Rainier Beach Station - Buster Simpson
Beacon Hill Station - Dan Corson
The LINK light rail line from downtown to Tukwila that opened last month includes artwork throughout the system. Artists were involved in the project from the outset, even to the point of helping choose the station architects. KUOW art critic, Gary Faigin, has just returned from riding the rails to check out the results, and he joins us now with his observations.
It’s possible for a distracted traveler to ride the spiffy new LINK light rail line from Seattle’s downtown to the airport without noticing much in the way of art. The vast majority of the works are best seen by people off, rather than on the trains, and perhaps that’s inevitable, given how quickly the rail cars move and the multiple directions passengers might look. BLINK, and you certainly might miss the giant phantom playing cards, created by vivid electronic bursts of light intermittently visible in the tunnel just south of Beacon Hill. If you do notice them, and you happen to be like the kids sitting across from me, you let out the sort of whoop that certifies something as truly cool, not to mention unexpected and mysterious.
The bulk of the public art that Sound Transit commissioned for its route isn’t about being elusive and dreamlike. Many of the works are designed to appeal to the ethnic and cultural sensibilities of the communities they are sited in, particularly in the diverse stretch of the Rainier Valley where street level tracks (rather than buried or elevated) proved especially controversial. The three stops in the Valley have not only platform art, but also art installed in newly-created plazas nearby. The plaza sculptures include some of the most striking pieces in the system, civic landmarks for emerging neighborhoods with little strong physical identity of their own.
Hard to miss, for example, is the 36-foot bronze shovel by Chicago artist Victoria Fuller at the Columbia City stop. It’s a sort of Claes Oldenburg meets Frida Kahlo moment, an Oldenburg-scale ordinary object covered with the sort of lush tropical imagery favored by Kahlo, carved in bas-relief. The sensual, highly detailed fruits and vegetables form a dense matrix attractively brought out by light and shadow, but the imagery has no particular connection to the tool it flows over, and shovel form itself is stiff and inexpressive.
Buster Simpson’s clump of giant, rusty iron pears is also a mixed bag aesthetically, weighing down a plaza north of the Rainier Beach stop with a literally heavy metaphor about urban growth and change. The fruit none-too-subtly doubles as wrecking balls resting in a basket of old trolley rails, but the piece doesn’t come off – it’s crowded and awkward, industrial chic that isn’t.
Roger Shimomura also uses objects with multiple references, but his 13-foot totemic sculpture at the nearby Othello station manages to be topical and playful at the same time – like his paintings. Shimomura specializes in mixing and matching stereotypical symbols of East and West, and here he seems to be suggesting that the “model minority” accomplishments of Asian immigrants come at a price. In the sculpture, six colorful objects are precariously balanced one atop the other. At the very bottom, a bright red wooden clog supports a partly eaten Creamsicle – a reference to the yellow outside, white inside dilemma of the assimilated Asian. Atop the ice cream rests a Japanese teacup, which in turn supports chopsticks, a man’s black dress shoes, and a graduation cap. I saw the piece on a particularly hot day, so perhaps I was more sensitive than usual to a major issue the artwork raises – what happens when the Creamsicle - representing cultural balance- melts? Edgy stuff for public art, and I’m all for it.
Not edgy at all, and a textbook example of a public artist trying to serve too many masters at once, is another massive plaza sculpture, this one outside the Tukwilla station. Clark Wiegman’s undoubtedly well-meaning steel construction is both clumsy as a sculptural form and confused in its conception. The overall appearance is that of a giant steel banjo split into two pieces, its neck supporting a huge illuminated map of the Duwamish River terminated above by the tail of a whale. The belly of the banjo itself is covered with markings vaguely suggesting a hazelnut on the front (a reference to the Indian name for Tukwila), and a globe on the back. To further complicate the message, the viewer is encouraged to listen to a recording of rushing sewer water audible inside several holes in the artwork. Whatever communities were meant to be served by the instrument/marine mammal/map/audio sculpture/homage to Native Americans that Wiegman has created, none of them are likely to feel much of a connection to the hodgepodge result.
Proving that it can be done, local sculptor Dan Corson has contributed a large number of appealing pieces to the project with his distinct and lyrical vision intact. Corson collaborated with system curator and sculptor Norie Sato on the sassy, colorful decoration of hundreds of the steel poles that support the train’s overhead power lines. The bright bangles, stripes, and bulletproof paint they chose, combined here and there with sculpted acrylic caps, transform the functional into the funky, variously suggesting plant forms, decorated spears, temple pillars, and candy canes.
Corson has also managed to create a truly magical setting for the best station in the system, Beacon Hill. Assuming that many riders will emerge onto the subterranean platform – the second deepest on the continent – with a sense of strangeness and displacement, Corson has envisioned the underground part of the station as a place of interface with the great unknown. Confronting riders as they emerge from the elevators is a curving stainless steel panel supporting several dozen variously sized portholes, like the control panel of a submarine or starship. Viewers who take the time to linger (and many do), are rewarded with highly evocative images of stellar, microscopic, and undersea environments shorn of easy cues as to identity or scale. Hovering above nearby platforms, and glowing against deep blue walls (the artist helped chose both the color and the lighting), are huge plastic creatures designed by the artist and fashioned by a Hollywood prop house, representing the creatures of the soil, the bloodstream, and the sea, all frolicking in the never-never land of the tunnel.
Above ground, Corson and Sato have deployed extensive beds of horsetail in the station landscaping, a reference to both the primitive environment of an earlier Northwest, as well as the horsetail-inspired power poles the artists created in the LINK rail yards nearby. Visionary, thoughtful, integrated – the best of the art accompanying this new public amenity will be a lasting amenity itself.