Zen and the Art of Public Art
written by Tara Barton
There is something Zen about the nature of temporary art—something springing forth that was not there then falling away, together with the awareness that you are seeing or doing something you won’t ever do or see again. Perhaps that influenced my experience of this year’s TEMPO exhibits, which will reside in nine locations around Austin until November 19th.
The scents and sounds made the air almost palpable, drawing our attention outward and creating a greater awareness of these moments, shared by all parties present.
I chose to visit a few of the works at a time and recommend doing so, as the time and travel between works adds another dimension to the experience. Glimpses of the city, of unexplored residential streets off busier thoroughfares you’ve traveled a hundred times and of strangers all over town going about their day become part of the conversation that arises and then falls away: between the works themselves, as well as the neighborhoods and the city they inhabit. This dynamic element means that each visitor’s choices play a hand in sculpting their unique experience. Visiting a different combination of works on a different day could give rise to a different conversation, a different reading of the work.
On my first excursion, my husband and I started in northwest Austin, at Schroeter Park, with the intention of proceeding south. A Composition in Parts, a sound installation by R. Eric McMaster, made itself present even at the periphery of the small neighborhood park. As we approached, one of the four metal towers supporting solar-powered speakers came into view, and strains of raspy strings floated our way, along with the sweet scent of Texas kidneywood in bloom. Following the park’s winding paths, you might tune into scratchy high notes emanating from a tower in the bushes or be tempted by the sorrowful sound of a cello down a narrow path into an alcove of oaks. Families with children were out and about the Sunday afternoon we visited, and in the playground at the center of the park, the four parts of the composition mixed in with the sounds of kids cavorting on the slides and swings. The scents and sounds made the air almost palpable, drawing our attention outward and creating a greater awareness of these moments, shared by all parties present.
Smiling children, a greater appreciation of the present moment and the beauty of nature: these “Zen” themes carried over to the next stops on our Sunday journey as well. At Brentwood Park, Emily Hoyt-Weber’s Double Arch caught my eye immediately. Multidimensional rectangles of descending sizes, painted a pale periwinkle blue, simultaneously coalesce and spring apart above an octagonal planting bed. Insects bobbing among nectar-rich flowers are caught within the frames, along with a multitude of views of the well-tended park. The proportions of the sculptures rectangular frames are reminiscent of the ubiquitous smart phone photo, and it seemed to me a possible twist on Japanese garden aesthetics: an idealized view of nature presented in a pictorial composition. Here “nature” includes freshly mulched crepe myrtles surrounding a purple martin habitat—efforts of the Friends of Brentwood Park—a mother and toddler playing in the grass, even the sculpture itself.
Just as Double Arch brings our attention to the best aspects of the park, traveling to Brentwood and from there to Ramsey Park brought our attention to other picturesque views and City of Austin projects. Reconstruction along Justin Lane and Arroyo Seco has made the residential area into in an ideal, shady corridor along the creek, with ample bike lanes and crosswalks, so that our TEMPO excursion seemed to also showcase an artfully designed city.
At Ramsey Park, Maya, a sculpture created by Reynaldo Alaniz and inspired by a Mayan figure called a Chacmool, welcomed us to the playground. Created out of limestone polished to a smooth finish, the curvy figure reclines in the shade in an attitude of what looks like casual repose, though historically, the belly of the Chacmool held offerings to the gods. No offerings or sacrifices took place that Sunday. A teen rested a palm on the sculpture’s multifaceted head while checking her phone and chatting with a friend. On the way home, near sunset, we caught one of Steve Parker’s Tubascopes—three listening sculptures made from reclaimed brass instruments—outside the Austin Nature and Science Center. Trumpets and trombones, brought together so that one bloomed out of the ear of the other, amplified sounds of highway traffic, the insects and the breeze and transformed them into something akin to the sound of a choir of bass-voiced Tibetan monks. It seemed an appropriate end to the day.
Indeed, the conversation these works create amongst themselves and engage us in is an important end in itself.
