LANDMARK at Socrates Sculpture Park, New York
Socrates Sculpture Park is turning 30 years old this year. Once an industrial landfill, the park is located in Long Island City, Queens, on the bank of the East branch of the Hudson River. Those who are familiar with this hidden gem on the quieter shores of Long Island City know that the park has been an important spot for the local community for decades. But its importance goes beyond being a green space in the urban environment. Having shown—and often commissioned—sculptural works by young artists over several decades through their Emerging Artist Fellows (EAF) program, Socrates has become an important member of the network of non-for-profit art organizations in New York. As Katie Denny Horowitz, Director of Development and Communications says “Artist-founded, artist-focused, the park is a space where artists are invited to respond with physical ambition, intellectual curiosity and unfettered imagination.” In times when many of the landmark non-for-profit institutions of New York are forced to abandon their original locations—mostly downtown Manhattan—and relocate to outer boroughs, the anniversary exhibition of Socrates Sculpture Park reminds us of those waves in the ever moving ocean of urban life—typically referred to as gentrification. As the city is growing, as real estate prices hike and new city centers form in areas that were once considered off or remote, the nonprofit art scene’s map is also changing.
Amongst the storms of the relocation of legendary nonprofit art spaces, Socrates seem to have a safe and secure situation at least for the time being. Its neighborhood is also changing but the park seems to have been successfully adjusting to those new tendencies. A noticeable change in the direction and leadership has been apparent in the past few years since John Hatfield—formerly Deputy Director at the New Museum—took over Socrates in 2012. One of the new directions the park has been exploring is the effort to attract more established artists: in the spring of 2014, the Lithuanian-born, Queens-based artist Zilvinas Kempinas installed an ambitious 250 linear-foot work that became the largest installation in the park’s history. Another noticeable effort is to utilize the unique features of the park by inviting artists of historical significance whose work is under-recognized at the moment. A good example was last year’s project by the environmental art pioneer Agnes Denes who presented The Living Pyramid, a site-specific installation created from soil and plants which soared 30 feet high. Another one is the large-scale new earthwork by Meg Webster that is the main piece in the current anniversary summer exhibition, LANDMARK.
Webster’s commissioned artwork Concave Room for Bees is a circular shaped earth bowl made of more than 400 cubic yards of fertile soil. Looking a bit like a brutalist fort from the outside, it reveals its beauty from the inside where it is planted with a wide array of pollinator plants that will bloom over the summer months, attracting bees to the work. The bees—representing one of the most urgent environmental concerns—link the piece to another artwork in the exhibition. Situated in the south-west corner of the park, Jessica Segall’s Fugue in B♭ presents a piano harp made into an observational beehive. The sound of the buzzing bees in the hive is transferred to the public space around the work through speakers, adding a sonic experience to the thought-provoking sculptural piece. Beyond demonstrating the importance of community, bees also represent continuity and abundance. The artist’s choice of using a salvaged piano stems from the historical fact that the park’s surrounding neighborhood Astoria was once known for its piano manufacturers and reflects upon how global economic forces shape our local environments.
Change and continuity are also elemental to Webster’s earthwork. As the summer goes on, the various species of the more than 1,100 perennials will bloom at different times and then spread their seeds. When the exhibition will end—together with the season—, its nutrient-rich soil will be redistributed throughout the landscape to further vitalize the area that was once a wasteland, while the plants will find a new home in Socrate’s existing gardens. Sitting in this round sanctuary—on a bench designed by Jonathan Odom as part of his project Open Seating that consists of a series of fifty ratchet strap chairs scattered across the park—a recent Saturday afternoon, I witnessed the adoration of many of the parks visitors. Kids seemed to be simply mesmerized when they enter the circle, like insects trapped by light, and it was a real challenge for their parents to convince them to move away from it. The round embracing shape, the sight and smell of the various plants with their varying colors and fragrances provide a multi-sensory experience that is indeed hard to part with. The piece has a great atmosphere and it is safe to say that it is the star at the park this summer. Webster has been working with ecological systems in her artistic practice since the mid-80s but her career remained somewhat obscure within the art world. Creating artworks that reach beyond their own world and expose themselves to change and natural forces is a sure way for artists to connect with multiple audiences and communities. This type of considerate and sensitive application of live ecological structures is important not only symbolically but also pragmatically when it comes to navigating the sometimes stormy waters of historical, social and cultural change and continuity.
Casey Tang’s Urban Forest Lab, another living sculpture, is an ongoing project. Started in 2014, it is an experiment that will evolve over years as successive layers of growth occur on the site. Located at the north entrance of the park and composed of native perennial vegetation, Tang’s work is a self-sufficient ecosystem that requires only minimal human maintenance. Regardless of its future success or failure as far as self-sufficiency is concerned, it is hard not to recognize that its message lies in its concept. Trying to create sustainable systems within densely populated urban environments is a key for any future urban development. As the city stretches out and neighborhoods reshape, local communities have no choice but to ensure change and continuity in sometimes new sustainable, civil and human ways. Sustainability and the dialogue on climate change are the focus of the selected video works shown inside a shipping container as part of LANDMARK. The short art videos were commissioned by the international curatorial collective ARTPORT_making waves and being shown under the title Cool Stories for When the Planet Gets Hot.
Beyond Segall’s beehive, two additional projects in the exhibition tap into history. Abigail DeVille’s installation Half Moon is made of reclaimed materials, plastic tarps and accumulated debris. Taking its title from the name of Henry Hudson’s ship, the sculpture draws inspiration from the wreckage of the historic boat as well as from structures by the once local Lenni Lenape tribe that met the Half Moon when it arrived to New York. The piece also refers to the fact that the parks site once hosted a ferry slip, which connects it not only to the locus but to another slice of the past. But before arriving to the Half Moon, one is confronted by the billboard project located at the main entrance of the park, Hank Willis Thomas’ Cain’t See in the Mornin’ Till Cain’t See at Night. The large photograph is divided in the middle and on the right side shows an African-American man bending down while harvesting cotton. On the left side, his image mirrored by another African-American man, this time an athlete in his professional sports gear who bends down on a ball field. The powerful image reflects upon land, labor, race and multiple elements of American culture. Another piece with political undertones is Brendan Fernandes’ Marked Space: it consists of bright yellow customized caution tape that borders the riverbank on the west edge of the park. The words “Until we fearless” are both legible and hidden in Morse code on the tape that runs above a green border along the pathway where passerby can view the Manhattan skyline. From this perspective the busy island appears to be “wrapped” around by the alarming yellow tape. But the tape is hard to register and the quietness of this visible/invisible project somehow amplifies its message and brings into mind other burning concerns of contemporary societies that relate to borders, migration and their limitations as well as ours.
In a lighter tone, Cary Leibowitz’s piece entitled Honk If U Love Socrates Sculpture Park utilizes the parks Bobcat loader on which visitors put stickers provided by the artist during the opening of the exhibition in May. Covered with stickers, the machine looks like a giant toy that a boy left behind in the park at dusk, likely distracted by the ice cream cart that regularly stations at the park’s entrance during the warmer months.
Overall, LANDMARK is an enjoyable exhibition which strikes visitors with apparent lightness and playfulness but which anchors itself with more profound and challenging references to history and to social and economical changes.
May 8 – August 28, 2016
Socrates Sculpture Park
32-01 Vernon Boulevard
Long Island City, New York
Open every day
10:00 AM to sunset