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Hey, what's the deal with those blob statues on the federal courthouse lawn?

These blobby, beloved sculptures in Minneapolis are cute, but they're part of a dark past.

These blobby, beloved sculptures in Minneapolis are cute, but they're part of a dark past. Hannah Jones

Outside the U.S. District Courthouse in downtown Minneapolis, scattered amongst little green hills and mossy flagstones, you’ll find a miniature community of smiling, clumsy, mostly circular people.

There are statues stationed all over the lawn -- holding hands, taking pictures, lying in the grass – as if they were Minneapolitans lounging about a sculpture garden. They mostly have the same dot-eyed smiley faces, like a child would draw. And something about them – maybe a potent mixture of creepiness and charm -- invites speculation about their mysterious inner lives.

Some have taken the liberty of inventing names and stories for each, like on this fantastic Twitter thread from @NotoriousDGP.

The collection is actually called Rockman, created by prolific sculptor Tom Otterness in 1997. He’s best known for his quirky statues posed in the middle of busy cities, and has an entire series in the New York subway system called Life Underground, featuring roly-poly businesspeople, cops, and rats all clutching at cartoonish bags of money.

But as whimsical as his pieces are, Otterness still struggles with a darker legacy. In 1977, when he was 25, he adopted a dog from a New York City shelter. Shortly afterward, he set up a camera, tied the dog to a fence, and shot it. He played the resulting video, Shot Dog Film, on loop at a gallery show.

He would go on to apologize for the “film” in 2008, while weathering public outcry and cancelled commissions. In a statement to the Brooklyn Eagle, he called it an “indefensible act” that he was “deeply sorry for.”

“Many of us have experienced profound emotional turmoil and despair,” he said. “Few have made the mistake I made. I hope people can find it in their hearts to forgive me.”

In a 2011 interview with the Observer – the same year New York, the New York Public Library, and San Francisco all canceled or cut back his projects -- he allegedly got “visibly upset” over being asked about the dog, saying, “What the fuck do I do with this?”

“It was in the context of the times and the scene I was in,” he said. “I had a very convoluted logic as to what effect I meant to have with that video. Whatever I had in mind, it was really inexcusable to take a life in service of that.”

He told the San Francisco Examiner that he’d spent the past 34 years living with what he’d done, and “trying to bring joy into the world” through his public art – like Rockman.

Forgiveness aside, Otterness is nothing if not wildly successful. His list of public artworks is extensive, and he reportedly makes “millions” on private commissions.

It can be difficult to know how to feel about a piece of art created by a flawed – to put it graciously -- artist. As the Rockmen putter about their lawn and smile enigmatically at passersby, they often do inspire joy. Does knowing what Otterness did as a 25-year-old take some polish from their bronzy bodies? Or does this art now belong purely and simply to the public?

If the Rockmen have answers, they’re certainly not telling.

In Hey, What’s the Deal With... we’re tackling everyday oddities, random curiosities, and what-the-actual-fuck mysteries about life in the Twin Cities. Got a pressing but somewhat trivial Q about something you saw, heard, or thought about while stuck in traffic? Email [email protected], and our crack investigative team just might try to figure it out.