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Bull Hill
by David Rothenberg : Editor, Terra Nova

Sculpture in the Water

Something's afoot in the bullrushes this week beneath the cliffs of Bull Hill.  Yesterday I walked along the high tide Hudson River beach down the hill from my home, the great Storm King head guarding the sun as the orb turned purple red on its evening descent above the river's other side.  Gentle waves lapping my bare feet sloshing in the sand sinking deeper as the beach disappeared, walking north, as the beach ends into a head where huge logs have been rolled in by the surf, reeds swirling in the current like mirages of green iguana lizards, I round the bend, further than I have ever been before, and then, what's this?  A magnificent artwork in the water, constructed entirely out of reeds plucked in the nearby marsh.  The tops of the catkins were swaying in the breeze, while the stems were undulating in the water.  It looked almost as if alive, probably the main thing in art that draws me- does it seem alive?

I sloshed through the brimming water a bit farther to manouever myself into the best viewpoint to appreciate the work.  Now I saw it as it was meant to be seen.  Floating on the surface was a rigid "A' shape, triple-lined in reeds, supported by the vertical stalks but giving the whole structure some integrity, and the point of the letter was like an arrow addressing the meeting of the Storm King slope with the river bank on the far side.  Already that mountain was a blend of nature and culture, on its flank cut the country's first official parkway, the Storm King highway, an engineering feat of its day, nearly a hundred years ago blasted into the solid rock face, and at the mountain's feet a lumbering freight train, at least a mile long, and deep under water, invisible, the toughest section of the great Catskill Acqueduct to build, the right angled pass thousands of feet down, right under the Hudson River, and also a site where a hideous newfangled kind of underground hydropower plant was slated to be built in the sixties and which the environmental movement took thirty years to finally beat down into a dead horse.

I took it all in together, it all seemed to matter, it all seemed to make sense.  A piece of art that in the moment changed the world, right then and there, for me.  Sure it may have been all planned out, but my wanderings took me there.  I did not expect it, and that all added to the pleasure which reverberates still inside as the waves lap up against my feet in the cool clear memory of the sunset light.

The sculpture
The sculpture and the sculptor:  an arrow supported by reeds, pointing toward Storm King across the Hudson River;  and the sculpture's creator, Roy Staab.
Photos by D. Rothenberg.
The sculptor

You should not expect it.  You should train yourself to have few expectations as you go.  Then around every bend will be a pleasant surprise.  John Cage said that we ought to "free ourselves from our likes and dislikes," a kind of invocation for artists to stop being critics and just do the work.  But inside immediacy, working upon fleeting things that disappear as soon as they are there, how do you know what works and what doesn't?  It's a pragmatic question.  Do not be afraid of it.

The two criteria above:  hope to be surprised by it.  Hope that it seems to be alive

The next day there is another surprise: a knock on the door.  It's Roy Staab, the artist of the marsh reeds himself, sculptor in phragmites.  He heard that I live in town, and invited me back to officially see the work.  We take the shortcut over the railroad tracks and down through a thicket to the water.  "Oh, no, someone's started taking apart my work," he announces with despair.  "A few stalks are down.  Not to worry.  We can fix this quickly."  We strip down and wade out into the warm, somewhat toxic water that local singer and activist Pete Seeger and others have worked for years to clean up.  Well, it's clean enough to swim in I reckon.  I just wouldn't do it every day.

"Once I did a piece in Provincetown, and called the local newspaper and told them to come check it out," said Roy breathlessly as he methodically dove under the water to dig a hole for the new reed to sit in securely.  "A woman heard about this and quickly destroyed the whole work!  I came back shocked and reconstructed the piece as quickly as I could.  When the guy from the paper showed up it was as if nothing happened.  He got his picture and the next day the same woman tore the piece up again."  Not everyone is an art lover.  Then again, some people might see it as a desecration of the view. 

"Seen that Andy Goldsworthy piece over at the Storm King sculpture park?" asked Roy.  Over the mountain was the most famous outdoor sculpture museum in America.  Famous for their collection of mostly huge, corporate work, recently they had invited the famous environmental artist Andy Goldsworthy to build a writhing, sinewy stone wall.  "It's too pretty.  Overrated.  You can take a good picture of it but in itself, the work isn't much."

How does an environmental artist make a living from his work?  Christo, Goldsworthy, Richard Long, they all sell photographs of their interventions and outdoor creations, mostly which are destroyed by hand or by nature shortly after they're made.  Roy's work, though artful, intriguing, and 100% natural made of on-site materials when possible, hasn't yet hit the big time.  I ask him if he thinks it's worth taking the photography side as serious as the building side.  He's not sure.

But he isn't afraid of aesthetic questions, those bugaboos of the philosopher.  I ask "How can you tell when this kind of work is good?"  My own answer is that since the work is supposed to be site specific, invented at the site, discovered at the site, created at the site, then the work succeeds if it makes the site something better than it was before, if the landscape needs the work to shine through.

When does the work succeed?  Easy.  When, in a moment, you feel the rustle of the built rushes and the lapping of the easy water, the sun sinking behind the sloping mountain, an orange orb slinking into the mist.  A dull blue light, the sense of being framed, located in the midst of the crags and slopes.  The perfect site.  The perfect act.  A moment of necessity.  You needed to build this.  You needed to see it.

The sculptor and sculpture
The sculptor and the sculpture:  Roy Staab carefully pulls reeds
from the adjacent areas to become part of the environmental art.

Photo by D. Rothenberg.

Of course, most sublime landscapes need a human intervention like they need a hole in the head.  Nature is so complete without us!  What can we hope to add to the beauty of the Storm King headland, the famous view that the Hudson River painters wanted so to capture and to bring back to civilization to hang in museums all over their world.  Aqueducts, bridges, scenic highways gouged out of the cliff cannot possibly add beauty to this perfection, but they only offer access, bringing humans closer to this reverberance of nature's power.

Well, things are often not so clear.  The next mountain north from the Bull, Breakneck Ridge, is a famous day destination for New York City hikers because the weekend train stops right at its base, beneath a steep exhilarating climb up the top of the cliff.  It's mobbed on Sundays, because it's so wild and easy to get to.  Wild?  This is an artificial cliff, made in the 1840s when quarry operations blasted out half of the mountainside.  The ragged cliffs that remain today, sublime, grand, were made by man and have gotten their wooliness only by being left alone for over a century.  So maybe we can make nature wilder than it was, more dramatic than it was.  Should we be encouraged to reshape nature to re-form its wildness?  Same argument as reintroducing wolves and lynx to places that no longer harbor them, I guess.

These are the deeper conundra of environmental ethics.  Maybe art is easier.  A piece of site-specific art, if not deemed necessary by the site, must at least reveal to us new possibilities within the view, new forms, new angles, new frames for the grand landscape.  Staab's reed structures do that.  Would they be more or less beautiful if practical as well?  Fishing weirs, Samoan waterfront huts?  They look a bit like these things.  The artist himself looks a bit like a white man gone native, laboring in the water, diligently fixing his work so it will withstand the tides.

At least for a while.  Because any work made out of nature is destined to be blown away, to be dashed to bits in a storm against the slick wet rocks.  That's fate.  We only have left our memory of what we saw, what we heard, what we made, and the ability and urge that will let us do it again.


David Rothenberg's latest book, Survival of the Beautiful: Art, Science, and Evolution, was published by Bloomsbury in 2011. His latest CDs are Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast and You Can't Get There From Here. His next book, Bug Music, will appear in 2013. Catch up with him at www.DavidRothenberg.net.
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