A Geography of Home: Alan Finkel’s Public Art

Wind Mirage (at Soryo-cho dam house), 1996. Mixed media.

In the end I have come to recognize only one supreme art, the art of becoming human: The art of expressing and intensifying one’s own conscious humanity by appropriate acts, fantasies, thoughts, and works. Lewis Mumford: Architecture As A Home For Man New York: McGraw-Hill, 1975.

Alan Finkel’s passion for home ground has brought him on site for more than 20 years. “Site” is the particular place that receives and generates public works. But the homestead that inspires many public interest artists is also an oneiric location-the space of dreams. This environment, ideal and critical at once, sustains visions of citizenship and civilization that can guide entire bodies of work.

The Haizuka Earthworks Projects (HEP), headquartered in Soryo-cho, Hiroshima, Japan, may seem to take the long way home. Since 1994, Finkel has participated in a series of collaborative gatherings and produced designs as well as completing an outdoor sculptural piece there.

HEP was conceived by its architects as a way to soften the impact of the planned construction of a dam whose artificial lake would cover some of the town and its surroundings. As AAP (Advanced Application Program, the think tank based in Osaka hired by Soryo-cho, Kisa-cho, and Mirasaka-cho to invent a project) put it, “The purpose of Haizuka Site Generative Project is to create artistic circumstances around the lake of the dam, adopting ideas offered by [two Japanese and four foreign] artists.” In fact, by now, sections of all three towns will be underwater. Occupants will have been evacuated and relocated. Even the top eight inches of rich soil in the rice fields were to be transported to new ground. Dislocation this profound lures the hearts of artists to the hearth. Such a habitat is diasporic territory, composed of dislocations as its very contents. The incongruities of immigration to strange lands are universal now, even within a world of irreducible difference. Yet these very misplacements, when assembled anew, can become thoroughly individualized personal places.

Proposal of the Wonderland Peace Garden for The National Peace Garden design competition in Washington, D.C., in 1989. D. James Dee.

Dams are known to do extraordinary ecological damage. Yet in Japan, there are only two existing rivers that have not yet been dammed. Driving through the countryside, a motorist can see that mountains have been blown up and, due to improper reforestation, their entire surfaces covered with cement-resulting in what Alex Kerr calls “the vast gray death.” Kerr, who has lived and worked in Japan since 1977, asks “what’s happened to those mountains?…Japanese culture was the culture of autumn grasses, the culture of maple leaves, the culture of cherry blossoms…by wiping those out, they [the Construction Ministry] wipe out the very base of what it was all about from a cultural point of view as well.” (“Concretizing the Japanese Dream,” Kyoto Journal, 35: 1997)

Japan is an appropriate place for an American artist to think of restoration, as well as public art. The market for gallery and museum artworks is sagging with the economy. Public sculpture, in contrast, is supported by local governments in their budgets for architecture and construction. After a half-century of “recovery,” public art of a certain sort is now thriving in Japan because prefectures make artist-generated and designed public works a part of their plans for urban and rural development.

Finkel’s mission is not, though, to reverse modernization or to create nostalgia-except in its original meaning as “homesickness”-for the integrity of place. Recoveries of parts of the past, such as Finkel has proposed in Hiroshima, in their attempts to revalue what has been lost, constitute forms of knowledge and energy that meet a no-longer-inevitable future.

Finkel quotes citizens of the towns. Ms. Y. of Soryo regrets “that there will be such a drastic change in the landscape where I grew up,” and Mr. T. of Mirasaka remembers that “I did not feel anything when people decided to build a road on my land. But now, when the planting season comes, I realize and regret that I will not have to plant there ever again. It [is] a feel[ing] words can not express.”

Untitled (temporary installation in New York), 1976. Folding wood chairs, 30 x 20 x 2.5 ft.

The building of the dam and the resulting changes from the new construction will do more than physically change the character of the area, Finkel and colleague Alice Adams cautioned participants in the project during his first stay in 1994. The impact of this change in the landscape on the collective psyche of the people affected, as well as on the plants and animals of the area, will be a wound that must be healed, and will call for a major spiritual and cultural readjustment.

