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11.10.11: The Needle on Display

Space Needle History: Thursday at the Needle

Knute Berger, Writer-in-Residence

Is the Space Needle art?

The Needle has attracted the attention of artists, even before it was built. Northwest painters tried to capture it from the day the Needle's legs began to rise from the fair site in 1961.

But what about the Needle itself? Or Needle souvenirs? In the early 1970s, local artists began to play with that question. At the forefront was the experimental, non-profit and/or gallery on Capitol Hill in the Oddfellows building. Anne Focke, who staffed the Seattle Arts Commission and was one of the founders of Bumbershoot and Artists Trust, ran the gallery which was devoted to provocative avant garde, experimental, conceptual and performance art.

In 1974, on the Needle's 12th anniversary, a group calling themselves the Seattle Souvenir Service displayed their "Space Needle Collection," a batch of souvenir items and images of the the Needle ranging from large models of the Needle to cigarette lighters, ashtrays, scarves, crystal, photos, postcards and various other assorted tchotchkes. One mysterious postal art item was titled "Horny Space Needle Emerging from Mississippi River in Response to the Mating Call of the Gateway Arch." The collection of 350 objects were soberly cataloged and displayed in the gallery. The purpose, says Focke, was to "take art off its pedestal."

The catalog for the show also featured images of Needle that popped up around town in backyards and along busy commercial streets as a kind of folk art, including one that had been built from "'keen junk,' left over paint, and a barbecue motor" by two guys in Edmonds.

For a few years, and/or continued to play with the Needle-as-art theme. In 1977, to celebrate the gallery's birthday (same as the Needle's, April 21st), the and/or artists planned to converge on the Needle blowing horns and "circulate the Needle seven times, emulating Joshua. After their success (or failure) in bringing down the Needle, they'll adjourn to a nearby tavern to celebrate," reported the Seattle Times. Focke says she can't remember whether they did or not, but repairing to a local bar was in character.

In 1978, the gallery did an installation on the balcony of the Center House timed to coincide with the Seattle Art Museum's King Tut exhibit at Seattle Center. Called "Local Relics," it displayed Space Needle souvenirs and photographs designed to "mythologize" the Needle like ancient Egyptian relics. One picture showed a Space Age Needle pen sticking out of the pocket of a man's tweed jacket.

In that context, the Needle souvenirs and artwork, Focke says, took on a kind of timelessness. Maybe it was a taste of how the Needle will be remembered when it is as ancient as the Pharohs: through charms, images, and artifacts.

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