Educating the Eye: Public Sculpture through the The Olympic Sculpture Park

Lisa Corrin, the Ellen Philips Katz Director of the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, gave a lecture at the Block Museum on May 15, 2012 entitled, “Educating the Eye: Public Sculpture.” Corrin specifically discussed her role in the transformation of the only remaining, industrial, nine-acre stretch of waterfront property in downtown to Seattle to the Olympic Sculpture Park.

Photo: The New York Times

Photo: The New York Times

During the initial planning states of the Olympic Sculpture Park, the Seattle Art Museum focused on other great examples of public art across the world. Chicago is one of the greatest public art cities in the world, according to Corrin. She attributes a good deal of this prestigious title to the Chicago Picasso in the Daley Plaza. At the time, this sculpture was rather controversial to some Chicagoans because Picasso had never visited Chicago and simply modeled the sculpture after his dog, however, Mayor Daley said that Picasso was chosen simply because he was the most famous artist in the world. Corrin also cited the Calder in Minnesota as another example of excellent public art. The challenge the Olympic Sculpture Park team faced was in finding pieces that would be equal to that work, while stretching the definition of sculpture.

The location is one of the most compelling elements of the sculpture garden. The Seattle Art Museum purchased the last piece of undeveloped water front property with the caveat that this last snippet of unobstructed waterfront property would be free and open to everyone, so you did not need to have millions for a penthouse to get a glimpse of the Puget Sound. By making the sculpture park totally free, the museum also had a unique opportunity – a chance to build a totally new audience for art while adding to the quality of urban life. The park flows into the city and the city flows into the park.

Art, especially sculpture, is a medium that constantly reinvents itself. The museum decided to choose pieces without a plinth, following the philosophies of Alan Kaprow. A responsive, evolving, dynamic collection was key for the sculpture park, especially since the committee embraced such an elastic medium. In order to reach even more people, the committee reshaped the land by building 40-foot high land bridges to cover where roads cut through the park, creating a “Z” path that leads guests directly from the pavilion to the water. Thanks to this overlap the art is visible by water, car, and even train. However, there is no single point where all the art is visible. The architect called the design a striptease. Guests cannot see all of the art from the main path, but there is a clear line of sight to the water, forcing you to continue along the path to see the park in full.

Corrin did not discuss all of the pieces at Olympic Sculpture Park, but she pulled out a few of her favorite works for discussion including: Alexander Calder’s Eagle (which is visible to cars on the road and is one of the few lit works), Pedro Reyes’ mural and interactive capula sculptures (which are suspended from the ceiling inside the pavilion), and Mark Dion’s nursing tree installation, Neukom Vivarium.

Photo: artnet

Photo: artnet

Neukom Vivarium is one of the strongest pieces at the Olympic Sculpture Park. It was Dion’s first permanent public work and the 60-foot nursing log “sculpture” exists in a greenhouse near the pavilion. The tree will eventually decompose, which according to Corrin is a kind of “Fluids in slow-motion.” By removing the log from the forest floor, taking it out of context, putting it in a sculpture park, and calling it art totally and irrevocably changes it’s status. It costs $40,000 a year to run the artwork, but all of human endeavor cannot compete with the natural process. This is “Where Earth Meets Art.”

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