Calhoun: Wake-Up Call

The art at DIA keeps rumors flying

Welcome to Denver," chirps Mayor John Hickenlooper as the train pulls into the terminal at Denver International Airport. "The Mile High City." But the fun doesn't stop at 5,280 feet — because the sky's the limit for stories about DIA.

The airport has already inspired a planeload of conspiracy theories — that it's built on an Indian graveyard, that aliens live in tunnels below the terminal, that it's set up to become a concentration camp for Denver citizens. The long-delayed installation of Luis Jiménez's red-eyed, blue-rumped demon horse, "Mustang," which killed the artist while he was hurrying to finally finish it more than a decade after its original delivery date (and avoid additional legal action) didn't help DIA's devilish reputation any. And now the 26-foot-tall statue of Anubis, the Egyptian god of death, has drawn its first blood: "Mountain Mirage."

The Anubis piece, which stands guard right outside the southern side of the terminal building, is intended to support the King Tut exhibit now packing in crowds at the Denver Art Museum. But it's also bolstering all those conspiracy theories and recently caught the attention of USA Today, which reported that "the giant image of the jackal-headed god tasked with protecting the spirits of the dead is alarming some travelers."

As though they didn't already have enough to worry about. Separating out the fluids in their carry-ons, for example. And avoiding the eyes of the subjects in "Children of the World Dream Peace," Leo Tanguma's mural that has inspired "a few fanciful conspiracy theories," a page on DIA's official website,, confesses, "none of which were intended by the artist." A couple of those theories involve the New World Order and the militarization that will inevitably follow civilization's disintegration in 2012, as predicted by Mayan prophesies. (Need proof? Check out the Quetzal bird in one panel — a clear "extinction message," according to one of the conspiracy theorists Jared Jacang Maher interviewed for his groundbreaking August 2007 Westword story "DIA Conspiracies Take Off.")

Then there are those out-of-this-world rumors involving UFOs landing at DIA and the aliens hiding out at the airport. "One theory says you can put your ears against the columns in the terminal and hear alien voices from the basement," DIA public art administrator Matt Chasansky told USA Today. "All those theories are fanciful and fun. But none of it is true. And the aliens aren't telling me to say this."

Maybe not. And they probably didn't inspire Chasansky's personal favorite among the conspiracy theories: that "Mustang" is proof of the Montauk Project, which involved mind control, time-travel experiments and spontaneous object generation, resulting in a ruined city where "the only thing left standing was a giant blue horse...," he muses.

So far, "Mustang" has escaped being ushered into the underworld (or the dog-food factory) by Anubis. But during that statue's stay at DIA, it will preside over the death throes of one of the thirty works commissioned in the early '90s as part of the still-unopened airport's public-art program. Doug Hollis's "Mountain Mirage" is billed by the airport as "a visual reference to the Rocky Mountains reference to Colorado's waterfalls and raging rivers." And its droughts: For DIA's first four years, a cactus garden occupied the piece's marble-enclosed space — because the system that was supposed to shoot water into the air, creating the silhouette of a mountain range, leaked down into the trains. And even once repairs were made, the anemic flow made the piece look much more like a "Molehill Mirage."

The original fix was costly enough, but when "Mountain Mirage" sprang another leak, DIA again turned off the fountain in March 2009. Permanently, it turns out, because not only did the piece need another expensive repair, but now the fountain's pump room would have to be moved in order to extend the train system — adding another $5 million to the cost of a work originally billed out at $500,000. So what was once known as "Wilma's Wet Spot" has finally dried up and is headed for the scrap heap, like the automated baggage system that was DIA's most legendary debacle.

A few other pieces, while flawed, remain in place. "Skydance," which was supposed to project clouds across the terminal ceiling, has been on hiatus since 1999 because of technical problems — but is still part of the collection. So is "Deep Time/Deep Space," a work in one of the train tunnels that includes what look like yellow-and-black construction signs — when you can see them, that is (DIA is fixing the lighting).

But otherwise, the airport's art collection is still flying high. Gary Sweeney's two pieces remain crowd favorites, as does "Notre Denver," the baggage claim gargoyles. Artist Patty Ortiz may have left town, but her overhead airplanes continue to guide people up from the trains. And while the overgrown trees and snow fence make it hard to tell what, exactly, is part of "Fence Line Artifact," the farm-equipment montage by Buster Simpson and Sherry Wiggins, "it's great that we have a piece of Simpson's out here," Chasansky says. "He really worked with the history of the site, worked with the farmers. It really responds to the history here." So does a new temporary piece, Christopher Lavery's "Cloudscape." The three hollow clouds on blue bases at the side of Peña Boulevard look like they could be related to the drilling rigs on the airport property. Or advertising an ice cream shop up ahead.

DIA's other temporary exhibits include Alvaro Santiago's "Me Rento Para Soñar," part of the 2010 Biennial of the Americas that is bringing people from across the Western Hemisphere into Denver this month. But as they emerge from the tunnels (watch for those aliens!), they won't be greeted by even the carcass of "Mountain Mirage."

"The site will be reserved as an art site," Chasansky promises. And what will go there? The final decision could take years as the city's public-art committee considers all options.

How about this one: a fountain that really works (perhaps constructed out of pieces of the automated baggage system) and pours Colorado microbrews for tourists and their hosts alike. DIA could even sell growlers of those beers on the concourses, for travelers who've already passed through security and want to take home some of this state's most liquid asset. It's out of this world.

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Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun