In August, Sam Durant’s The Meeting House was erected in front of the Old Manse – an 18th century historic house in Concord with remarkable social, historical, and political significance. World’s End, a 251-acre park in Hingham serves as the site for Jeppe Hein’s A New End mirror labyrinth, which was unveiled in September. We spoke with Durant, Hein, and Alonzo about the project, the concepts behind each installation, and why public art is an imperative cultural initiative.
Both installations draw inspiration from and interact with the surrounding environment. How does the ‘lived’ experience of a public art installation differ from a work showcased in a conventional gallery space?
Sam Durant: From the artist’s perspective you have a broader, more spontaneous and diverse audience working in the public realm. Although many visitors have made the decision to go and experience the work, many will come across it unexpectedly. From the unexpected visitor’s perspective, there can be a sense of questioning everything – even to the point of not understanding it as a work of art. This is very interesting to me.
Jeppe Hein: Artworks in public space open up new possibilities for the spectators to lose their timidity towards art, while in museums and galleries the relationship between the viewer and the artwork is already defined to a strong degree. When people see an art piece developed and integrated in public space, it is often easier for them to get first access to it, and thus their approach to art in general changes. This does not mean that they lose the respect for the artwork though. The opposite is the case. People integrate this experience more into their lives. By carrying this new experience and awareness into their lives, this will probably change their attitude towards many other things also – hopefully for the better.
The New England region of the United States is home to plenty of significant historical locations and potential backdrops for a public installation. What drew you to your chosen site?
Sam Durant: Some of the most significant events in our history happened in and around the Old Manse; the Revolutionary War period, Transcendentalism, and Abolitionism.
Jeppe Hein: World’s End is an amazing place surrounded by beautiful nature, and I fell in love with it when I saw the photos that Pedro Alonzo sent me at the beginning of the project. Afterwards, we started a close dialogue in order to figure out the actual and the anticipated use of the area. Why are people coming to this place? How do they use it individually and socially? Most of them take a walk, go for a run, swim in the sea, or have a picnic by the waterside. We chose a place close to the point where shorelines are on both sides of the path. There is water, sand, grass, wonderful trees, and a spectacular view of the city – everything that is characteristic for World’s End. My aim was to combine these elements and to promote its usage, but at the same time add new features to the site that offer people the opportunity to experience the location differently.
What do you hope the public will take away from experiencing these installations?
Sam Durant: For viewers and visitors to make connections between historical events and the present day; to become aware of some already existing ways out of historical patterns of segregation and racism through art, food and nutrition, poetry, criminal justice reform, conflict resolution; to become part of these solutions and to imagine even more.
Jeppe Hein: I see the labyrinth as a symbol of life. It’s about finding your way through life. You take a first step and you approach something that offers you the experience of a feeling or situation influencing your decision; if you take the next step to the left, to the right, onwards or backwards. With each step you strike a new path. You experience your life by walking your way…
…It’s similar with walking through my mirror labyrinth, A New End, in a way. You approach the installation and you are confronted with the multilayer reflection of the surroundings that have an impact on the way you enter the labyrinth. Inside, you can chose between three different possibilities for moving forward, depending on your experience of the respective situation. As in life, you might find the center or a dead end that forces you to return.
In addition, mirrors alter and question our perception of our surroundings and ourselves by increasing and multiplying the heterogeneity of a space, for example. Mirrors make us reflect on our own presence by addressing our physical and mental experience of an environment and our position within it. Viewers become aware of the limitations as well as the possibilities inherent in the act of looking. So my mirror installations always refer to the presence of the visitor and the artwork in the space asking the audience: Why are you here? What are you doing here? How do you observe artwork and space? How are you observed by artwork and space? When looking at yourself in a mirror you start to reflect yourself literally.
What is it that you hope to achieve through your work as an artist?
Sam Durant: To make a place or a space where viewers can make connections between historical events and conditions with present day issues; to activate the viewer’s interest and imagination in relation to the subject matter of a particular work or project; to see the status quo ‘reality’ more objectively, or from a new perspective and moving toward a more just and equitable future.
Jeppe Hein: For me, art always relates to communication. If an artwork does not communicate something to the audience it does not work properly. My artworks are intended to ideally bring together people from different contexts and origins, providing them with an opportunity for mutual exchange. Independent from background, gender or age, no matter if it is a child or an art critic, people are encouraged to interact with the work, the surroundings, and other people. When people enter one of my mirror labyrinths, for example, and suddenly face a person with a different culture, another age, or skin color, and both smile at each other, they will forget in a second who and where they are because it is an amazing feeling to stand in such an all reflective surrounding. I hope this experience strengthens the sense of community between the various groups that generally reflect a community at large.
