Visual Art Time for Irwin, Part VI
posted by April 10 at 12:43 PMon
Yesterday afternoon, I put on my coat and mittens and spent some time at the newly finished Robert Irwin sculpture at the University of Washington. (I’m coming to the end of a nice, long Irwin season: see here, here, here, here, and here.)
Nine Spaces, Nine Trees by Robert Irwin (Photos by Kurt Kiefer)
An aerial view
The life story of this piece is the reverse of the story behind Alexander Calder’s Eagle at the Olympic Sculpture Park downtown. Eagle was born a nomad and, decades later, was finally completed when it found its perfect home; Irwin’s Nine Spaces, Nine Trees was made in response to a place, but that place was torn down, and the artwork’s original meanings went down with it.
I wrote the full story last June, when the new Nine Spaces, Nine Trees was under construction at UW. Here’s an excerpt:
They called it jail for trees. It was a grid of nine flowering plum trees, three to a side, each one enclosed in blue chain-link fencing, on the top of a parking garage at the Public Safety Building in downtown Seattle. It was a work of art, not well liked. … It was in 1982 that Irwin designed Nine Spaces, Nine Trees for the cold, dark, northern-facing courtyard at Seattle’s Public Safety Building, where the sun-starved trees stayed anemic and lonely. The nearby sheriff’s office had requested that the fencing be transparent enough not to shelter escapees. The chain-link fence was of the no-climb variety.
Today, instead of law enforcement officers and prisoners and a sketchy downtown, Nine Spaces, Nine Trees is surrounded by fresh-faced college students, green lawns, and pretty brick buildings. When I was there yesterday I got the distinct sense that most people don’t know what to do with it. They don’t know whether it’s art or a little mini-park. (This would please Irwin.)
A tour group stopped and admired the big bronze George Washington next to Nine Spaces, Nine Trees, but they didn’t cast a glance over at the purple chain-link construction. A lone man sat inside on one of Irwin’s benches, eating a sandwich, and he looked out at the people passing by almost jealously, as if he were in prison. That was the closest the piece got to summoning up a hint of its past.
I talked to the guy. He didn’t know he was in an artwork. He didn’t know what it was. He said he felt a little lonely in there. We decided that maybe it needed more paths leading into it. Then I noticed that one of the paths leading out of it runs into a short wall, a dead end. For those in the know, it’s an almost overt cue that this thing doesn’t belong here. For everybody else, it’s just weird and slightly creepy.
For those who already love Irwin, the piece has its pleasures. Like all of Irwin’s work, it acts as a screen, a frame, a lens—a device of perception—rather than an object of perception. Depending on where you stand, the walls appear to be different shades of purple: lightest when you’re looking through just one, darker when you stand so that two of them line up to create a visual layer, and darkest when you get three of them “stacked” in your vision. The appearance of an almost edgeless object that fades in and out of view is an old favorite effect for Irwin, not intended simply as optical fun but as a proposition about how to see the world.
(Irwin made another piece involving purple chain-link fencing and trees on a university campus: his Two Running Violet V Forms at the University of California San Diego, made in 1983, right around the same time as Nine Spaces, Nine Trees. Two Running Violet V Forms is weird, too—it’s like a zigzagging volleyball net hung way too high in the middle of a dark grove of eucalyptus trees on an otherwise sun-soaked campus. But there’s something audaciously open-ended in that act of pointless camouflage. It’s not a place you go to sit and think and look, it’s a place you pass through. The two pieces are very different.)
When the original Nine Spaces, Nine Trees was demolished, the University of Washington and the Washington State Arts Commission got together to “save” it, meaning to hire Irwin to reinvent it for another location. Irwin didn’t reinvent, he tweaked: he designed new planters, he substituted hawthorn trees, and he darkened the fencing. But it remains a response to an urban core transplanted to picturesque academe. Its strands of DNA have all been untwisted. Now it’s just waiting, for whatever meanings it will acquire over time in this new location.