Monthly Archives: December 2011

Sculpture Park-ing

Sculpture parks are tricky places, trickier than you might think. If you have ever hung art in your own home, or placed garden objects in your own yard – carefully, that is, thoughtfully, intentionally – then you have a very miniscule inkling of what it must be like to populate a park. How does one place a two-ton object? A little to the left, I think. How does one visualize the art object in its site before placement? In a dream, maybe.

Oh, sure, there are computer-generated CAD renderings and even 3-D mockups, but it is nearly impossible to see the actual, as opposed to virtual, thing in its setting, unless and until it is there. And once it is there, it is there, on a poured base bolted into place. Sometimes, depending on its size, the depth of the moorings can penetrate various strata below the earth’s surface. The thing that is mystifying to me, beyond the physical maneuverings to seat the work, is that some works are situated just so perfectly, while others are not – quite the opposite, really. How can some be so right and others so wrong?

Storm King Art Center gets it right more often than not, having had its origins in display – this is still visible in the smaller works that are pedestalled and grouped around the museum building as a kind of bow to garden art (really good garden art, that is). But venture beyond the patio and the near planting beds and go out into the fields and meadows; that is where the relationships occur. Here, the Storm King team are masters of the setting and the pairing of art and site.

The only sculpture parks other than Storm King that I have seen come close to achieving this kind of parity are The Fields Sculpture Park, in Ghent, N.Y., and Nathan Manilow Sculpture Park, in University Park, Ill. All three of these mentioned have interesting land: mountainous terrain, undulating rural fields and prairie swales, respectively. Perhaps the choice of natural landscapes make the difference, but that isn’t the full story.

deCordova Sculpture Park, in Lincoln, Mass., has a perfectly fine site with rolling woodlands and lawns. It is possible that size does matter in these matters. Whereas deCordova has 35 acres, The Fields has 60, Nathan Manilow has 100 and Storm King tops off with 500 acres. The idea that deCordova manages pretty well in placing its works in a smallish-for-a-park space, and the fact that they are mostly temporary installations, gives extra points to their siting team. Impermanence is more challenging in getting it right; if it is not for posterity, endless design and planning would make less sense.

So, that being said, and with my not knowing which works are from the permanent collection or on loan, there are some worth noting at the deCordova as they relate to  art-and-site merging. Bob Boemig’s Sisters is surprising because it has the appearance of so many steel works that have come out of Abstraction and Minimalism, but these are rendered as elliptical planters filled with soil and myrtle. Resembling large hoop earrings with a Chia pet sensibility, they sometimes disappear into the landscape and then re-emerge, giving them more dimensionality than they really have. The interlocking geometric shapes, if not integrated with the land, might look something like the Olympics symbol. But their tilt, and the fact that they are on a steep slope, could almost lead one to believe that they grew there as freaks of nature/nurture. Conjuring images of old wagon-wheel rims lost in history and reclaimed by the site, they reveal a sense of time as well as timelessness.

Okay, I am a sucker for train tracks, and George Greenamyer’s Mass Art Vehicle sits  atop a large rock outcropping, almost lurking behind some tall bushy growth. Its setting is a sort of miniature version of the very same landscapes that train tracks always seem to inhabit: rocky, nearly impenetrable mountainsides; high grasses alongside the railbeds; slightly hidden from plain sight; and the tracks disappearing – in this case, abruptly – into the horizon. Aside from the strangely militaristic, hard-edged toy that this object is, it peeks out from its lofty perch like a cupola on a rooftop. There is something both medieval and eternal about it.

Then, if you can find it, Ronald Gonzales’ Cones is a work nestled in a grove of hemlocks, and is surrounded by nature. In fact, what surrounds the piece is pretty much the stuff that it is made of. About a dozen figures stand in some sort of unified group. They are made up of pine cones attached to steel armatures. There is a circular bed of cones on the ground below them. Are they decomposing as they lose their physical parts to the elements and time? Or are they regenerating, evolving, restructuring from the natural materials around them? The idea seems to be about death and decay. The group of figures is so reminiscent of nail fetishes, a type of African sculpture called Power Figure (Nkisi Nkondi). The low-hanging branches of the hemlocks are almost a camouflage for the figures; both have limbs that are so similar. That these figures stand in a cluster, like the encircling trees; that they are built of the same materials; that they are at the mercy of the natural environment – here exists the place where art and site become one.

