Maya Lin, Ghost Forest, 2021. Photo: Courtesy the artist and Madison Square Park Conservancy

Public Art Commissions

Five new public art projects to visit this year.

Austin Emery

Austin Emery, Cornerstone, 2021. Portland, Bath, and various stones, bricks, and bones, 26 x 10 x 3 ft. Photo: Richard Miller

Cornerstone is the second sculpture, following 2014’s The Shared, created by Austin Emery through a series of community stone-carving workshops in the London neighborhood of Bermondsey. Emery—who has worked as a stonemason carver on historic buildings in London for over 20 years—built the final assemblage with contributions from these workshops as well as recycled stone (mostly limestone), marble, bricks, and bones he sourced from various sites around the city. The work’s final installation was coordinated remotely, with Emery under lockdown in Toronto due to Covid-19.

The participatory workshops took place outside on a community council housing estate as drop-in programs. This was decided with accessibility in mind: visitors could come, work for an hour or two, and return as they pleased. The sessions were also, as Emery explained, “promoted very locally through word of mouth and with mostly printed material, flyers, posters, and banners.” With less social media, he hoped that participation would mostly stay local, allowing residents and visitors to socialize.

Now permanently sited in Tanner Street Park, Cornerstone incorporates every piece carved by workshop participants, with chisel marks, chops, and forms carefully positioned facing outward. Emery also grouped individual stones into columns or cairns, both as a practical solution to space constraints as well as a means by which to unite the stones of friends or family members—the six-stone stacks “embody[ing] the character of their expressions and tak[ing] on a sense of figuration.” Bones in the work were gleaned from the River Thames, where mudlarkers often uncover detritus of historical and cultural value. On the back of the piece, two Victorian carved heads Emery reclaimed from a West London church meet each other’s gaze.

The work demonstrates the historical richness of stone—establishing continuity in time and space with London’s built environment—as well as its contemporary possibilities. Cornerstone’s material relationships are also social and familial, with the ultimate goal of the piece to “represent the expression of the community set in stone.”

Najja Moon
Your Mommas Voice in the Back of Your Head
Through January 2022

Najja Moon, Your Mommas Voice in the Back of Your Head, 2021. Photo: Zaire Kacz, Courtesy The Bass, Miami Beach

The Bass Museum’s “New Monuments” public art program invites one Miami-area artist each year for five years to create a temporary sculpture atop a plinth in Miami Beach’s Collins Park. This year, Bass curators selected artist Najja Moon for the inaugural commission, and her sculpture was unveiled this March.

Your Mommas Voice in the Back of Your Head was inspired by Moon’s own mother. On the plinth, an iridescent geometric sculpture—an elegant cantilevered construction—encases multidirectional speakers, which broadcast recordings Moon collected from her mother, family and friends, and Miami-Dade residents. The language of the recordings is an expression of her mother’s omnipresence. “Whether it is hearing myself say something and thinking, ‘Wow, I sound just like my mother’ or her voice echoing in the back of my head to support or condone me doing something, she’s always with me,” explained the artist. Gathering other voices (in English, Spanish, and Creole, all spoken in Miami), Moon generates a kaleidoscopic portrait of the universal, yet singular, relationship between mothers (and maternal figures) and children.

As for the feeling the sculpture evokes in park visitors, Moon believes the effect will be destabilizing: “Depending on where the audio is in the loop when you encounter the piece, it could make the site a more affirming place to be or more sentimental or challenging.” As the sound seeks pathways through the park, light plays off the surface of the sculpture: “The dichroic film shifts just like Mommas do. Sometimes hot, sometimes cold.”

Moon sees a monument as a public memory. Four other existent monuments in Collins Park, also on plinths, each commemorate a single historical figure. Moon’s sculpture, while in a sense originating as a monument to one individual, ultimately inverts this tradition, creating a dynamic and protean site that contains the expressions of a community.

Maya Lin
Ghost Forest
New York
Through November 14, 2021

Maya Lin, Ghost Forest, 2021. Photo: Andy Romer, Courtesy the artist and Madison Square Park Conservancy

Ghost Forest, Maya Lin’s new installation for Madison Square Park, features a constructed grove of 49 Atlantic white cedar trees, each an intimidating 40 feet high, in the park’s central lawn. Lin worked with the Madison Square Park Conservancy to source the trees from a regeneration project in the nearby New Jersey Pine Barrens, where high-tide cycles, often exacerbated by extreme weather, push saltwater into previously freshwater systems, creating marshes and ultimately causing stands to die off.

Lin chose a local tree species in order to demonstrate the proximity of this phenomenon—and by extension the already-present effects of climate change—to New Yorkers, but ghost forests are common across the country. While conceiving of the project, she fixated on a forest outside her Colorado studio, which was killed off not by salinization but by invasive beetles. Ghost Forest therefore presents a memorial to a diverse, widespread loss.

Other works by Lin have questioned the meaning, form, and purposes of memorials. Her ongoing multimedia project What is Missing? in part comprises an interactive website that maps stories of biodiversity and habitat loss worldwide, and how climate change feeds back into these issues; sculptures such as The Listening Cone (2009) and now Ghost Forest create aesthetic experiences around these topics, inspiring connections.

