City Slickers Art Up Bumpkin

September 3rd, 2007 by Harrumpher Leave a reply »

Let’s consider it an itinerate preview for JP Open Studios. We dragooned visiting friends to gawk at, poke and snap work at temporary ateliers on Bumpkin Island in Boston Harbor.Bumpkin Island map

There was a lot of ho-hum work at the Art Encampment. Then again, who can fairly criticize the spontaneous and make-do works created with found objects and a few imports? The gist of the project is several clumps of artists spending three days on the island as homsteaders. They could bring one backpack of mainland stuff, like paints or wires. Everything else had to be local. (Allegedly and according to the parks rules, no alcohol or other drugs were allowed.

The sponsoring organizations were the Berwick Research Institute, Island Alliance and Studio Soto. Their description of the project includes, “Works will pay tribute to the Island’s past inhabitants, highlight the Island’s natural resources, and engage the public as performer, apprentice, student, and honored guest. Works include temporary shelters, shrines, musical instruments, performance, video and electronic art, and sculpture.” Also in the initial call for participants, they described the aims as:

The Homesteaders on Bumpkin Island this Labor Day Weekend will:

  • Build some kind of “home” on their plot of land.
  • Live on the land for at least two days with his/her “family”
  • “Improve” the land in some way.

Our chums are from the northwestern corner of Connecticut. In Salisbury, there is much aht for and by the wealthy weekenders (many Republicans from Manhattan), but most of it does not include mangled starfish nor rusty cans from the beach. Instead, it is often the maple or birch dominated landscapes, as common as the sea grass and gull works we see on this side of New England.

Glove/rock artFor better and worse, that’s not what the encampment was doing. Those who wanted artiste and Reader’s Digest level visual comfort should have stayed on the dock or on their hotel patio.

There’s intriguing stuff, much of which seems to have benefitted from a lot of planning and preparation. For example, a bend in one path revealed a curtain of suspended leaves of transparent orange plastic. The sunlight passing through created images of the leaves on the ground, on vegetation and on passersby. It was an impressive blend of the natural and manufactured, but almost certainly not a spontaneous work.
film leaves

This was a crowd favorite.

It shared the long, arcing path with numerous other works. Some were obvious, others tuned the eye and played mind tricks. Think of leaving a visually powerful movie, any David Lynch one or a Lord of the Rings flick. You see strange critters and curious folk everywhere.

We were trotting along when suddenly one of our group would notice a piece first, an art object that others had passed. For example, there would be a small sheaf of dried grass tied and handing horizontally about seven feet off the trail, but still obvious to the alert eye. In another spot, an eye-level work strung a series of shells from a tree limb.

In yet another spot, a white birch sported a lavender marker frame of a moth. The insect had similar tones and colors to the bark. It stood out only by the contrast of the frame. A careful look behind revealed that black electrician’s tape held it to the tree.Moth on bark

At the head of one trail, two artists (like Lone Ranger, they were gone when I turned to asked their names) worked on Cricket. This one struck the fancy of the teens, boys and girls, in the group.

Found cricket Its upper portion had a head of a horseshoe crab shell. The body was of densely attached twigs, grasses, bark and other natural cast-offs found on the ground and around. A part of the joke seemed to be that like a cricket, everything was from the ground. Nearly all its components were like molted shell as well, leavings of the larger beings.

Much was made in the posters and websites of the featured products, including one that did not thrill. Kristjan Varnik‘s Giant Sand Bass was the instument, not the fish or singer. As the lit would have it, “An interactive instrument that transforms the natural resources of Bumpkin island into a huge musical instrument over eight feet tall providing the opportunity for multiple people to play it at once. ”

That reads impressively. We saved that for the last. One of us plays the upright bass and perhaps we had our hopes up a bit high for that as a capstone. Giant Bass

It was as advertised, sort of. Wires traced a bifurcated tree trunk up over six feet. They attached to a small box at the bottom with holes. Two or more plunkers could play it simultaneously. Yet jaded Bostonians and Nutmeg types that we are, we longed for musicality. After three days of camping, creating and being one with nature, they had failed to give it anything like the lusty growl that characterizes a double bass. You could produce an infinite number of whiny twangs, but not a single resounding strum.

I fear the failure was in the audience. We failed to apprciate the bass.

Amusingly, the schedules for the ferries seemed to discourage gallery browsing. On Sunday, the 10:30 shuttle from Georges simply didn’t dock or run. Those waiting got artsy orange exes on the backs of our hands. That meant that we had dibs on the 12:30 ferry, which took about 40 folk, which in turn meant the 12:30 people got their orange circles and bumped the next set of encampment-viewing hopefuls. Once there, you could wander for an hour and a half or three and one half hours. The last shuttle returned at 3:45. That lead to a lot of quick paced viewing.

Fortunately, this was not an MFA special where you were like ground meat forced into a sausage casing shuffling behind others with their audio tours telling them what to perceive. On Bumpkin, you were on your own, with occasional interactions with the artists. There was no subway outside or café inside, but you could touch and examine the art in depth and at leisure with no rent-a-guard looming.

Many of the artists are known for their other public works, like the cows in Somerville. I for one hope that the Harbor Island folk leave the work, perhaps checking on it and doing what has to be done in the spring. That would provide the flavor of art in the everyday so often lacking here and evident in places such as Santa Fe.

Here, you would do well to walk the grounds of the Forest Hills Cemetery to see how this works. There, the sculpture path provides the visual surprises all year. Of course, those works were meant for outdoor permanence and not made in a transient rush as the encampment. Combining such efforts in public spaces would not be a bad idea.

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