There are some sculpture parks that just don’t get the point of the exercise: that the works and the landscape should derive a mutually beneficial association. And I will add to that that the two elements should enhance each other to the point of inevitability, meaning that there could be no other arrangement for this art and this site, no other place could provide a more perfect union. I have witnessed this convergence of mind over matter, but its frequency is not commonplace. I have visited nearly two dozen parks and gardens and, while some are just outdoor display spaces, others are real integrations of object and site. Admittedly, it is difficult to achieve – there is an art to it. An art park should be artful, right? Artfully arranged, besides having good art.

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Sense and Prejudice

Comes word that a scholar is pretty certain that she’s in possession of a contemporaneous portrait of Jane Austen, making it, apparently, only the second authenticated likeness of the writer, and compared to the grumpy-looking one that’s been knocking around for two centuries (there’s also one drawing with her back to us, but what good is that, exactly?), this is one that shows her seemingly confident and content. Still not exactly the girl you’d ask to the prom, but not one who would say no if you did, or glare at you, castratingly. There’s a bit of Elizabeth Bennet in this portrait; sad to say, also a bit of Tony Bennett.

What Austen looked like has been a topic of much interest among those who are interested in such things, a lot of Janeites among them. Was she pretty, but shy, and wrote out of unrequited crushes? Was she plain, but a dreamer? Was she, despite the biographical material, a painted-up girl who, between novels, liked to party hearty? Was she describing herself when she wrote about Miss Bennet? Was it an idealized version of herself? Or was it not her at all, physically – maybe she skewed closer to Lady Catherine de Bourgh on the Cute-o-Meter.

But who, besides academics and superficial fangirls, cares, really? There’s not a clue, except maybe the rumor of blindness, about what Homer may have looked like (if, in fact, there even was a historical Homer, one person who spun the Iliad and Odyssey tales). And the many “likenesses” of Shakespeare (another guy who is Existence Challenged) run the appearance spectrum between Johnny Depp and Clarabell.

Does anatomy determine destiny in the writing field? To a degree, it can – a true lack of physical beauty, coupled with a knowledge of it that cripples social intercourse, can lead  one to imprison oneself in a cloistered life in which writing is the escape/therapy. 

But, short of disinterment and forensic investigation, whether this current “portrait” of Jane Austen resembles Jane Austen is just a lot of twaddle. If you want to know, if you need to know, if you have even a smidgen of interest in knowing what Austen looked like, read her books. She’ll be in her characters, probably dispersed around, with a little bit of her in one character, a tad in another. But (and I can hear the Janeites keening on this one) don’t concentrate too much on the people in her books because, although they are the mechanisms that perform actions and have consequences and rewards bestowed on them because of their actions, they are a fairly similar and interchangeable lot living fairly similar plots, book to book. Rather, what Jane Austen looks like is in her places. More than in any other way in her writing does Austen reveal her true self, the most accurate reflection of her, than in her loving descriptions of the England she knew or imagined.

You want to know what Jane Austen looked like? She has the grandeur of Pemberley, the  warm plainness of the Bennet house, the unhappy harshness of Barton Cottage, the breathtaking sweep of Derbyshire and the Peak District, the classist Cinderella awkwardness created by being in Mansfield Park … you get the picture. Placeness as art, art in placeness, self-image as place.

What did Jane Austen look like? Just read. You’ll see her. And the portrait comes in a very nice frame.


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This Space Between

In the city, there are still unclaimed places, sites that are betwixt and between, undesirable leftovers that serve no purpose and have no value – or so it seems. Sometimes these sites are adjacent to developed plots and contain the dumpings from the development, as the remainders and reminders – blank spaces that punctuate the thing that was erected.

In other areas, places exist that were once fully functional but because of changing needs and technologies, and lost means, they have fallen into “ruin,” and are left to rot. We have seen many of these, resulting in a once-valuable and useful property devolving into decrepitude; a deteriorating house or commercial building. And we have found wonder in the reassertion of nature on a manmade site such as the below- and above-ground railways that were once more function than form, but, in their present unused state, are excellent placeful places, more nature than nurture.

The spaces surrounding waterways in urban environments have always been problematic, historically developed and laid waste to, currently a discarded legacy of dead rivers and eroded and depleted river banks. Revival is occurring, but some of these spaces, created without forethought, are downright weird, like old sewer lines. There is an unusual juxtaposition of river and expressway in many places in this country, including here along the western bank of the Schuylkill.

Here, we are walking along such a forgotten space, the useless void between the river and the road. Being here, in this place, feels as though there was an attempt to obliterate the river as a transportation hub in favor of the car; however, the road follows the river’s navigation and clings to its contours along a steep cliffside, generally about thirty feet above water level. The width of this swath of land between the water’s edge and the road varies, sometimes leaving only a narrow strip of sandy lifeless soil barely wide enough for a path. Then the road recedes from the river, enlarging its visible bank by fifty feet or more. This view from below, in the bottomlands, reveals that the construction and road-laying required removal of huge rock outcroppings, many scattered down the grade and lodged there until the next upheaval. Some of the larger ones are intact, others were blasted and have perfect holes drilled into them – occuli into human hubris.

