Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Angels of Summer

Socrates Sculpture Garden

This past Thursday we were experiencing a day of perfect weather here in our fair city, so a friend and I headed out from Bay Ridge by train and bicycle to visit the Socrates Sculpture Garden in Long Island City, Queens.

But before I rave about the park, I have to get something off my chest.

One thing I depend on are the bike lanes in New York City. Of course there are many streets that do not have them, but those that do provide a navigable space for a single bike make my living here a possible joy for me, and a possibility, period. I am one of those people who cannot foresee car ownership in the near future and doesn’t like having to haul his ashes from one borough to the next, day in and day out, by train and bus and his own rubber soles. And I especially appreciate the flavor of the many unique New York neighborhoods that are best discovered by bicycle. Riding a bike from Bay Ridge to Astoria isn’t easy. The volume and aggressiveness of car traffic in this city is legendary, but so is the history of bicyclists standing up for their rights on the road. Believe me when I say it: the bike lanes that do exist here are cherished, but there are too few of them. They are too often ignored by some drivers, and these drivers make bike riding a harrowing experience.

If there is one topic talked about here, or at least among the people I know in New York City, just as frequently as food, sex, living spaces and art, it’s about getting from one place to another. Combined, these five topics form the core experiences of our urban lives. Each one is otherwise a relatively simple, usually unconsciously-perceived basic human condition; yet to live the good life, each requires a highly developed skill unto itself, which must be cultivated. Once a New Yorker achieves a certain level of facility with these five topics, he or she is ready to talk about the only really interesting thing about him or herself, the only thing that matters, the one that gives him or her the authentic mark of personhood: everyone she knows who is either famous, powerful or rich. While I am being sarcastic in that last point, it's important to remember just how much of the day we spend trying to get somewhere; and getting there by bike, while it does entail some level of risk, is often a lot more fun, and faster, than other modes.

As more and more people turn to bicycles for their own health, cost savings, a reduction of car traffic on the streets and non-renewable energy depletion, it would be a good idea to have more bike lanes around the city. And how about letting bikes onto the Verranzano bridge? Why not build some continuous, uninterrupted parkways and expressways with grade crossings for bicycles and foot traffic? It seems clear there are only going to be more bicycles on the streets, and not fewer, so that the commitment of resources to the long-term planning for this form of transportation needs to be increased.

And now to our longed-for haven and destination . . .

As my friend and I walked into the Socrates Sculpture Garden, I wondered where exactly I was. The “park” looked more like a construction site than anything else. First, we dodged a large crane bearing down on us, carrying something heavy and awkward, and then I saw a rutted & upturned miscellaneously embowered yard full of folks in hard hats and reflective vests, little plots demarcated by stakes tied with yellow ribbons, an elegantly dressed woman in heels marching back and forth with an expensive-looking camera and a lot of determination, as well as the in-process construction of various whatsits going on in little groupings here and there. We quickly headed toward the back of the lot, which was also the area closest to the waters of Hell’s Gate, passing through a grassy, tree-shaded area peppered with what looked at first like large blobs of poured white stone, and on closer inspection turned out to be casts of concrete that looked like snow angels in reverse. When we finally found the lone park bench at the end of an uneven walkway, in a shady angle between a lopsided chain link fence and some crooked railing guarding the banks of the river, my friend and I were approached by a man expressing his amazement over the green grass of the park. He had just returned from his home town of Washington D.C., and didn’t know that, for the past four days--Sunday through Wednesday--the city had been soaked, drenched and misted by a steady rain. He couldn’t understand why the brown and dry grasses which had once cradled his heavenly creations were now surging forth with a renewed, green vigor.

He walked away. He came back. He explained that he had watered the grass again and again, for months, even, trying to realize his vision of a green sward, but to no avail. “There must be something in the rain that did this to the grass,” he mused aloud, and then: “I thought New York City water was supposed to be famous.” We talked for a while, and Dan explained how he had built his huge sand-box, where interested park goers could lie down to create the forms of sand angels, which he would then fill in with concrete, creating the 40 or so “Cast Angels” that reposed over the quarter-acre or so of his site.

