He put a spell on you

By GREG COOK  |  July 8, 2010

ISCARIOT: At least Trace O’Connor’s giant squid-woman sculpture provides entertainment.

HarborArts offers an open-ended public-art installation that the non-profit assembled with help from MassArt's Urban Arts Institute at the Boston Harbor Shipyard and Marina at 256 Marginal Street in East Boston. It benefits from its waterfront location and spectacular views of the Boston skyline across the harbor. But the 46 pieces aren't much better than what's in the ConstellationCenter show. James Fuhrman writes that his Sea Change — See Change is "a place of quiet reflection amid the noise of the human elements of the harbor. It asks viewers to pause, be still, watch, and be aware." The sculpture is the title words — a dull pun — arranged in a ring floating in one of the flooded dry docks. It looks like garbage dumped into the harbor.

The best pieces are Bayne Peterson's Yardship, a little roof on three wheels that sprouts a square-rigged mast and sails, and Trace O'Connor's Iscariot, a giant metal squid woman with long curling tentacles that sits atop one of the industrial buildings. They're more entertaining spectacle than substantial, but that's enough.

What sets Nastanski's outpost apart is that it's firmly rooted in its locale and makes the site better. "I started in October [2008], and most of it probably happened before that first winter," he tells me. The roof is a tarp supported by lashed-together branches. On a bright summer day, it takes your eyes a bit to adjust to the darkness inside. Arrayed on a stick bench, shelves built across one of the rock walls, and the dirt floor are things Nastanski has mostly found in the park — audio cassettes, ping-pong balls, a frying pan, a clock, little skulls ("either raccoons or cats, I'm not sure"), dried-out plants in bottles, a globe, tent stakes, an old-time-looking photo of Nastanski in 19th-century costume, images of Henry David Thoreau and Ben Franklin, a Jamaican flag, feathers, copies of Walden and Lord of the Flies.

This collection can feel like standard-issue goth furnishings. But it's unsettling to happen upon the outpost. The thing is strange and spooky, maybe dangerous, definitely sketchy. But also a refuge.

Whenever I sit on one of the small, uncomfortable, ugly granite seats that Seattle artist Buster Simpson designed for the Downtown Crossing T stop in 1987, I worry about the state of public art. One of the legacies of Minimalism is a landscape littered with boring abstract sculptures disconnected from their surroundings and from people.

There are stellar public artworks in the area: Augustus Saint-Gaudens's Shaw Memorial on Boston Common, Nancy Schon's Make Way for Ducklings in the Public Garden, Mark di Suvero's Huru at UMass Boston, Stanley Saitowitz's New England Holocaust Memorial near Faneuil Hall, Susumu Shingu's Gift of the Wind at the Porter Square T stop in Cambridge, Leonard Craske's Fisherman's Memorial in Gloucester.

But perhaps after a decade, residents should be able to vote on whether a public work is to stay or go. Then again, supporters might not be willing to spend as much on temporary works, and that could kill off major projects like, say, Anish Kapoor's breathtaking Cloud Gate in a downtown Chicago park. The ConstellationCenter and HarborArts installations, moreover, are the doing of private organizations — and evidence that they too can succumb to bureaucratic mediocrity. Does it all come down to that ineffable quality of vision?

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Related: Worst Public Art Manifesto No. 1, Ghost stories, Wanting more, More more >
  Topics: Museum And Gallery , Outpost, CULTURE, public art,  More more >
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