The war of the beans started when some northern out-of-towner called Houston, which prides itself in its eclectic arts scene and cuisine, a “cultureless abyss” — a surefire way to invite a hailstorm of hate mail from Houstonians.
The bean at issue — the new bean in Houston — arrived in the city’s Museum District on Monday, lowered onto a new plaza near the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston with the help of a giant crane and an army of construction workers. The sculpture, called “Cloud Column” by Anish Kapoor, is shaped less like a bean, really, and more like an elongated egg, reminiscent of the alien spaceship from the movie “Arrival.”
But, with its stainless steel round shape, it’s also strikingly similar to the other, more famous bean, the one that is The Bean: Chicago’s picturesque epicenter where tourists flock for selfies in Millennium Park, formally titled “Cloud Gate.”
Also the work of Kapoor, it was, until this week, unique to Chicago.
“Houston’s version of The Bean differs in one respect from Chicago’s: the uptight Texas bean is designed to stand upright, not lie on its side like the chill Illinois bean,” Kim Janssen, a Chicago Tribune columnist, wrote in a Tuesday column. “If being surrounded by a cultureless abyss insufficiently communicates to confused tourists that they are in Houston, the bean’s verticality will therefore act as an additional reminder of their poor life choices.”
The column, titled “Unoriginal 4th place Houston gets its own bean sculpture … whatever,” kicked off what essentially amounted to a contest of clever insults between Janssen and the Houston Chronicle’s Lisa Gray, published in the form of back-and-forth emails between the two writers Wednesday.
There is already a natural competition between Chicago, the long-standing third-most populous city, and Houston, the fourth-largest city. Gray didn’t waste any time pointing out a favorite boast among Houstonians: that Houston is growing faster than Chicago.
Janssen’s column, Gray wrote, “made me wonder: Is Chicago feeling defensive? How bad is it there, knowing that Houston is set to pass you in population, taking your spot as third-largest city in the U.S.? Are you feeling — well, to steal someone’s joke from Twitter — like a ‘has-bean’?”
“It’s a leftover bean, a second-rate bean that’s been lying around in storage for the better part of 20 years, because nobody else wanted it,” Janssen responded. “Nobody except Houston wants a leftover, second-rate bean.”
So here’s the kicker, revealed by Kapoor’s associates to both the Tribune and the Chronicle in interviews this week: The first true bean is the one in Houston. It just was in storage for … well, as Janssen griped, a lot longer than Chicago’s.
David Williams, who has worked with Kapoor for years, told the Chronicle’s art critic this week that Houston’s “Cloud Column” was the original, handmade in London in 1999. “It wasn’t made,” he said. “It was birthed.”
The sculpture was originally conceived for London’s British Museum but did not ultimately wind up there. In recent years, Houston museum officials thought it might make a good addition at an outdoor plaza that has been under construction, right near a sculpture garden.
“Cloud Gate,” by contrast, was sculpted in the United States and unveiled in Chicago in 2006 after the city solicited proposals for a sculpture. It became an instant hit and eventual landmark.
After his column ran, Janssen told The Washington Post, his inbox was flooded with angry messages from Houstonians, leading him to feel “a bit embarrassed for Houstonians at how easily baited they were.” It was, as he wrote in the dissing battle with Gray, an “outpouring of bile from Houston [that] has genuinely surprised me.”
As one Houstonian wrote on Twitter: “i feel great rage at this article they called houston a CULTURELESS ABYSS i am ready to fight everyone from chicago,” and another: “Wow, [Kim Janssen], a ‘cultureless abyss?’ Spoken like someone who has never been to the most diverse city in the country. I’m afraid if you don’t stop crying soon you’ll drown.”
The “Cloud Column” will be officially open to the public — and a great many selfie aficionados — once the plaza is complete, on May 20.
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