In the coming days, Mayor Bill de Blasio is expected to sign off on (by not vetoing) a Uniform Land Use Review Proposal that will officially add Socrates Sculpture Park to the city park system and literally “put it on the map.” On this plein air exhibition space’s 30th anniversary, a more fitting symbol of acceptance could hardly be more encouraging.
For a place that has shifted from ferry slip, city landfill, illegal landfill, and finally appropriated into a sculpture park, transition and symbiosis is integral to the identity and mission of Socrates Sculpture Park. Began by sculptor Mark di Suvero with a coalition of local residents and artists, Socrates has progressed through the decades with a clear program that remains loose enough to engage symbiotically with the totality of its environment.
Meg Webster, Concave Room for Bees, 2016, Earth, steel, pollinator plants, 6 x 70 feet. Courtesy of Nate Dorr and Socrates Sculpture Park.
The current exhibition, LANDMARK, curated by new Director of Exhibitions Jess Wilcox, presents a mission of stewardship and symbiosis both with nature and the neighborhood. Abigail DeVille’s Half Moon is an envisioning of Henry Hudson’s eponymous, wrecked ship (Halve Maen). Bringing together the detritus of urban life, bark construction techniques used by the Lenni-Lenape tribe, and the history of New York City, Deville’s shipwreck serves as a poetic allegory—a broken ship, makeshift, bricolage of cultures, trade, knowledge, resources. The birds have it now, rustling in the broken masts amongst shanghaied bottles and straw. Deville’s work presents a cultural ecology of loss “as is.”
Half Moon, 2016, Abigail DeVille. Courtesy of Nate Dorr and Socrates Sculpture Park.
In the last year, 44 percent of bee colonies were lost in the United States. There is no shortage of reasons (probably mites) as to why this is happening, but no matter the cause, shit’s bleak. Two works in LANDMARK take on this fact directly. Jessica Segal’s Fugue in♭consists of an upended piano that’s been mic’d up and made home to a colony currently working on reestablishing itself in its new, harmonic home. Two speakers around the perimeter of the piano drone on in a low buzz. One can imagine the droning harmonies to come as the bees acclimatize. Fugue will end up at Anthony’s Honey in upstate New York this fall, the 10,000 bees completing their journey from Georgia, recalling the nomadic experience of the majority of hives used in commercial pollination.
Concave Room for Bees, 2016, Meg Webster. Courtesy of Nate Dorr and Socrates Sculpture Park.
Meg Webster’s Concave Room for Bees is an earthen installation comprised of 400 cubic yards of topsoil constructed in a round. The interior slopes are filled with Spanish lavender, butterfly weed, catnip, echinacea, and other flowers beloved by pollinators. Planted only two weeks prior, by mid-summer, the "room for bees" is expected to be full of its namesake, its brightly colored interior the inverse of a prairie, a closed expanse, a bubble of nature with a view of Manhattan.
The works on view in LANDMARK as well as the park's mission stress an interrelated ecology. “Socrates Sculpture Park partners with several local public high schools to provide holistic, sequential arts education for teens and youth,” related John Hatfield, Executive Director at Socrates. Nearby Long Island City High School’s arts curriculum is developed in cooperation with Socrates and their visiting artists. Students take on horticulture, engineering, design, art history, and anything else practicality and Socrates require. “These artist-driven programs explore the subject matter—whether concept or material or form—of artists who have previously exhibited or have artworks currently in the park, and then align those goals with objectives in the school's curricula (e.g., critical thinking, math, environmental sciences).”
Chairs designed by Jonathan Odom, Open Seating, 2016, CNC cut plywood, 30 x 24 x 24 inches. Courtesy of Socrates Sculpture Park
The park also has a long relationship with Employment Works, a public program that trains young adults for the workforce. Through a partner organization, Plant Specialists, successful participants find steady jobs with benefits. Plant Specialists also supplies Socrates with plants removed from Manhattan rooftop gardens.
These partnerships Socrates has cultivated are indicative of their approach to both art and public space. Units within complex systems must be engaged in multiple ways. A park, a museum, a school, a garden, a forest, a waterfront—Socrates Sculpture Park is one of those rarities that tries to do a bit of everything and succeeds.
Image at top: Fugue in♭, Jessica Segall, 2016, piano, bees, sound, 67 x 56 x 12 inches. Courtesy of the Artist and Socrates Sculpture Park.