inscriptions on the stones in these unusual benchlike shapes cue us to expect some information of historical importance, a public tribute or a memorial. The language of her texts has a curious mix of intimate address—she often uses personal pronouns such as I, you, ours, and us. Their ambiguous references to interpersonal situations, knowledge systems, and historical circumstances challenges our typical “reading” experiences within a public park, especially because the speaker seems to be in a state of melancholic reflection.
Bass’s previous commissioned work plays with the form and language of municipal signs and billboards. These include The Parts outside of the Brooklyn Public Library’s Central Library building and in St. Louis on the campus of the Pulitzer Arts Foundation (2019–21), and Wayfinding (2019–20) installed in St. Nicolas Park in Harlem. In Wayfinding she asks, “How much of care is patience?” or “How much of life is coping?” Aphorisms like “Contentment can come in as many different forms as disappointment” from The Parts recall Barbara Kruger’s Truisms series, but her dramatic shift from head-height metal signs or overhead billboard-like installations to the low-lying engraved stones of Seattle’s Soft Services moves the work into a different register. The stones’ relationship to the viewer—from the ground, from below, and often asking you to approach a grouping set in the middle of open grass or tucked under a tree off a path—invites a more intentional and reflective mode of response than her previous use of signage along sidewalks in urban space. This suits the popular park site but also effectively contrasts with the pointed language Bass often employs in Soft Services: “As if the very existence of nature requires us to protect it; as if the very existence of bodies requires us to police them.”
The neighborhood of grand (and pricey) old homes that surround the park serves to “police” this space in its own way, but also makes the park an effective stage for political interventions. Bass’s project serves as a direct reminder of the AIDS protests held there in the past as well as a spur to advocate on the part of the disenfranchised in our current moment.
Chloë Bass: Soft Services reveals the histories and social structures that ultimately produce places like Volunteer Park with its botanical garden, brick water tower, and stately elm trees giving way to a view of Elliott Bay and Seattle’s iconic Space Needle. But with this project Bass also claims the space as a site of refuge and recovery from the forces that continue to divide us.
Ken D. Allan
Associate Professor of Art History, Seattle University