Healing, Finkel suggested then, must be the very starting point of the project. Artist-community collaborations, “lifelines,” could relieve the relocation by finding and preserving symbols of collective memory. Parts of places that will be lost, such as fragments of the buildings, old gardens, plants, trees, and familiar stones could be moved to the new towns. An oral history of myths and stories as well as memories of favorite places could be captured on video and audio tapes. Photographs could document both people and landscapes. Rubbings can be made from actual buildings and pavings. Restoration of past industries like cast iron foundries and forges can be explored. Tools from farming, logging, and other local industries should be preserved and available. A rare plant park could save endangered species. The area adjoining the river that will be flooded can be a place of special significance.

Although I try to chart the process of this community work in a schematic way here, what has actually happened in the course of the project over a period of years remains largely invisible. Finkel’s “Wind Mirage”, which stands beside the dam house now, can be decontextualized again as a “plunk” sculpture without its human narrative. Documenting local art histories as a part of the process of recovery tells us how this outdoor sculpture got there, and what might be next.

Finkel had acted directly as a conservationist and documentarian when he received an Asian Cultural Council Fellowship in 1987 to travel to Japan and photograph traditional Japanese farm houses (Minka), generic structures which were fast disappearing from the national landscape. These pictures, often of telling details of roof, corner, and beam, have been the inspiration for the thematic tone of his subsequent work there. This artist’s conceptual site at any one moment is thus always complex-a multi-site, taking place in a number of geographical territories simultaneously.

Finkel is equally concerned about the course and culture of the Hudson River, a world away, whose waterside is walking distance from his home. When he began his involvement with The River Project a decade ago, no one could stand on the Hudson’s shore-much less swim in its waters. Finkel, as an artist member of the project, has managed to influence the most current (1997) guidelines for the use of Pier 26.

Detail of an ongoing landscape project for the town of Milan, Ohio, 1983-present.

The ecology of the river, an estuary, can be as productive as any rainforest, Finkel tells me. He is planning an “Estuarium Public Art Project” that will be a living exhibit and interpretative display of fish and other animals, their habitats, and the abundant life beneath the water’s surface. Meanwhile, from the field office of The River Project at the pier, director Cathy Drew has frequently been seen jumping in for a swim. The water, she has proven, is actually on its way to being clean.

Finkel has chosen his artistic “place” in environments that appear diverse in the extreme. In his own loft residence on New York’s Lower East Side, the quiet, precise sensibility that I connect with his person and work are evident in how he has built his living quarters and studio. Tall pine cabinets, wooden tables, and plank floors contain a minimum of objects on display.

The earliest models and sculptural works in this space date from 1976, when his identity as a public artist took hold. They are spare and mysterious architectures. Alberto Giacometti’s “The Palace at 4 A.M.” (1932-33), a wood, glass, wire, and string skeleton of a house, is possibly the most influential work for him in the history of modern art.

In the homes of neighbors, friends, or collectors, Finkel’s artistic contributions include a slotted steel bar for a sliding oak ladder against a wall, a brick fireplace, an outdoor stone garden, and a handsome hardwood shelf and mirror. “The Unknown Craftsman: A Japanese Insight into Beauty” by Soetsu Yanagi, in Finkel’s library, provides some insight for what seems to be a deliberately anonymous approach to art-making. Yanagi invented the word “mingei” (which means “art of the people”), a term that supplies a social basis for artful craft and utility within democratic interpretations of the roles of artists. His book opens “wordlessly,” with 75 pages of pictures of textiles, stoneware, paintings, teacups, statues, and calligraphy, next to which Finkel’s gentle architectonic interventions seem entirely at home.

Landscape model fragment. Mixed media, 9 x 8 x 7 in.

The poignancy of transient beauty-the Japanese aware-is embodied by Finkel’s found-and-lost artworks. Three-dimensional constructions of wood thrown onto the beach at ebb tide wash out with every flood tide during the summer of 1972 at a Nova Scotia shore. A “sunrise to noon” series materializes every Sunday in New York for two months in 1976. The artist takes 80 folding wooden chairs to locations throughout lower Manhattan, often tipping them diagonally to create guerrilla installations. This is the first action to extend Finkel’s studio comprehensively to the outdoors. Much later, Finkel persists. Arrangements of sheetrock fragments on a dolly in his studio in Mountaindale, New York, are photographed, then discarded, during two seasons in 1995.

“Home” in this artistic context is not a geography of origin or a remembered authenticity. Neither is home necessarily one’s present perch. Finkel’s ventures look homeward, however, when he seeks to conserve, restore, renew, and invent a dwelling and its environs.

