Last month, images of Philly’s newest public artworks went viral on social media when users posted about artist Miguel Antonio Horn’s most recent sculpture: An eight-piece structure of humanlike figures, made of aluminum plates, floating about 20 feet above ground, on a bridge that connects two buildings on Cuthbert Street, between 12th and 13th Streets.
The recent installment, ContraFuerte, rapidly became a Center City attraction after influencer Conrad Benner posted it on his blog Aug. 30. Since then, critics, artists, and the public from Philadelphia to France, Italy, and Russia have shared comments and published stories about the work.
Horn, 37, the founder of El Cubo, an experimental arts studio in West Philadelphia, said he never expected such public reaction. “The idea was to present the artwork later, on Sept. 23, which is why we had not shared any information about it, nada,” he said about the original plans city commissioners and private investors had for the sculpture. “We didn’t have a plan for this kind of reaction, so now we’re rushing to catch up.”
The artist was commissioned by Parkway Corp. as part of the Percent for Art program, a 62-year-old mandate that requires at least 1% of budget costs for major renovation projects or new constructions in public land be dedicated to original site-specific public art.
Horn is among a handful of Latino artists in the Percent for Art program. He has documented the design process for the installation on his Instagram account @contrafuertephl, where he includes sketches, clay mock-ups, and digital prints.
When spreading the word about the project, Horn said he prefers to avoid sharing about the concept or construction of the sculpture in order to keep people’s imagination going. As more social media users tag him to their posts and comments, he sees more value in the conversations happening between groups and across platforms.
“My job is to inspire curiosity that never goes away,” he said. “Even though there is very little context and information about the piece, people are still getting the message.”
Horn, son of a Venezuelan father and Colombian mother, has been a sculptor for 11 years and has lived in Philadelphia since 2001. A graduate of Harriton High School, he received a certificate from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 2006.
After art school, Horn returned to South America to travel the continent and reconnect with his roots, to find inspiration for his art. Much of the art he studied in the United States was inspired by European works, mainly influenced by French and Greco-Roman movements.
Horn said he visited Colombia, Venezuela, Guatemala, Panama, Brazil, and other countries in Latin America to learn about pre-Columbian art and its connection to the Indigenous peoples. During his travels, he met Javier Marín, a Mexican artist who does contemporary humanlike sculpting, and Horn did a five-year apprenticeship with him before returning to Philadelphia in 2011.
Horn’s large-format sculptures have been exhibited in Mexico’s Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Tamaulipas, Texas’ Brownsville Museum of Fine Art, Philly’s University of the Arts, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia Museum of Art, and as part of the Vancouver Biennale in Canada. He has received grants for workshops and artworks locally and internationally.
The Inquirer spoke with Horn about his latest work.
How did you get involved in this project?
Joe Zuritsky, the chairman for Parkway, is a collector of mine. Parkway reaches out to me, asking if I’d be interested in presenting an idea for this project with Percent for Art program. At that moment, I was finishing a project for the Logan Hotel, which was at that moment my largest sculpture using a topographic method, one plate on top of the other. That artwork gave me the opportunity to demonstrate the work I could do in large scales. Still, I needed to convince the investors who commissioned the piece, the Redevelopment [Authority] Commission and the city’s Art Commission, and that wasn’t easy. Conversations started in 2015 and it was well over a year when I was able to demonstrate that I could handle the materials, that I was capable of executing the project, that it was appropriate for that alley.
What was happening in your life at the time when you were working on this piece?
The initial idea for the project was very different. It was called Rising Tides, and the imagery it proposed was so much more wild. At the time, the news was full of reports with immigrants and refugees trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea to escape from Syria. The proposal was rejected and postponed. I apologized to the commissioners for how loaded the piece was and asked for a chance to express something different.
In late 2016, we started to see a movement against sexual harassment towards women and a growth in negative rhetoric around immigrants. That was around the same time I learned that I was going to have a daughter. So, when I looked into the Cuthbert alley, I saw this place differently, me being a Philadelphia resident for so long, I thought I knew this city well, but not necessarily. Still, I felt the need to address these battle: the violence, the struggle, the experience that women, people of color and immigrants experience when seeking their space in our society. The alley was the perfect spot for that; a message of resistance.
Without making any interpretations about the concept behind it, how did these circumstances and your upbringing inform your art process for ContraFuerte?
Every project I work on has layers of meaning. Without labeling the piece, I was inspired in how immigrants are perceived, in what it’s like to be a U.S. American whose family is from Colombia and Venezuela and lived for five years in Mexico, in all those trips I did along Latin America, in how ignorant we can be, in the kind of society I would be raising my daughter in. ContraFuerte has deeper-seeded questions that are rising about our society and the things that we are facing nowadays. It speaks to the strength of communities, to finding balance, to supporting one another, to feminism, to the discomfort when saying a word. It’s a beautiful thing that this inspiration is what’s driving the conversation around the piece right now.
Is that why you named the artwork ContraFuerte, in Spanish?
Beyond that, what I like about the Spanish language is that words have more than just a meaning, which is something that the piece speaks to. On the surface, you see something [in ContraFuerte] that seems obvious, but by observing with more detail, you come to understand it in various ways and different ways to describe it. As part of a public art piece, the name reflects contexts of universal struggles — to having power in unity, to counter force, to feeling supported, to never doing anything alone, to resist, to the ongoing battle for balance and equity — and it leave a bit to people’s imagination.
Horn will be joined by Parkway Corp. executives and city representatives on Sept. 23 at 3 p.m. to celebrate the artwork installation and its engagement with the public with a block party at 1200 Cuthbert St.