The Institute of Contemporary Art Boston launched its new exhibition space, the Watershed, last year with a large-scale exhibition of Diana Thater’s installations. Inspired by Kara Walker’s mammoth A Subtlety (2014) at the former Domino Sugar factory in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Jill Medvedow, the director of the ICA, wanted to create a similar venue in Boston. She persuaded the Massachusetts Port Authority to rent out a then-dilapidated, 15,000-square-foot, former copper-pipe factory as a space for immense installation projects. The new seasonal space, which is open between Memorial Day and Columbus Day and accessed by a special ferry from the landside ICA, realizes Medvedow’s long-held “dream to connect both sides of the harbor and to realize the arts’ great potential to stir the soul and spark the conscience.”
The ICA spent $10 million on the renovation of the Watershed, which will be used for five years of seasonal programming. Anmahian Winton Architects (AW) transformed the building into an imaginative, non-traditional space while acknowledging its industrial design. On approach, one sees an imposing white garage-style door emblazoned with “ICA WATERSHED,” which opens to reveal the cavernous space. The well-crafted restoration achieves a fine balance: original hooks and chains hang on concrete and cinderblock walls, the skeletons of train tracks are visible across the floor, and parts of the ceiling retain the original corrugated steel panels. At the far end, the Watershed opens to the harbor. The long corridor, aglow with overhead lights spilling over the walls and floor, creates a dazzling effect.
Eva Respini, the ICA’s chief curator, chose Thater’s immersive light, color, and video interpretations of the natural world to inaugurate the space, selecting previously shown installations to complement a reconfigured version of Delphine (1999). In the Watershed, Delphine evoked the sensation of being in an underground aquarium. A corner and floor became screens for a four-video projection revealing the subaquatic world of dolphins. The presence of Thater and her film crew, however, detract from the graceful choreography of the creatures as they appear to swim from screen to screen. A stacked, nine-monitor video structure portraying the molten sun bursting with sunspot activity formed the installation’s enigmatic second module.
Untitled Videowall (Butterflies) (2008), which occupied the same space as Delphine, consists of six flat-screen monitors and two four-foot-long fluorescent light fixtures with an orange LEE filter. Detailed footage shows monarch butterflies flapping across the screens, displaying gorgeous patterned wings. Thater shot the film before a winter frost killed off millions of monarchs, and this record seems to reflect her sentiments about the tenuousness of the natural world.
Two additional video installations in smaller, dimly lit galleries also focused on endangered animals. In 2017, Thater visited Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya, where she filmed the world’s last surviving male northern white rhino for As Radical As Reality. A herd of elephants features in A Runaway World, filmed at Kenya’s Chyulu Hills National Park. Both pieces were previously showcased at The Mistake Room (TMR), in Los Angeles.
The selection of Thater was a missed opportunity for the Watershed. Regardless of the theatrical bravado of her work, it has no connection to the context of the place. The East Boston shipyard was once the second-largest point of immigration in America, after Ellis Island. As Hilarie M. Sheets writes in the New York Times, “A large Italian community remains, joined by an influx of refugees and immigrants from Central America. More than 50 percent of the population speaks Spanish. The waterfront and harbor, scene of the historic Boston Tea Party, provides a rich context for artists exploring issues from migration to trade to rising sea levels.” As an alternative to a branded art market star, perhaps a Boston environmental artist such as Mags Harries or Lisa Link might have brought location and art closer, transforming the Watershed into a relevant, site-specific environment.