Finkel was one of 10 artists invited to visit Wave Hill, for example, to select his own site and create a sculpture for a specific place on the grounds. For “Wave Hill 1980: Temporal Structures,” the artist took over a root cellar to make “Thresholds for the Fathomless-Now”, an arena for the passage of time as he found it described by Octavio Paz: “If we think of animal time as a seamless present with all of the reality an endless now, human time will then appear to be a divided present. Separation, a sharp break: now falls into before and after.” (Alternating Current, New York: Viking, 1973) Finkel grouted the walls and excavated the dirt to create a sunken chamber. This contemplative room holds a set of transparent glass panels which glow with reflected daylight and transport an observer to holy ground.

In 1983, Finkel lived for months in Milan, Ohio, a township of 3,000 people. Chosen by the town’s board of trustees from a national open call, he proposed a plan that emphatically let the site generate his project. After winning the competition, Finkel took numerous pictures of the site. Within more than an acre of overgrown Osage orange, walnut, and maple trees, he discovered “a pretty little pine forest.” Under Finkel’s direction, this two-and-one-half acres of pine trees on the sloping hill behind a baseball backstop was revealed after brush was cleared and dead limbs cropped. The meadow at the foot of the slope (once a flood plane) was graded and replanted with grass seed by township trustees. With the nearby stream cleared of debris, this reclaimed site became the setting of Milan Township’s next July 4th celebration.

In this re-creation, Finkel focused for the first time on landscaping as his only art, employing natural scenic material as the working medium “to create a total landscape concept.” The artist, in consort with the community, incorporated the history as well as the environment of the area in his project, intensifying the inherent character of the landscape with a minimum of intervention. He saw his piece as a first step, a “seed,” that would spark interest and be carried into the future. He envisions the creation of a staircase of stones indigenous to the region and a small open-air theater in the flatlands, where audiences can sit in the shade of trees.

In an article in the “Norwalk Ohio Reflector” of September 10, journalist Jan Rogosch explained that visitors to Milan’s Edison Park would not be seeing contemporary sculpture and “trying to figure out what it is.” Rather, Finkel “created a site-specific sculpture making a space for people by revealing landscape that’s been here for many years.” (p. 2) Finkel’s setting is recast from a (background) scene to a (constructive) topocentric armature, around which his work then revolves.

The modest house of self and environment is everyone’s first universe. Yet individual as well as collective “place” is becoming ever more slippery. There is indeed a spot now for the cyberspace “virtual monument.” But these contemporary creative sites all house ambiguities, contradictions, and dualities. Even the house itself conveys its antithesis as a shelter against internal and external storms. Like Edgar Allan Poe, a great dreamer of curtains, Baudelaire, in order to protect the winter-girt house from cold, added “heavy draperies that hung down to the floor.” Behind dark curtains, snow seems to be whiter. Indeed, “everything comes alive when contradictions accumulate.” (Gaston Bachelard, “The Poetics of Space.” Boston: Beacon Press, 1974, p. 39)

Computer-generated presentation of images of “lost” elements caused by the building of a new dam, superimposed on the Soryo-cho dam house.

In 1994, Finkel and Adams traveled to Soryo-cho for a nine-day symposium held in an old school house, called the Furosato Center, where each participant was also given a studio. Like the great majority of community-based public art projects, the time frame and format of the Haizuka Site Generative Projects in this phase were unrealistic. The first four days had to be spent gathering information from botanists, the local mayor, engineers, other artists, and townspeople as well as from the institutions and individuals heading the projects-to be used during the last four days to conceive of a comprehensive plan of action.

Finkel roundly rejected this idea. Local government had, after all, taken 20 years to decide to build the dam in the first place. Another five years was spent haggling about where it should be located. Then there were decisions as to who would have to relocate.Finally, how would the new environments be made? In lieu of a plan, Finkel and Adams wrote a statement about their intentions and explained the direction (instead of its destination) that they envisioned. The two showed their suggestions for preservation and renewal of the area to other artists invited for the 1994 workshop. Although these artists signed the document, they did not actually share the sensibility of the Americans. Rather, they brought the more traditional notion of “doing a piece and finding a place for it.”

