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Thursday, April 10, 2008

Time for Irwin, Part VI

posted by on April 10 at 12:43 PM

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.

RSS icon Comments


Thanks for this Irwin series, it's been edifying.

Posted by levide | April 10, 2008 12:55 PM

Wow, these lenses of perception give me a new perception everytime I look at the fences around construction sites and dumpsters and so on....why it tells me that everything is BOTH an object of perception and a lens of everything is "art" .... but also not "art, at the same time... and did you ever stop to think that maybe our universe is just a floater in the giant eyebal of a ginaormeous other Being? anyway, this ubiquitous vacuousness also means all wrting about "art" and non-"art" is equally meaningful....Irwin's utter dependence on space: total vacuousness: is to the world of "art" what Miss SC stands for in the world of "knowledge" and "thoughts."

All mediated thru the dialectic of global capitalism, natch.

Posted by unPC | April 10, 2008 1:09 PM

Thanks for turning me on to Irwin. Next artist please...

Posted by drew | April 10, 2008 1:12 PM

I never see anyone in that thing. It's hardly "surrounded" by college kids - more like adjacent to them. It's kind of pointless, ugly, perhaps some sarcastic comment on the functionality of the campus, but totally useless all the same.

Posted by Ziggity | April 10, 2008 1:14 PM

I work near this piece and hadn't heard the history. Thanks for that, and for the observations on "an almost edgeless object that fades in and out of view". It's as I'm walking past it that it looks most interesting -- the fading in and out, I suppose, and shifts in color density and opacity -- but as a standing object it definitely seems lacking. Then again, I've wondered how it will look when the trees get bigger.

Posted by Ramdu | April 10, 2008 1:22 PM

I've seen this thing several times now, and never knew what to do with it. I can honestly say I have not found it very interesting, and it seems very out of place - it's not on a main walking route on campus. And that "blue" is now a "purple"... suspiciously Husky-colored, if you ask me. The thing always struck me as a mis-guided attempted at UW boosterism. Thanks to this piece I know better now, but unfortunately that doesn't make me like the piece any more.

Posted by STJA | April 10, 2008 1:47 PM

I loved the Trees in Jail when it lived near the public safety building. It was a joke I was never sure if anyone else ever got.

Same goes with that Monopoly-Man Ruling the World sculpture in front of the valet stand at the Richie-rich hotel downtown.

Posted by six shooter | April 10, 2008 1:47 PM

Nine trees. Check.

Some fencing. Check.

An obscure concept. Check.

Art? Not quite.

Posted by Wolf | April 10, 2008 3:25 PM

@7 Does that Monopoly man replace doors too?

Posted by man | April 10, 2008 4:40 PM

While it may have its "pleasures" for Irwin fans, as a functional work of art it fails miserably. The By George cafeteria is in sore need of additional outdoor seating for those who wish to escape the dank, poorly lit, low-ceilinged misery of its indoor space. The hideous purple mesh surrounding the benches does nothing to welcome someone carrying a backpack and a tray of food. In order to reach a table one must first navigate all the way around the retaining wall (The cement path leading toward the building ends at a wall, as Jen mentions in her article, and a 4-foot drop to the existing outdoor seating area. No stairs. No gate.) Once inside the structure, one feels hemmed in. While it is common for students in other areas to share tables during the busy lunch hour, the compartmental nature of the structure gives one a feeling of being in a small private room, making sharing a table with strangers awkward. The University has essentially ruined its chance to provide a much-needed outdoor option for one of its largest cafeterias. I hope it doesn’t last.

Posted by meggers | April 10, 2008 6:54 PM

While I've enjoyed all of Irwin's work in your latest series, this piece has struck me as awkward since its days downtown. The fences are too high, and/or the spaces to small. And why the need to tightly mesh off the sections, wouldn't a looser weave and/or a few rails adaquately suggest the divisions? The effect is oddly compressed, both from the outside and inside where the trees only compound the problem.

Sorry, but I'd say re-installation of this piece has the aura of excessive deference to a big-name reputation by local art insiders intent on maintaining their wannabe aspirations in the larger art world. Probably some local MFA's would have used the $300,000 spent resurrecting this at least as well, if not considerably better.

Posted by Everybody's a critic | April 11, 2008 1:35 AM

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