Tread on me 

The novelty of recycling used tires may have worn off like tire treads, but Chakaia Booker’s art, which quickly gained notoriety when she first began making sculpture from the discarded rubber in the late ’90s, is breathing new life into the notion “reuse.” Mass Transit, the third large-scale effort on the part of the Arts Council of Indianapolis (and its collaborators) to bring in an internationally known sculptor to create site-specific work downtown, gives the city a sort of urban chic that it has worked hard to attain.

Booker is second to none as an artist — her tire art has been shown and recognized internationally, speaking to an aesthetic that at once honors our need to address the throw-away culture we live in and her own artistic sense of things. Her perspective encompasses concerns as an African-American, as a woman, as a citizen, and her artwork is at once complex and direct in addressing these concerns.

The nine sculptures created specifically for downtown Indianapolis (with an additional, pre-existing piece installed further north at the Indianapolis Art Center) were conceived after the artist spent some time getting to know Indianapolis and its history. “Plus or Minus?” — situated at the corner of Meridian and Washington streets — reflects on the city’s historical association with the Underground Railroad. A sort of portal, the solidly constructed structure offers passage through a double set of openings, also accessible from the side. A hopeful piece, like so much of Booker’s work, this one has a more constructed feel than, say, “Take Out” (at Delaware and East Market streets), which is decidedly playful, with shreds of tire feathering from an open-aired square frame.

The full effect of the work is best appreciated on foot: This is sculpture that you can touch, occasionally walk into, through and sometimes even over. Booker’s brilliance is in marrying the liquidity of movement with a hard-edged decisiveness in creating forms that have immediate appeal and also deeper metaphorical meaning.

A project of Public Art Indianapolis, Chakaia Booker: Mass Transit is a program managed by the Arts Council of Indianapolis and funded by the Indianapolis Cultural Development Commission through a grant from the Lilly Endowment. The effort began in 2004 and encourages the presentation of art by local, national and international artists in public spaces throughout the city, and has enhanced the city considerably. Certainly, efforts such as these go beyond bringing arresting artwork to mass audiences: Mass Transit also is symbolically suggestive of the city’s struggle to bring workable forms of mass transportation to the larger metropolis.

The only drawback to Mass Transit is its impermanence. The sculpture remains on view through April 1, 2009, certainly long enough for the city to grow attached and for the work to become a welcome part of the landscape. Let’s make the best of it while it’s here. Please, tread on it.

Download a map of the sculptures and learn more about the project at, or pick up a brochure at the Indianapolis Artsgarden.

— Julianna Thibodeaux

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