Before he had left the United States for the Japan workshop, Finkel had received a packet about the project and had responded by preparing a number of oversized photocopies. This display of ideas became an installation for the open studio held on the last day of the workshop. Concepts on blackboards, translated into Japanese, addressed organizational and aesthetic methods for planning projects. Slides and video completed Finkel’s presentation. Among these materials was an early 20th-century photograph of the artist’s Russian Jewish ancestral family, which markedly resembled snapshots of the current gathering.

Three commentators had been invited: Masao Yamaguchi, a cultural anthropologist at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies; Hajime Yatsuka, an architect; and Makoto Morata, a journalist in the arts.

Finkel spoke first. His statement emphasized the importance of process. It was premature, he argued, to develop a design concept. Instead, a process could be generated by forming a core group: a team consisting of townspeople, children, artists, engineers, naturalists, and many others. “My philosophy of design,” he told the audience, “is one in which the real place and space becomes the object of art. Through the work of an interdisciplinary team, we can achieve a new result that could never happen in the isolation of an individual’s studio.”

After the rest of the artists had made their presentations, each commentator spoke. To Finkel’s surprise, all three agreed with his assessment of the generative stage of the project and were enthusiastic about the community-building plan.

Computer-generated presentation of images of “lost” elements caused by the building of a new dam, superimposed on the Soryo-cho dam house.

In 1996, Finkel returned to Japan. By 2005, sacrificed homes and villages would be underwater. Three new towns already housed their residents. Finkel’s project was to be a redesign of the old dam house. He arrived on October 3 “to start from scratch.” Assisted by architect Yuji Fukui, Finkel began a series of “conceptual interventions-imagined buildings, using the dam house as a blank canvas.” But after a week, it became clear that the project leaders actually expected Finkel to produce a public outdoor sculpture instead.

The artist drove from town to his studio each day at 7 a.m. and had four hours to think and accumulate images. Then he and Yuji worked with the computer. Preparing for an October 27 open studio, Finkel made models to develop a “wind mirage” piece based on the mantis-an insect indigenous to the area and a symbol central to Japanese culture. He also overlayed pictures of the dam house with his suggested alterations of its surface. All of these were made on a Macintosh computer, then xeroxed.

Finkel had suggested a team effort in 1994 that would create an infrastructure to adapt to the dam and mediate its rape of the land. The HEP committee wanted to mark this anonymous dam house in some way. While creating computer models, Finkel also made hot glue prototypes of frame sculptures. It was only two weeks into this process that he had an open studio, during which he laid out the printouts and sculpture designs. Finkel and Yuji had constructed a scale model. The town carpenter built the full-scale piece from their small sketch (while reconstructing a roof in the village).

“Wind Mirage” takes its structure from the mantis, named kamakiri (meaning “sharp knife”). Its image has, appropriately, been found on samurai swords, and its qualities spawned northern praying mantis kung fu 350 years ago. Beginning with 12 character principles developed by Wong Long from his observation of the praying mantis, this form of kung fu is an especially spare and effective form of fighting based on skill rather than brute strength.1

Finkel had wanted to prime and paint the wood a brilliant yellow. Everyone concerned had said that it could not be done. The artist asked for the best painter in town and asked him over to the studio. Yuji and Finkel went to a paint company and got the right outdoor paint. The weather was changing, getting too cold to paint in the open. The carpenter’s shop, an open tin structure, had no heat. Finkel suggested building a plastic tent room inside of the shop and heating the small space. He retrieved the heater from his room and moved it to the shop. This method proved to be too labor intensive, because he had to keep the kerosene going all day and night. Finkel had to come back to Soryo-cho in the spring to finish “Wind Mirage”. When he arrived, he and volunteers completed and installed the piece in one long day.

Finkel stayed a week. When he returned to New York, he sent his Japanese friends some wildflower seeds and asked them to let the local grasses grow. “Wind Mirage” rests on posts floating in an abandoned rice field, waiting for grasses and flowers.

He has held onto the larger notion of intervening in the landscape. With hopes to return again this year, Finkel wants to present the idea of a commemorative piece built into the cement embankment during construction. This work would reinforce the slope, support the mountains (otherwise monsoons would destroy them), and prevent erosion. This commemorate vision is also a new idea in infrastructure.

Arlene Raven is a writer and editor of numerous books on contemporary art, including “Art in the Public Interest”.


1Thanks to Elaine Romagnoli for her Internet search for information on the mantis in Japanese culture.