Your work has been exhibited all over the world. As an artist with a particular cultural, political, and social awareness, do you find that reactions to and perceptions of your works differ cross-culturally?
Sam Durant: Reactions sometimes differ along the lines of social status, race, and class; for instance, people of color tend to understand the work that deals with racial issues as being completely obvious, whereas it can be more provocative and challenging for some white viewers. Overall, I find that viewers – especially those with little or no interest in ‘high culture’ – can understand the meaning in the work in similar ways. Surprisingly, this legibility translates to a large degree to viewers in other countries as well, in Europe, Asia, and Latin America.
As an artist with a particular affinity for public works showcased in everyday, outdoor environments, do you find that onlookers react to, interact with, and perceive your work differently when it’s exhibited in an enclosed exhibition space? How does the behavior of the onlooker inform, inspire, and direct your installations?
Jeppe Hein: In my conception of artworks, I want to challenge the role of art in different places and social contexts, in the museum as well as in public space. I want to invite people to take an active role independent of the situation where the artwork is exhibited. Since the interactivity between artwork and viewer is a crucial element of my works, the physical sensation is essential. It can only be experienced with an artwork that the viewer is directly confronted with. To experience my work, the viewer has to overcome the classical attitude of passive contemplation, and this is of course more difficult in a museum or gallery context. But I know from experience that it’s possible.
One of the reasons I like to work in public space is the variety of the public and the pluralism of behavior. To see how people react to and interact with my work, to be able to fascinate them and sometimes even make them happy, makes me very happy too. It is always interesting and inspiring to see people use an artwork individually or in unexpected ways, but I don’t prescribe the concept of use.
What triggered The Trustees’ desire to launch these public art installations? And what inspired you to get involved?
Pedro Alonzo: The Trustees are committed to expanding their audiences and engaging with the public in new ways. Art and The Landscape is an integral part of that effort. Providing a combined experience of art in nature shifts the perspective on the properties themselves. In addition, The Trustees have a large and dedicated following that visits the sites throughout the state. Bringing art to a variety of people in communities outside of urban centers is a dream.
The Trustees manage some of the most wonderful sites in Massachusetts, distinguished by rich history and natural beauty. This is a unique opportunity to work with artists on privileged sites such as World’s End and the Old Manse. However, I was most excited by The Trustee’s commitment to engage with the public. The Trustees and I agreed that we did not want static bronze sculpture adorning the landscape, but artworks that were participatory in nature.
Your speciality lies in curating exhibitions and overseeing installations that are specifically designed for public consumption in the real world – outside the confines of stark, ‘white cube’ spaces. Why did you want to work outside a gallery context?
Pedro Alonzo: In spite of attendance growing at some museums in major cities, the art world feels a bit constrained – the audiences can be limited. I am convinced that the general public wants to engage with art but does not want to feel intimidated in doing so. Unfortunately, traditional art world venues intimidate many people. People visit museums but they live in public space. I want to reach a larger segment of the population by placing art in unexpected sites, within the fabric of society. Changing the context as well as the conditions of engagement. This will hopefully broaden artists audiences and provoke a wider interest in contemporary art.
In your opinion, why are public art installations like Sam Durant’s and Jeppe Hein’s so culturally imperative?
Pedro Alonzo: Both of these works of public art are a temporary imposition that stimulates communication and can reflect a community’s tolerance for divergent ideas. Sam’s is using the history of the Old Manse and the town of Concord as a platform to discuss the legacy of slavery and prevailing forms of systemic racism. This work addresses a critical issue that affects all of society.
Jeppe’s work compels us to look inside ourselves by providing a vehicle to pull away from our daily experience of social media and hyper-connectivity. At a moment when it is very easy to live in an information bubble, surrounding ourselves by likeminded individuals with a similar life experience. Both these works shake things up, they confront and provoke the public to think differently. They provide new perspectives and enable dialogue questioning preconceived notions about race, the role of art and being present. As technology brings us closer we need to be more open to the idea of the ‘other.’
Sam Durant’s The Meeting House will remain in front of the Old Manse in Concord until October 31st, 2016, and Jeppe Hein’s A New End can be found at World’s End in Hingham until October 31st, 2017.