It’s Still Art
Dan is an artist. He works in different media types, but I think of him primarily as a sculptor. His pieces vary in size, and he needs help with their on-site assembly when they’re very large. I always volunteer. There’s something about working on an art installation that’s extremely satisfying. They’re big and always in a public square or park where they can be seen by people, not necessarily looking for art.
I remember working on one of his largest and most ambitious jobs. Some of his work is representational, and some abstract. This one was kinetic. It consisted of four different lengths of square aluminum beams held together by steel cables. Like a Calder stabile, it would be fixed to the ground on pedestals but with the upper portions free to move. I saw his model, and it worked. Any place you touched it caused the whole thing to tremble. The completed piece was expected to respond in the same way. That was the hope, but his studio wasn’t large enough to completely assemble it for a dry run before its public installation.
The exhibit site was Highbridge Park at the northern end of Manhattan. The exhibit’s opening would coincide with the re-opening of the old aqueduct, which once brought water from the Croton Reservoir to the City and would now be used as a pedestrian bridge connecting the Bronx and Manhattan. When the day of the installation arrived, Dan left early to lay out the location of the pedestals. His wife Donna, and I rented a pick-up truck and an SUV to load the sections of the piece, tools, and ladders with the help of three young artists. We got the ladders and largest sections of the assembly into the pick-up and tied red flags on all of the bits of it extending beyond the truck bed. Donna drove the truck, and I followed in the SUV, watching her trim trees along the way with the uppermost section of the sculpture. It was raining when we arrived at Highbridge, but we ignored it and got to work. When we had all of our equipment and ladders spread out and got started, three boys about ten or eleven were watching us, and one asked me, “Are you making a movie?” I didn’t know where he got that idea, but I explained we were installing a work of art, and they seemed pleased that we were doing it in their park.
After securing most of the sections into position, the three artists, Niv, Kayti, and Emily, began measuring the cables and adjusting tension. Using the two ladders with one on the bed of the pick-up for extra height, the primary and largest beam at twenty-two feet was finally installed. For the highest end of this beam, Dan had created an elaborate red and gold construction that looked like a throne. Its purpose was to act as a sail and catch any mild breeze so the whole structure would be in almost continual motion. He named his work of art simply “Chair.”
Other artists arrived, completed their installations, and left, but we were still at it. Screws and bolts were tightened, and cable tensions fine-tuned. We removed our tools and debris and stood back to look at our day’s work. Dan walked up to it, pushed a beam with one finger, and the whole form quivered. We all tried it. We were wet, tired, and cold but satisfied. The weight of the beams held in tension with the cables was precisely balanced according to plan, and the installation was a success.
* * *
Two weeks after the exhibit opened, all of us who helped received a group email from Dan. He’d gotten a call from the Parks Department informing him his sculpture had been vandalized. They wanted to know how he would like to proceed. He’d been working on this for months, and now it was destroyed. We all sent our condolences and offers to help repair it. I called Dan and asked if he wanted to go and see how much damage there was. He said he couldn’t just then, maybe in a few days, when he got over the initial shock. I didn’t need time to get over it. When I hung up, I left immediately for Highbridge Park. I imagined I’d find a tangled mass of beams and cables with a fantastical red and gold chair on top of the pile. Would it be salvageable and worth the effort to repair it? As I walked up the path, I saw it in the distance through the trees. From where I stood, most of it seemed to be still standing. When I got closer, it became clear it wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been. The only damage was that two of the pedestals holding the beams had somehow broken, so although not as high as it should have been, it was intact. I took some photos and emailed them to Dan, hoping to cheer him up.
I was leaving Highbridge feeling better than when I arrived. Walking down the path to exit the park, I saw Dan. We waved and smiled. He couldn’t wait to see it either.
He asked, “Well, how bad is it?”
“I had a nice surprise when I got here. I’ll let you see for yourself.”
Dan was as amazed as I had been. We spoke about what might have happened. I remembered the little boys who had watched us put it together on that rainy day two weeks before. I thought about myself at their age and how I would have seen “Chair.” It might have been a sculpture, but it was just asking to be climbed on, as inviting as monkey bars or a seesaw. I didn’t see willful destruction. What I saw was kids having fun. I envisioned the same three boys who asked if we were making a movie coming upon it late in the day with the park almost empty. How could they resist? Maybe strong enough to hold one of them, even two but three? I imagined how they must have felt when it broke down and how quickly they ran away. This was all pure speculation but, at the same time likely, Dan agreed.
With the weather being much more spring-like than the last time we were there, the park was filled with people, some crossing to and from the Bronx on the newly opened footbridge and others coming just to see the exhibit. While we were sitting on a park bench by “Chair,” speculating on how it happened and what needed to be done to repair it, we began noticing people stopping and admiring and discussing it. It seemed fine to them since they had no idea what it initially looked like.
“Maybe it doesn’t need to be repaired,” I said,
“Maybe not.” Dan replied. “Even broken, it’s still art.”