Temple Chess & Poetry Garden

Temple Chess & Poetry Garden

Larry Bradshaw


Greater Des Moines Public Art Foundation

Educational and Family Resource

born Persia (now Iran), 1939 - 2020
Art Type
Year Completed
Commissioned by Greater Des Moines Public Art Foundation
Information Resources
Latitude & Longitude
41.585875, -93.630626
Location Description
Between the Temple for the Performing Arts and Des Moines Public Library on Locust Street
Lesson Plan
Interdisciplinary Connections
Dowloadable PDF

Temple Chess & Poetry Garden

Dedicated in May 2016, this installation was a gift to the people of Des Moines by the family of Bennett Webster, an attorney who died in 2002 and who was a devotee of the game of chess. Chess is a game of deliberation, thoughtful planning, and strategy in which the two players anticipate one another’s moves and are constantly interacting with each other. Temple Chess and Poetry provides a space for both social engagement and contemplation. It is composed of multiple parts: three chess tables, a larger table for gathering around, benches, and a small garden in whose iron fence are embedded lines of poetry by Language poet Barrett Watten (b.1948), a friend of the artist. Enjoy simply sitting here quietly, talking with a friend, or bring your own chess pieces for playing the game in the thoughtful aura created by this work of public art. It is installed in an intimate space between two major buildings in downtown Des Moines: the Temple for the Performing Arts (thus, the “Temple” portion of the title) and the Des Moines Public Library. The artist highly esteems libraries as an important — and free — source of information necessary for the proper functioning of a democracy.

Siah Armajani (b.1939) specializes in installations that have a strong architectural component, but with a twist: they require the viewer to become a participant. In fact, he does not consider them complete until viewers become participants and “activate” the work of art. This crucial aspect of his art reflects
his education in philosophy and history which led him to value the importance of the individual acting in a public, democratic, and accessible society. One of his best-known works, which typically combined architecture, sculpture, and human interaction, was his bridge across a 16-lane freeway in Minneapolis whose construction had bisected a neighborhood, giving the residents a new chance to re-connect with each other. Born in Tehran (Iran), Armajani established himself in Minneapolis after arriving in the United States in 1960 to study at Macalester College in St. Paul. His liberal arts education, emphasizing poetry, literature, and American philosophers and writers such as the transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 – 1882) provided a deeply-felt humanistic base for his art. A prolific artist, his works are exhibited and installed worldwide, notably the Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C.; the British Museum in London; and the Musee d’Art Moderne et Contemporain in Geneva.

Of his art, Armajani says, “I am interested in the nobility of usefulness. My intention is to build open, available, useful, common, public gathering places—gathering places that are neighborly.” Bring your own chess pieces and take a seat in Temple Chess & Poetry for a truly neighborly experience!
Adapted from http://observer.com/2013/12/siah-armajani-to-alexander-gray/

Discussion Questions

  • What do you notice about this space – what does it encourage you to do?
  • The artist’s intention is for the art to be complete only after a viewer becomes a participant, either by sitting to play chess, reading the poetry, or entering the space. Now that you are here, how do you feel about you “completing” the artwork?
  • Read the poetry selections around this space. In what ways is this art piece representing the lines of poetry?
  • Describe this integrated art space to someone who may not be able to see it. Use as many sensory details as possible.


Armajani, S. (2016). Siah Armajani. New York: Alexander Gray Associates.
This publication includes 30 full-color illustrations of the works exhibited at New York’s Alexander Gray Associates in October–December 2016.

Watten, B. (1998). Bad history. Berkeley, CA: Atelos.
This is undoubtedly a poem for college students and mature thinkers. As a postmodern poet, Watten’s long-form poem forces readers to think about the relationships of politics and poetry in the time before, during and after the Gulf War, also known as the Persian Gulf War, of 1990–91.

plasma/barrett watten. 1979. (GAMMM.org)
Temple Chess & Poetry features a few lines from a very long poem by Barrett Watten entitled, plasma. Read the complete poem here.

The Grand Piano Series is a 10-volume “ongoing experiment in collective autobiography by ten writers identified with Language poetry in San Francisco.” The project began in 1998, with the following ten poets appearing: Bob Perelman, Barrett Watten, Steve Benson, Carla Harryman, Tom Mandel, Ron Silliman, Kit Robinson, Lyn Hejinian, Rae Armantrout, and Ted Pearson. Considered “the eleventh pianist,” Alan Berheimer organized the project. Find a recorded reading of the series with 8 of the 10 poets in the Visual Media section.

Internet Resources

Michalska, B. (2018, February 07). Siah Armajani – An Iranian Artist In the US.
Daily Art Magazine Online.
This spotlight on Armajani is very accessible for high school students, taking the reader through a
brief journey of his commissions and various styles. In her series on art from “banned” countries, the writer emphasizes that Armajani is an immigrant artist who came to America from Iran and that some of his works have social or political content. His Fallujah of 2004–05, for example, was a lament for the destruction in that city during the Iraqi war.

The online artist database offers an Overview of Siah Armajani’s life, many photographs of his work, Past and Upcoming Shows, links to Articles on the artist, and even “Related Artists.” Use this website in your own classroom to enable students to view additional works and discover new artists.

Art & Artists: Siah Armajani, 1939- Present. WalkerArt.org
The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota has a large collection of Armajani’s works, many of which are not always on. However, photos of these works with descriptions are always available on their website.

Siah Armajani| Alexander Gray Associates
Alexander Gray Associates, a New York City art gallery which represents the artist and hosts many of Siah Armajani’s exhibitions, describes his ongoing “Tomb Series” (1972-2016) with photographs on their website. The series’ exhibition PDF is provided for free download, as are additional PDFs from past exhibitions. An Exhibition Catalogue and various news articles can also be found; art teachers may wish to have students look through these PDFs for inspiration and further readings. Find Tomb Series PDF here: http://www.alexandergray.com/attachment/ en/594a3c935a4091cd008b4568/Publication/594a3cec5a4091cd008b7219

The poet featured in Temple Chess & Poetry has an interesting and engaging website, filled with images, documents, and explanations of his own work. The Events page is kept up-to-date for those who would like to attend a lecture, reading, or signing by Barrett Watten. Keep up with the artist on his Twitter page: @barrettwatten.

Art Activities


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