Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

rewrite, lucky number 13

Muni's picture

There is something defiant about Isaiah Zagar’s mosaics. Cities are built for efficiency, functionality, but not necessarily beauty. Yet, around South Street, a glimmer of light in the gap between two buildings could mean a mosaic of mirrors and color. Upon closer investigation, a pedestrian could find his or herself in a different Zagar’s art is a street intervention, playfully ignoring Philadelphia’s figurative and literal grids to bring subversiveness and spontaneity to its streets. 

Isaiah Zagar doesn’t always plan ahead where his next mosaic will be, what it will look like, or where he will get his materials. Many of his mosaics spill across alleyways and onto the back walls of houses, creeping along fence lines as if they’re no longer in the artist’s control. The mosaics fill cracks in alleys with seemingly random words and images. Looking at a map of Zagar’s mosaics is not like looking at a map of a typical art gallery. The mosaics make no distinctive pattern and many do not even appear on the map. In the magic gardens, the route you take is not restricted to a single path. Zagar’s art defies the city’s nearly symmetrical grid pattern in its meandering nature. The art is there “to disrupt the everyday actions in the city” by giving people a chance to think for themselves about what it could mean (Flanagan 14).

Zagar’s mosaics are also intentional. They are deliberate, obsessive acts of subversiveness. Because of the repeating patterns, colors, words, and images, it seems as though Zagar is pointing out certain things to his audience, pushing us to think about the words and images and why he is showing them to us.  Using materials like old glass bottles, discarded bicycle wheels, and ceramic plates, materials usually thought of as trash, Zagar redefines what art can be. Hands of all shapes and sizes are prevalent throughout the magic gardens and all of his mosaics, his hands, hands used to create. And from the walls and the ground, eyes of many colors stare in different directions, eyes looking at art from many points of view. Zagar encourages his audience to consider the way society sees art. On one of the walls in the magic gardens, “Philadelphia is the center of the art world” was spelled out with broken pieces of tile. I would usually think of the center of the art world as a museum somewhere in Europe full of historical paintings, but Zagar’s quote undermined that notion, which had been pushed on me by what other people consider important. Philadelphia is the center of Zagar’s art world. I agree with Flanagan that there is a “particular potency in subversive acts through participatory play” (Flanagan 173). Zagar’s work is made to be shared with the neighborhood. By being intentional about putting his art in public places, Zagar allows the public to play and participate in his art and be influenced by his questions about society. A street intervention, like Zagar’s mosaics, is intentional and bold.  

My experience in the Magic Gardens was that it was an almost separate world from the street, a street intervention. It was colorful and full of light that had been filtered through green glass bottles, but the mirrors reflected back buildings on either side, cars driving down the street, the sidewalk, and the viewer of the mosaics. I experienced Zagar’s art as a subversive act, because by bringing me into the mosaics, Zagar encouraged me to think of my own relation to the rest of the pieces. I thought about my relationship to all the material things I’ve discarded as I saw similar items incorporated into art. Perhaps this was unintended on Zagar’s part, and maybe no one else in the magic gardens had similar thoughts, but part of what makes a street intervention a street intervention is that it gives its viewers freedom to decide what they want to make of it. It also intervenes in their thinking, and gives them the chance to consider what the artist is trying to ask through the art. Because street interventions are subversive and expressions of ideas, I consider them to be artful as well.

Like Dove Bradshaw and her fire hose, Isaiah Zagar has claimed South Street as his art. He has disrupted it from the grid of the rest of the city using fragments of tile, trash, and mirrors, and he shares it with the people who allow themselves to become a part of the mosaic.