Sculptor Dan is on the left, Eggplant-face on right

We talked about the sand, the water, the angels and the grass while I savored a giant eggplant parmesan hero sandwich and a refreshing, illicit beer. Finally he mentioned the signal dilemma facing the sculptors of the Socrates Garden: at the end of the season, works that have not been sold, placed, donated or otherwise hauled off-site are destroyed. While some artists, sculptors especially, work within the idea of a specific, delimited timeframe and site for the work to exist, after which it is no more (and here I think of the Guggenheim’s recent purchase of a performance sculpture by Tino Sehgal), most artists, and again, sculptors especially, have an idea of the endurance of their efforts. “You see that dumpster over there,” Dan said, pointing towards the studio lots near Vernon Boulevard, where I saw a huge green construction dumpster. “That’s where the sculptures go if they’re left behind.”

a dumpster, but not the huge one

Artists-in-residence are given the space, tools and time to work, which are all obvious and necessary goods, certainly—but the works themselves must be sold or donated by season’s end—or else. As we discovered, many works do end up in the dumpster. While the park has a significant staff of directors, programmers, interns and laborers, it would seem there is not enough thought or planning given to the fate of the works that are made there. It would be useful for someone, perhaps the Garden’s marketing and public relations director, to develop a system or guide for artists to better help them find lasting homes for their works. For Dan, at least, there is a growing frustration and anxiety over the fact that his dearly loved and labored-over angels may end up dumpstered, just like the “u.s.s. deadhorse”, pictured above.

I liked Dan’s sculptures for a number of different reasons—his direct engagement with residents and park goers, whom he invites into the sandbox to play and model the angels, and whose impressions he uses; the conceptual reversal of snow-angels in both form and season; as well as the humor of seeing them strewn about on the sward, as though the remains of a dramatic denouement of an angry god who’s just gotten done with some serious downsizing of the heavenly hosts.

One of the angels was unique for having a face, and as Dan explained it to me, the model insisted on laying face-down in the sandbox for his angel. Since all the other casts, when hardened and sited, were face-down themselves, suggesting defeat, at least his would be looking up. Rising.

I couldn’t help trying out a few of the angels for size, pretending to be one of the cast-down angels, or one who’d left the stony husk of his heavenly side behind him. I was glad I could get up afterward and walk away. Sometimes I think my soul is made of vulcanized rubber. It's that Akron thing, maybe. DEVO. The Beatles.

P.S. At random, I opened up Jeffrey C. Robinson's The Walk: Notes on a Romantic Image (U of Oklahoma P, 1989) and found these lines: "Does Baudelaire, this poet of the cities, do anything fundamentally different from the rural idealists? He shows what happens when the Romantic walker/poet loses his halo. The city takes it from him. He discovers that his halo, his mark as an individual, with a utopianizing soul, was more a burden than a consolation and a strength. Yet the ideology of souls and beauty does not leave him. No one around him cares as he slips in the mud and enjoys it except, perhaps, those of similar 'superior' cast who may walk like him and who will read him: mon semblable! mon frere!" (98)



There were a lot of connections, people, poets, places and histories that came to mind as I was trying to write this little Nyarcadian tale.

In the 1920s through the 1940s, during what seems a heyday of parks creation and alteration in New York, there were two competing paradigms at work guiding the transformation of city parks. Of course, Frederick Law Olmstead holds an important historical place in the history and ideas of the urban park, and as an advocate of open space; yet it is the work of Robert Moses that irrevocably altered the nature of the city’s parks and playgrounds into the forms we now most often experience them. These two ideas are recreation and conservation (preservation is another legal classification that concerns a cultural legacy that would apply to sculptures and structures, since the fate of public sculptures largely falls into the preservation category).
While I am sure there are better and more detailed studies of the dilemma facing NYC’s parks from 1920-1950, Robert Caro’s enormous book, The Power Broker, lays down an affective narrative of the stakes in the opposing views:

Central Park, Prospect Park, Van Cortland Park, Kissena Park and Alley Pond are (or were) not just open space, but open space within a city—within a city in which open space was becoming terribly scarce…What was it most important for these big parks to give the city? The city’s facilities for active recreation were laughably inadequate. Therefore the park must provide them. They must be filled with baseball diamonds and football fields, tennis and handball and basketball courts, skating rinks and swimming pools. …Yet open space—quiet open space, natural settings in which city dwellers could find relief from grey concrete and congestion and noise—were precious in New York now. Parks must provide that, too. If they did not, there would soon be no place within the great city in which these values could be found… Robert Moses’ restrictive policies had made it difficult for the city’s poor, who did not have access to private automobiles, to reach his Long Island parks [and at first he built bridges too low to allow busses to pass under them and reach the parks]…Moses himself had been uninterested in a park’s “natural” functions. His mind saw people in the mass, running, jumping, swinging tennis rackets and baseball bats…his vision never focused on the individual wandering alone through a forest or on the family sprawling in solitude in a meadow; in thinking of parks he did not, except incidentally, think of them as places of forests or meadows or solitude. To him a park was not open space. (481-482)

