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Art Facts: Billie Lawless and his dancing electric organs

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What's that strange image along the side of the road? Is it a bird? A plane? No, it's four large, neon dancing penises! They flash on and off, and they sport top hats, canes, and bow ties, Fred Astaire style.

In the two years since Green Lightning was erected at Harrison and Wells as part of the Sculpture Chicago exhibit, officer Tom Bohling of Chicago Vice has received no complaints, except from Buffalo Vice (where the sculpture was first exhibited--for about 15 minutes--in 1984). In fact, it has become the focal point of Sculpture Chicago and a city landmark of sorts, says Barbara Lynne, executive director of the Burnham Park Planning Board (which has in the past coordinated Sculpture Chicago). "When we try to tell people where Sculpture Chicago is, they say, 'Oh yes! You mean where the sculpture is. When we have friends in from out of town we take them to see it. We go after dark.'"

The neon penises, the work of Buffalo artist Billie Lawless, are enclosed in four steel boxes with one side open and covered by a kind of Plexiglas. The entire sculpture is of billboard dimensions. The neon lights are on all the time, but they shine brightest at night. Lawless claims he's seen them dancing through the night from the Sears Tower observatory.

There are silk screen images inside the boxes at the rear, but they are visible only by day, up close: among them are a little girl skipping rope, a black man on his knees praying to a television screen, a space shuttle shooting a hole through a "Save the Seals" postage stamp. Behind are glittery stars hanging on clotheslines. All around are steel bolts of green lightning driven into the ground.

"Of course the most notorious image is the dancing penises," says Lawless, "which I got off the side of a building in Buffalo. I guess some kids were playing off Mr. Peanut, and they did a large, eight- to ten-foot character out of spray paint. I had taken a photo and put it in my archives as an image I wanted to use. It seemed very appropriate for what I was trying to do. I was burlesquing the whole idea of male dominance.

"When I had the concept for the piece, I was thinking it belonged in a run-down ghetto area. The man who was going to give me the land [in Buffalo] asked me to show [the model of it] to the councilman from the district because he didn't want the city coming down on him. So when I showed it to the councilman, he said, 'Geez, don't put it over there on that private piece of land. I think you should put it over there in the Elm-Oak arterial' [a well-traveled stretch of road]. I said, 'Well, I think that's kind of a crazy idea, but if you want to take it and run with it and in the meantime let me work on the piece . . .'

"What developed was this guy got it through the [city] council. He got the mayor to sign it. And before I knew it, I was showing it to the Buffalo Arts Council. I kept thinking, this is nonsense, this is silly, and I really don't want it there."

Arts Council director David More took up the project then. He's far enough removed from it all now to laugh loudly, though somewhat painfully, when he recalls what followed. (At one point More tendered his resignation, which Buffalo mayor James Griffin rejected.) More says, "The model, how will I say, was not a particularly elaborate rendition of the full-scale figures that were eventually illuminated." He says Lawless told him they were dancing dog biscuits. Mayor Griffin's office claims that in a tape recording of a meeting with Lawless, he described the neon image as "an abstracted dancing figure celebrating life."

Lawless says it was always clear what he was doing. And Bill Currie, director of a Buffalo art gallery that helped sponsor the project, had no trouble seeing what was there. "I had long conversations with Billie, and I knew there was going to be a problem. He talked in terms of color and movement and all that crap. I said, 'No! It's dancing penises!'"

It was cold, windy, and rainy the night of the Buffalo unveiling. More coordinated it and appointed himself emcee. He was pleased to see the television cameras rolling. Currie gave the first speech, about the importance of public sculpture, and left immediately after that. He didn't want to see what was going to happen; he feared a backlash against artists. "The city was embracing the project. They were all eager to see it go through. I don't know if this is the emperor's clothes all over again. Everybody wanted to believe something until the lights went on."

More says, "Billie was the last to speak. He thanked everyone rather meticulously and then he turned on the lights. Up front, it all looked like scrambled eggs. You really couldn't tell what it was. So I went further and further back to get a different perspective. I'm looking at these dancing dog biscuits and I'm saying to myself, 'Oh, Dave! No one else can be seeing what your perverse mind is formulating!'"

But the laughter grew and more camera crews showed up, and More saw his career swirling down the drain. And then the Buffalo vice squad arrived, or as More describes it, the "one-man salacious literature squad."

Sensing trouble, Lawless left. He watched the whole thing at home on television.

More went home and tried to explain matters over the phone to the mayor. Griffin decided Green Lightning would be torn down the next day. But who could he get to do it? He decided on Walt's Tree Service, a small tree-surgery company with city contracts.

Lawless happened to be doing some work on the sculpture the next day when Walt's brigade and some city workers arrived. They had torches and a bulldozer. Lawless turned to civil disobedience. He crawled on top of one of the penises and refused police orders to come down. Finally his lawyer, negotiating with the mayor's office by car phone, reached an agreement: Green Lightning could stand as long as it wasn't plugged in.

And then the Chicago offer came.

Lawless now lives in self-imposed exile from Buffalo, in Cape Cod. But he's long been tempted to move to Chicago, where people can take a joke. "My experience in Chicago when I put that piece up was one of the nicest of my life. I think I only got one negative comment, from a drunken soul that was walking through on opening night. He kept coming back and he would yell things at me and I would ignore him."

Bohling thinks there's been no trouble because Green Lightning is in such an obscure place. "If it was up in Grant Park or someplace like that, maybe there would be trouble. I'll tell you, some high-ranking officials in the Chicago Police Department thought it should be prosecuted."

Acting on a call from Buffalo Vice, Bohling and other Chicago Vice cops dropped in on Lawless while he was constructing Green Lightning.

"They had a good laugh," Lawless says. The corporation counsel and the state's attorney declined to prosecute.

I'm glad they did. Green Lightning could be a hot spot on the Chicago tourist circuit.

It could be a highlight of the Sears Tower view: "To the north is the old Water Tower, to the east is the Field Museum, to the south are the dancing penises." And on the postcard racks, right next to the illuminated glory of Buckingham Fountain, could be the dancing penises in their fully illuminated glory.

There could be Gray Line tours, complete with picnics. And if some think the dancing penises deliver the wrong message in this era of safe sex, we could throw Hefty bags over them.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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