What could possess a government to fund such a venture? Perhaps it’s all part of the territory. The Black Hills South Dakota, where Mount Rushmore is located, has many ambitious sculptures. Indeed, Mount Rushmore is merely the most famous. The region is worth visiting for any number of statues and sculptures.
If any site in the US deserves the overused description “iconic”, it would be Mount Rushmore. Gutzon Borglum’s sculpture of four Presidents (George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt and Abe Lincoln), audaciously carved into the top of the granite mountain, is probably the most famous unfinished sculpture in the world. Begun in 1927, it was paused in 1941 when such grand gestures started to take a back seat to the war. (Borglum’s original plan included the Presidents’ upper bodies.)
Since the war, it has been almost a spiritual pilgrimage for Americans. Promotional campaigns showed families driving their Studebakers to see the presidential heads, 18 metres high, chosen by Borglum as symbols of American greatness. Later campaigns to add the heads of John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan were dismissed. The granite cannot support another head. Besides, whatever your politics, this is a work of art. Seeing Mount Rushmore, one is impressed because it is such a famous scene, but also because (as one tourist remarked when I visited) “The photos don’t do it justice.” Seeing it “live” is a far more powerful experience than seeing it on countless travel brochures, parodies, or even the climactic scene of “North by Northwest” (one of Hitchcock’s best and best-known finales).
2-City of Presidents
The centre of Rapid City, 37 kilometres from Mount Rushmore, is a charming, rustic town, full of Native American galleries, cafés, and a U.S. President on every corner. Kennedy is outside the Radisson hotel, holding hands with the young JFK, Jr. Lincoln is with Tad, his second son. Jimmy Carter smiles and waves. Dubya gives the thumbs-up. Nixon is in one of his own well-known poses: seated, with his fingers together, like a James Bond villain plotting a dastardly scheme.
Cast in bronze, all 42 past Presidents are on the streets, in all their glory. They are all out in the open, so it is perhaps odd that nobody has been defaced. No peacenik has sprayed “No War” over Dubya’s back. No militant conservative has painted a moustache on Bill Clinton. Here at least there is respect for the office of President. When I visited, the only issue was Thomas Jefferson, who is depicted with the Declaration of Independence (engraved in its totality). Sadly, when I was there, some dopes had sprayed their initials on the Declaration, which already has no shortage of signatures. Other than that (and one incident in the past where a drunk-driver smashed into Harry Truman, forcing his reconstruction), staff at the Presidents Information Centre, just next to the statue of James Monroe, say that the statues have been mostly untouched since the project began in 2000, though some caring souls have been known to leave hats or scarves on them in the winter.
The statues, all life-size and lifelike (though Ronald Reagan, as usual, isn’t totally convincing), are the work of four local sculptors. Rapid City, South Dakota’s second-largest city (with some 60,000 people), calls this gallery “The City of Presidents”. Washington DC might have something to say about that, but then, even DC probably hasn’t immortalised Millard Fillmore or James K Polk in bronze. There are still plenty of corners to be occupied, and Barack Obama will have one when he finishes his tenure.
While Rapid City has presidents, Custer has buffalo (or bison, to be more accurate). These are to the US northwest what kangaroos are to Australia. Life-size sculptures saluting the animals appear all over the Black Hills region. But in Custer (not far from Mount Rushmore), they take this artistry to another level. In May each year, bronze bison are unveiled, guarding the street corners. These are canvases for paintings by local artists, as their bodies display various Western scenes and landscapes. As with a regular buffalo auction, the artworks are “corralled” and auctioned in September each year.
None of the region’s buffalo sculptures are quite as dynamic or as intricate as the sculpture in the outdoors section of Tatanka, a small museum dedicated to buffalo, just outside the legendary Western town of Deadwood. The sculpture, by Peggy Detmers (from the nearby arty town of Hill City), was commissioned by movie actor/director Kevin Costner, who brought the bison back into everyone’s attention with the Oscar-winning “Dances with Wolves”. Like the movie, the sculpture depicts a buffalo jump, in which Native Americans would chase bison into a deep sink hole. In this busy and violent sculpture, three riders chase 14 bison to their doom, just as Costner did in the movie (on screen, at least).
The sculpture alone is worth the museum’s ($7.50) admission price, which is just as well because there isn’t much else to see. The money goes to a good cause: Costner, the museum’s founder, who never really recovered from The Postman.
5-Crazy Horse Monument
For this traveller, Mount Rushmore, for all its grandeur, suffered because I saw it a day after Crazy Horse. Here is one of the strangest attractions in the region, indeed the entire country, as well as perhaps the most ambitious. This statue of the Native American warrior Crazy Horse, riding into battle, is also being carved (like the faces of Rushmore) into a granite mountain. Started in 1948, it still has a long way to go. The visionary sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski, declaring his love of free enterprise, refused government funding, working on it with second-hand machinery until his death in 1982. The project has been continued by his family, with the help of donations, entrance fees and a large staff, some of whom run the Native American museum, set up to complement the sculpture near the foot of the mountain.
Despite its unfinished state, Crazy Horse is already an incredible site. Crazy Horse’s 87.5-foot-long face, finally unveiled in 1998 (on the fiftieth anniversary of the project), is considerably larger than all the Rushmore faces put together. When completed, the sculpture will be 195 metres long and 172 metres high.
So when will that happen? No date has been set, as nobody knows whether the mountain will support Ziolowski’s vision, or whether (again like Rushmore) it will need to be altered. Also, nobody knows what the technology will allow. Until then, the work-in-progress is already an astounding site, drawing scores of visitors. While the construction team is hard at work, they are not working to a deadline.
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