Over the past several years, I've received acupuncture treatment for a variety of ailments: headaches, bronchitis, a pinched nerve, even stress. Sometimes it has worked, and sometimes it hasn't. But if a person is in a lot of pain, it's worth a try. And it'd be a disservice to dismiss acupuncture's effectiveness just because it's different from, or unprovable by, standards of Western medicine.
Chinese acupuncture, which Wikipedia defines as "the procedure of inserting and manipulating needles into various points on the body to relieve pain or for therapeutic purposes" has been around since at least the second century BC. Yet there is no factual evidence proving the central idea, of placing these needles at body points situated on meridians along which qi (or "life energy") flows.
I describe this tension behind acupuncture practice in the West after thinking about the symbolism of the Portland Acupuncture Project, which is actually not medicinal but an outdoor sculptural installation by Portland artist Adam Kuby. The work, consisting of 35-foot-high steel poles made to resemble acupuncture needles, was commissioned in accordance with the current process of formulating the Portland Plan through a series of workshops. The Portland Plan just entered Phase II with a workshop on April 26, and the next one is scheduled for April 29 at Beaumont Middle School.
Kuby's needles are being installed - literally pricked into the ground as if it's our collective skin - at sites throughout the city such as Waterfront Park, Kelly Point Park and Mt. Tabor.
"This project explores the interface between art, regional planning, traditional Chinese medicine and the health of a city," his Portland Acupuncture Project's website explains. "Unfolding over the course of 2010, this 6-month art installation will coincide with a series of public workshops to help steer the Portland Plan, a guide for the city's growth over the next 25 years. Needles appearing across the city will bring attention to the some of the city's most challenging problems, greatest assets, as well as places with enormous potential."
“Using the body as a metaphor for the entire city, Kuby hopes to identify those places in the landscape that are important to us as a community," added Susan Anderson, director of the Portland Bureau of Planning & Sustainability, "drawing attention not only to the significance of each focal point but also to the interconnectedness of them to each other as well as to ourselves.”
Portland has a strong Chinese medicine community for an American city, with two schools of Chinese medicine and more than 500 acupuncturists in the three-county area. As a result, the project has gained not only public donations from the Regional Arts & Culture Council and the Oregon Arts Commission, but also several dozen individual and business donors and the Oregon College of Oriental Medicine. Yet the $40,000 fund raising goal to install the large poles/needles for six months, has not been reached. Kuby, a Mount Tabor-area artist with a background in landscape architecture and public art installations, told Keri Brenner in The Oregonian that he still needs to raise about $12,000 to $15,000 more if the project is to be able to be installed in all quadrants of the city.
Acupuncture chart from Hua Shou (1340s), image via Wikipedia
Each series of up to five needles/poles will remain in place for eight weeks before being moved to new meridian-like "points" in the city for another eight-week installation, continuing the rotation one more time after that. Brenner also reports Kuby worked with city planners to dovetail the placement of needle sculptures with strategies and initiatives identified in the Portland Plan, the city's roadmap for the next 25 years. Some of the needles/poles will be placed at sites to represent focus on transportation issues, for example, while others might stimulate discussions on housing problems or jobs creation.
I mentioned at the outset of this post the tension between acupuncture's thousands of years of tradition and its lack of complete acceptance from Western medicine. That's because along with the general metaphor of acupuncture needles healing the city, or contributing to higher energy levels or flow between different parts of the topography, perhaps acupuncture itself may be a fitting metaphor for the current moment Portland is experiencing amongst the broader American zeitgeist as the potential model for how other American cities might look in the future. A recent article by English political magazine, for example, explored Portland as and "The new model" for "elite cities", asking, "Is Oregon’s metropolis a leader among American cities or just strange?"
Portland is building on thousands of years of tradition too, continuing compact pedestrian oriented city building of Europe and most of Western civilization. We are the descendant, urbanistically speaking, of cities like Amsterdam, Barcelona, Glasgow and Kyoto. And yet people in other places, even progressive urban-minded ones, still look at the city as quirky and off-kilter. But hey, what does it matter? Like the local slogan goes, Portland is, despite all its inevitable missteps, the City that Works. Or maybe it's the other, unofficial slogan, urging us to keep weird.
Incidentally, I think some of Kuby's needles are very much needed along Southeast Grand and Martin Luther King Boulevards while this streetcar construction is in progress. Traffic is a black hole there these days. Either Kuby needs to place some needles there, or I need some in my forehead and toes while slowly inching by the orange cones.