It is other-worldly here, in this space between. We are in a culvert really, but it is a culvert that becomes a river on one side. And a mighty one, at that. The water is high and swift, carrying uprooted trees. Along the bank there is a large hull of a metal boat, umber with rust, a few similar-looking car bodies, and eerie, tattered, shreds of plastic hanging like sphagnum moss from the leafless branches. The irony is that, in a city, usually, there are such rivers and, yet, it is strangely unusual to be this intimate with one; often there is no access – possibly, because this is what you would find. But the weirdness of this leftover space is not the river, it is the expressway above, loud and insistent. I feel like perspiring and panicked Jiff, in Bowfinger, facing into speeding traffic and its horrific sound. I am not in it, I am below it, but that is harrowing, too. Plus, there is trash everywhere, apparently flung from speeding vehicles toward the river. Hey, let’s continue to lay waste to our natural environment in every way we can for as long as we inhabit the place. WTF.

Someone has forged this path so we are not the first humans to be here. We are the only ones today, though. Another kind of eerie. There are numerous creeks that feed into the river, running underneath the elevated highway – large drainage pipes, many broken or disconnected but flowing steadily – and we must navigate across these inlets on rocks or fallen trees, to continue forward. We come upon a low point, almost a beach, where the river has burst through its bank and has created a second, smaller river branch, encroaching on the limited supply of land mass in this contained but wild and wounded nether-land. At this point, we are unsure if it is passable, but we find that there is a narrow stone path right up against the towering retaining wall of the expressway, now higher than thirty feet.

Because, at this point, the road rises up for train tracks that tunnel under the road bed and cross to the river-side. This pairing of water’s edge and railroad is a more familiar landscape than the one we have experienced for the last two miles; it is a welcome relief to the containment. Talk about rocks and hard places.

This forgotten ground between rushing water and rushing traffic feels secret and scary. We are sandwiched between nature and engineering, in a place that to most people has no place, or is no place. It is a throw-away zone. Literally. This strange space between waterway and hugely high structural wall is an orphan space that is ignored, misplaced and abused, both by nature and humans. Its soil appears dead. Since no animals could access it, except birds (should they tolerate the relentless traffic noise), it feels as lifeless as a lunar surface. Except for the river, full of energy and movement, frightening in its power up close and personal. In these urban places, we don’t get this close ordinarily, rivers being something you usually look down on from a bridge; we don’t meet them on their own terms like this. This amazing space, unwanted, unvalued and forsaken, is a marvel because of its anonymity, and also because it is unlike any place I have ever been. It is alien because it is such a hybrid, some kind of Frankenstein creation. But there are, in addition to the rock formations, also trees and ground covers, mosses and lichen. Despite the bad treatment and imprisonment, there is in this place a unique quality of survival and placeness, a haunting kind of placeness.

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I’m Keepin’ My Alumni on You

I have always thought that if I were lost in the wilderness, with, as Mr. Dylan put it, no direction home, and with no hope of getting back unassisted, it’s not a map or a GPS device that I’d wish for – I’d just need a direct connection to my college’s alumni office. They can find you anywhere.

It has been a long time since I graduated from the mega-university I attended – it was good to be in school back then: so much less to know, so much easier to impress people by having an undergraduate degree – and, in these intervening years (OK, let’s be honest – decades) I have resided at no less than eight different addresses, in three states. And yet, without my sending a change-of-address note to the alumni folks, I could be assured that a letter from them to me – not forwarded from the previous address, mind you, but to me at the new address – would almost beat the moving truck to my front door. The witness protection program surely has no protective firewall sufficient to elude these folks.

What I get from them, periodically and predictably, is the general university alumni magazine and, from time to time, the publication of the department from which I wrestled my Bachelor’s. Both come wrapped with mixed blessings: it is mortifying to be reminded of how long ago I was there, it is cold-sweat-inducing to see how assured and competent and already-accomplished (even famous) current students and recent alums are at doing what it is I had hoped to do; however, I am also aware that I seem to be doing no worse than others in my apparently underachieving class and, happily, much better than those whose names appear among the dead. Could be worse. I read these publications quickly, look for any recognizable anyones or anythings, then toss them into the recycling bin of history.