The fight to get a park created is a difficult one, and in a city of this size and density, the use of available space is always and inevitably contested. The Socrates Sculpture Garden is the results of the efforts of sculptor Mark di Suvero, b. 1933, who was living in Long Island City and had a dream for a small wedge of land that was a former Marine Terminal, and when he found it, a dumping ground. di Suvero is famous for his works using steel girders. One thing pointed out to me on Thursday is that large-scale sculptors seem to be a tough, active, outdoorsy people. I’m not sure how far that idea goes, but there is a certain ruggedness to this 2002 di Suvero piece, “Chonk On”.


There are assuredly more than just these two on this continent, but I appreciate, or am maybe boasting, when I declare I’ve been to two wildly disparate sculpture gardens in the past year: one in Seattle, Washington, and the other in Astoria, Queens. They’re on opposite sides of North America. (Dan, the sculptor of the Cast Angels, remarked that the sculptures in Washington D.C. are “A lot of men on horses.”) These two parks are 2,863 miles apart (by car). Google’s “Get Directions” feature also tells me that a walk from the Olympic Sculpture Park to the Socrates Sculpture Garden would only be 2,807 miles, and is a route that includes a ferry, a border crossing, and tolls. Tolls for walking? Yes indeed. The time to travel by car is listed as 46 hours, while the walk would take 37.5 days. You would have to walk continuously to get there that fast—which would be impossible. In two days, by car, Seattle and New York City would form a sequence of art, travel, and art. You might be able to walk from Seattle to New York City in 150 days. What would that be like? Art, stillness, motion, and stillness (repeat 150 times), and art. My mother was always a fan of the man who wrote Walk Across America, where he did just that. Is Paul Virillo’s critical-philosophical science about speed called vroomology? Of course there is nomadology, and there is even a field of study called teratology—but is there a phenomenological science and field of philosophic speculation and skepticism for walking? Or is that pedagogy? If so, then I am a proponent, researcher and advocate of radical pedagogy. It is more consistent than some spurious, made-up science that could be called pedalogy.

My last notes here are for the poets: CA Conrad has been hosting readings of favorite poets in open spaces for two years now in a series he calls the Urchin Series. I like the roving nature of these readings, and that he’s held them in gardens (like the Jonathan Williams reading) .

Currently, ecopoet Jonathan Skinner is traveling by train to parks designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, which he is chronicling in a series of dispatches he calls Spoils of the Park. I suppose if I were to concoct a project about the legacy of Robert Moses in NYC I’d call it “Go DOWN Moses.” After 800 pages of Caro’s book, I can only describe my commitment to learning the Moses story as a sick fascination. I’m hoping Jane Jacobs’ book The Death and Life of Great American Cities will be the right antidote.

And the S.S.P. has a site of their own here. The NYC Department of Parks includes this paragraph about the history of the site: “Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, this narrow strait between Astoria and Wards Island was infamous for treacherous navigational conditions caused by powerful tides and dangerous rock outcroppings. The 1780 shipwreck of the British ship Hussar and numerous other marine tragedies which occurred in this channel necessitated an 1876 effort by the Army Corps of Engineers to blast away much of the dangerous ledge. Unfortunately, in the years preceding 1985, the long-abandoned Marine Terminal had become desecrated with illegal dumping and graffiti, its panoramic vista inaccessible to citizens of Astoria and Long Island City.”

The first sculpture park I fell in love with was the Griffis Sculpture Park, outside of Buffalo, NY.

If you are further interested in the convergence of poets, sculpture and parks/gardens, please do find out more about Ian Hamilton Finlay's postmodernist landscape, which he called Little Sparta. And go visit Marfa, Texas, too.

This is not Marfa, Texas. These are Alpacas, in Ohio



  1. Paragraph 2 of the bike rant is fuckin weird, yo.

  2. yeah. but how weird is this (two guys talking loudly behind me on Lafayette): "Do you think he's using binary thinking?" "Yeah I'm concerned its just binary thinking, and that I don't agree with him."
    So perhaps the biggest struggle for us these days is to know with any certainty whether we're robots or not. This is why some people max cleanse to see if they have worms in their intestines or not. Perhaps their best ideas came from those worms. Otherwise, its all robot thinking.