“There is an implied tension in the work—between the claustrophobia caused by the towering presence of haunting 40-foot-high trees and a meditative calm elicited by the experience of being in a forest in nature,” says Brooke Kamin Rapaport, Deputy Director and Martin Friedman Chief Curator at the Conservancy. Visitors can immerse themselves further by listening to a QR-activated soundscape playing sounds of species that were once common in the city; public programming will highlight the challenges and losses associated with climate change, but will also offer nature-based solutions.

Jen Lewin
Reflect and The Aurora
Brooklyn and Minneapolis

Jen Lewin, Reflect, 2021. Photo: Tom Powel Imaging, edited by Gregory LaRico, © 2021 Jen Lewin

Two recent projects by Brooklyn-based light and new media artist Jen Lewin reflect her ongoing exploration of interactive public space. In Domino Park, along the Brooklyn waterfront, Reflect comprised three concentric rings, each containing a series of interactive platforms animated in dynamic patterns by visitors’ footsteps. The platforms, mirroring the sky during the daytime and illuminated by phosphorescent blues, pinks, and yellows at night, were designed to accommodate multiple visitors simultaneously, yet safely, in accordance with social distancing measures still in place this spring.

The site for The Aurora, inside the Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport, is apparently more confined. Yet the 29-foot-tall sculpture (jointly commissioned by the Metropolitan Airports Commission and the Airport Foundation MSP) appears to gently breach these constraints, spanning three floors of the building, beginning from the arrivals-level floor and twisting upwards. Lewin, in consultation with residents of Minneapolis and Saint Paul, designed the light palettes (over 2,000 light bulbs and almost 9,000 LEDs) to change in accordance with the Minnesota seasons, illuminating a structure inspired by the northern lights. On the ground floor, a mosaic of eight interactive platforms takes the shape of regional lakes, which are easily spotted from the floors above.

Both works illustrate Lewin’s commitment to innovative and complex fabrication techniques. In Reflect, each platform contains a computer, allowing communication between platforms and within the entire work; Lewin also coded custom light “pathways” to be discovered by participants. The Aurora’s thousands of Edison lightbulbs were all hand-blown. Its color animations were coded as well, including a condition that allows a motion sensor to reflect the shifting silhouettes of visitors back up into the suspended sculpture. 

In response to the work in Domino Park, a 6-year-old asked Lewin, “What’s the catch? Nothing this fun comes without a catch.” The artist was amused but says there isn’t one. “At the heart of these projects is the idea that we can transform public space to create collaborative, participatory, connected, and joyous experiences.”

Evann Siebens and Keith Doyle 
Pedestrian Protest
Through October 11, 2021

Evann Siebens and Keith Doyle, Pedestrian Protest, 2021. Site-specific installation at Vancouver Art Gallery Offsite. Photo: Ian Lefebvre, Vancouver Art Gallery

Georgia Street in Vancouver is a prime example of Jane Jacobs’s dictum, in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, that “streets and their sidewalks, the main public places of a city, are its most vital organs.” Running through the city on an east-west axis, the street connects such neighborhoods as Downtown Vancouver, Chinatown, and the more residential Strathcona, passes landmarks like the Living Shangri-La (the city’s tallest skyscraper), Hotel Vancouver, the Theatre District, and the Vancouver Art Gallery, and crosses the Georgia Viaduct, the sole completed component of a broadly protested freeway proposal in the 1970s.

Evann Siebens and Keith Doyle’s new project, Pedestrian Protest (jointly commissioned by the Vancouver Art Gallery and the City of Vancouver’s Public Art program), seeks to understand the dynamic processes at play on the street through the lens of the protesting body. “We had been thinking about the gestures, choreography, and histories of resistance and protest since 2018,” explained the artists. “We chose to address protest in the work in part because of the political nature of the site, and how we could question and interrogate this site in the public’s mind.” Initially they planned a conceptual map of the street, with Stan Douglas’s Every Building on 100 West Hastings (2002) and Ed Ruscha’s artist book Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966) as inspirations. But in part due to the climate of protest of the last several years, and wanting to foreground the voices and actions of the communities involved, they eventually shifted the focus away from physical sites and onto the protesting body itself, using it “as a way to move through the geography.”

To do this, the artists sought the collaboration of more than 43 visual and performance artists, dancers, and activists. Siebens and Doyle prompted each artist or group to choose a site near or along Georgia Street, and Siebens, whose background is in dance, performance, and media, filmed the performances and protests that took place. At the Vancouver Art Gallery’s Offsite location, adjacent from a pedestrian plaza and across the street from the Trump International Hotel & Tower, Doyle (a professor in the Faculty of Design + Dynamic Media and the Faculty of Graduate Studies at Emily Carr University of Art + Design) translated those performances into a three-dimensional structure that adopts the vernacular of construction sites and advertising billboards: a collaged vinyl mural, LED screen (playing looped media from the events), and semi-transparent banner portraits hung from a scaffolding armature. Together, these elements (along with a comprehensive website and Instagram page) constitute “a mapping of a cross-section of Vancouver’s artists at this historical time,” bridging the groups in time and space and positioning viewers within the gestalt of movement.