But it is those other things that I get from the alumni office that have got me to thinking. You know which ones: the requests for money, and all for different things – scholarships, general fund, building fund …. The alumni office can always find you, and, armed with that information, the development office will never let you go. 

But, why should I give the university anything? Didn’t we have a deal that both of us lived up to? I gave them money, they provided me with education. Thanks very much. Nice exchange. Might do business with you again sometime. What is it that makes them think that I have any greater gratitude that would cause me to want to donate more than I have already? This was business, not personal. Why would they expect me to want to keep slipping gratuities to them for a job that they were expected to do? Why would they expect me to like them any more than they liked me? The experience of college was, if I got lucky, supposed to change my life, or enhance it – it’s not as if they saved my life, and I am in their debt forever. I went to school. I no longer go to school. Case – and relationship – closed. 

Before you judge me as cold, heartless and unsentimental – in fact, I am warm, heart-filled and irredeemably mushy – let me add a piece of information that might explain my attitude (although it doesn’t explain the alumni-giving phenomenon): I did not live on campus as an undergraduate. I left home, checked in, sat and absorbed, chatted, and, at the end of the day, went home. It was like a day at the office. At times, a pretty gangbusters day at the office, but still…. I can see, I understand, that those who lived on campus might have a closer relationship with the place. And that’s the key: It’s all about place. It is easier to buy into the whole thing, to be fully and even perpetually seduced by it, if what you are linking to is the physical gestalt of the process. You give, when the alumni association asks, because the university was a place that you identify as one where you grew up and made friends and were on your own for perhaps the first time. (Although, I can’t remember sending extra money years later to landlords of places I lived as a developing adult, because I happened to have experienced similar things in their 1-bedroom apartment.)

What I am suggesting, then, is that the alumni strategists are banking on, even playing on, the school’s artistry in creating a fabrication, a stage set, and a play upon that stage that will make you want to pay to be an audience-participant again. I have always felt that those most involved in alumni activities must be the ones who have, at  some time, then or now, been unhappy with home life and found a rah-rah surrogate within the university confines. I, thankfully, have not had such sadness or need, and, ergo, no required substitute. Life has to be built on what you have now, merely referring to what you had then. To see those college years as the best years, to see the university setting as the memorable place, is a sort of pathetic misguidedness, a clinging, trying to grab a handful of mist.

But the stuff must work. Alumni give oodles of bucks to their alma maters. Interestingly, the biggest contributors do so with a sense of literal placeness: they want their names on buildings. The art of the creation of placeness results in the architecture of place, which can be molded into the purposeful molding of placeness, which in turn … and so on, ad and dollars infinitum.

If, indeed, I am correct in postulating that the alumni imperative is to create placeness in order to create endowments, then the greatest fear of higher education must not be Scrooge-y people like me but, rather, the corner that they are painting themselves in through Internet and distance learning. As the upkeep of physical plants, as well as the pay and benefits of professors and administrators, eat up too much of the profits and take a bite out of the savings, universities necessarily are expanding into the cheaper, less overhead-burdened and relatively more lucrative online world; there are even institutions of learning that exist solely in the ether. And the p.r. and marketing brain trusts can work themselves into a frenzy creating friendly websites and colorful and canny brochures designed to to convince perspective students that these placeless places are a “campus,” but they are not. And, so, if what is transpiring is more what I felt and feel – an education-for-dollars transaction – and if there is no placeness in the mix to trigger some sort of home-like feeling, then the alumni-giving machine is screwed. What feeling of gratitude does one have – and, especially, one that translates into future alumni-giving dollars – to an online learning experience? You might just as well send a few bucks to Apple, thanking them for the MacBook, or to Firefox for the nifty browser, or to Herman Miller for the ergonomic desk chair. (But, of course, you wouldn’t do that – what you might do is buy another one of those items … as I might go back to the school I attended, if they offered what I wanted, and were good or the best at it.) And how will all this impact the future of universities and, in this peak-oil world of ours the future of campuses? 

I am an alum. That fact comes up in conversation only when I discover that the person I am talking to also is an alum of the same school. It is a point of coincidence and information – it is not a point of communion. That we went to the same place, but in different years and for different pursuits, makes us nothing more than strangers with one shared line on our resumes. And no reason at all to contribute to the Founders Fund, no matter how tax-deductible it may be.

Truth be told, I like getting the alumni magazine. But I like getting the L.L. Bean catalog just as much. And, somehow, though I have never stepped foot into the actual Bean world, they have been able to create more of a placeness in their mailings than the alumni magazines have. These days, I feel closer to Bean than I do to my decades-ago location of learning. But I feel no need to pay them any more than my shopping cart holds.

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