Originally designed for the small outdoor plaza in front of downtown Seattle’s Public Safety Building, Robert Irwin’s sculpture "Nine Spaces, Nine Trees" was dismantled when the building was torn down. Now it has been reinstalled, with some modifications, on the campus of the University of Washington. Today we’ve decided to take a walk through this newest addition to the University’s public art collection with KUOW art critic, Gary Faigin.
By all accounts Irwin, a by-now legendary pioneer of public installation art with a career spanning nearly half a century, gave a great deal of thought to the specifics of his south downtown location. The nine trees and nine spaces were a response to the demands of the site, actually the top of a parking garage where the spacing of nine support columns determined both what could be built (it couldn’t weigh much) and the spacing of Irwin’s plum trees. The chain-link fence was meant to both fit in with and transcend the workaday setting.
Irwin’s installation art has always been about perception and awareness, and people writing about his work often mention the need to experience the pieces over time, as the effects that Irwin is aiming at aren’t always obvious at first sight. This is certainly true about Nine Spaces, where only by walking in and around the various “rooms” defined by the high fenced walls can one appreciate the visual interactions that Irwin intended. But for many years after its completion, few people bothered.
The new location is much, much more welcoming. No comparison! But it’s still an open question how many casual viewers will detour into Irwin’s outdoor grid, no matter how artfully conceived. There is something distinctly off-putting about the banal materials: concrete pavers, aluminum poles, and 20’ tall, chain link fencing. Even as I grew to appreciate the piece, I couldn’t shake the association with similarly walled-off urban spaces: car lots, paved-over playgrounds, and storage yards. The large, potted trees don’t necessarily help much, as many of our most lifeless urban spaces are decorated with similar forest remnants, as though our aversion can be conquered simply by reminding us of what we’ve lost. We don’t warm up to these sterile plazas, food courts, and shopping centers, simply because they have plantings, but that’s not really what Irwin’s "Nine Spaces" is about.
Irwin thinks much more like a painter than an urban planner, though he hasn’t touched brush to canvas for at least 30 years. In the spirit of Mondrian, he uses the chain-link fencing material as paint, employing its bright purple color to create a gridded, geometrical abstraction distantly related to the work of his Dutch predecessor, but it is an abstraction that shifts and changes as one changes position. And it’s this element that’s key to the entire piece, the visual dance between transparency and opacity, public/private, color/no color, inside/outside.
Irwin plays on the fact that viewed at various angles, chain-link can act like a theatrical scrim, which can both hide and reveal what’s behind it. At certain junctures whole section of the fencing transform into a row of intensely-colored, lavender rectangles, vivid as painted panels the sunny day I visited, and vividly framed by the gleaming aluminum poles – like a section of a Mondrian, but made up of metal, light and air.
Walk a few feet further, and the illusion of solidity breaks up, and we once again look through the fence, not at it. The “painting” has dematerialized. Neat!
Irwin plays similar games with layering. Since the purple fencing walls off 9 partly-enclosed, individual spaces, each with its one Hawthorn tree and seating unit, there are often several layers of fence between you and the farthest-away cubicle, creating varying levels of privacy depending on where one sits. The central three spaces are the most open to the outside, part of the natural passageway through the grid, but those seeking more sanctuary can choose to be in on of the less-exposed side units. The enclosure thus becomes a sort of miniature city, where we can maintain the illusion of being alone while at the same time seeing and being seen, depending on where and how we choose to pay attention. It also creates a sense of being in a “room”, while in fact there is nothing of the sort, as there are no doors to close, no roof to separate us from the sky, and no protection at all from the elements.
The trees are an oddly ironic presence, especially in the semi-forested campus setting, so unlike the original downtown locale. Walking past, surrounded by groves of “wild” trees, it seems curious that these particular trees are walled off; are they being protected from us, or we from them? On the other hand, the nine trees have visual part to play in their interactions with the sculpture, both in their changing transparency as they lose or gain foliage, and the way their orange fruit, when ripe, will play off the purple field surrounding them. They also serve to anchor each individual space, on a pedestal like an art object in the center of every room.
If there’s an overriding weakness to the piece, it comes from the fact that it was conceived for one site, and installed in another. I’m not convinced that the fence idea was a particularly successful response to the original surroundings of "Nine Spaces," and I’m even less convinced that it makes a lot of sense on a leafy college campus, where it loses any resonance with its environment that it might have once had. I appreciate "Nine Spaces" and the visual rewards it offers, but it’s hard to imagine it not seeming like a permanent intruder, an industrial insertion in a pastoral setting. It’s a reminder that while contemporary art offers much to delight the eye and engage the mind, it has never found a secure or consistent place in our public realm, rarely finding the kind of dialogue with its built surroundings that one experiences in older European cities, where urban art and architecture often coexist so beautifully.