When I set out to look at TEMPO artworks again a few days later, I did not know what to expect. More of the same? I headed first for Forgotten Landscapes, curious about this installation of kinetoscope-inspired sculptures by Ha Na Lee and James Hughes residing at Bartholomew Park. At this sprawling park in the Mueller neighborhood, I wandered around amongst the trees, but could not find Forgotten Landscapes. More searching revealed a sign fallen in the grass notifying me that the work had, unfortunately, vandalized and would be back soon. I was disappointed, but undeterred and curious about my next stop: The Aviary, created by Ian Dippo. The drive from Bartholomew Park to the Carver Branch Library in the Rosewood neighborhood carried me through disjointed landscapes: first rows of new two-story homes still under construction in Mueller; then the early rush hour on Airport Blvd, jammed with pedestrians and cars, restless in the sun; and finally, through the Boggy Creek Greenbelt, with its towering trees, and onto Rosewood Ave. Disjunction came to be one of the themes of this excursion as the afternoon unfolded.
It was a humid, breezeless day. The Aviary‘s bright yellow frames supporting a jumble of birdhouses and wires strung with paper cranes seemed at home squeezed between the library’s colorful mural and the neighborhood’s mix of small businesses and residences. I collected a pen and paper from helpfully labeled houses in The Aviary‘s mini-neighborhood—scattered among the birdhouses are some containing the supplies you need to participate, one labeled “Pens”, another “Paper”, another “Envelopes”—and left a greeting. I fished out some notes to read and found everything from colorful children’s drawings, to notes of thanks to the artist and the city, as well as a few more targeted messages—one “to our (new) neighbors,” another “to our neighbors with full houses.” I wondered if these messages reached their intended audience. Many of the birdhouses were still empty, awaiting future correspondence, full of possible connections to be made.
Downtown, the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center was quiet. During festivals, the place bustles with color and music. Catching it on an ordinary Tuesday, its jaunty angles seemed serious and subdued. The only sound in the massive plaza was the crunching of gravel as people jogged and walked their dogs on the trail that runs behind the MACC and along the river. The 8-foot-tall Barriscope by Megha Vaidya and Jesus Valdez presented a severe figure. Dark steel panels, interspersed with pops of bright blue, make up a wall of “periscope modules” that curves along part of the trail, dividing it from the stark white building for a short stretch. Approaching the wall, you find it’s full of mirrors, but the images they reflect are fragmented, incoherent. On the MACC side, the jogging trail is broken up into incongruous pieces and vice versa. Glimpses of the other side make you think you may be able to get a clear view, but each time you change your angle, it’s scrambled, frustratingly out of grasp.
With this odd experience still lingering, I headed south again to make my final stops. These made me no less uneasy. At the Manchaca Branch Library, Dameon Lester’s Humble/B-15 (Oil + Ice), a multifaceted sculpture in shades of blue, “references the Texas oil industry and glaciers melting due to climate change.” This stand-in iceberg sits rather ironically nearby the busy road, inundated with traffic fumes and blasted by the afternoon sun. George Sabra’s Era Gate similarly serves as a jarring reminder of the consequences of our dependence on the oil industry. Outside the entrance of the Pleasant Hill Branch Library, the sculpture, a warped arch made from reclaimed oil barrels, seems to be melting, collapsing. The strange white form, much resembling a pair of devil’s legs, towers over visitors, challenging them to make sense of its jumble of numbers representing the 6.5 million deaths each year due to air pollution.
How to reconcile these vastly different encounters with TEMPO? The City of Austin? Darker aspects of our human nature? Here, we come around again to Zen. Václav Petr writes, “One of the most important sources for Zen is the Chinese Taoist philosophy with its central image of ‘yin and yang which are Tao’… Like inside and outside of a cup, yin and yang are inseparable from one another. One even cannot exist without the other (Watts 1975, 1989). Without the mutual interconnectedness of yin and yang no change would be possible.”(1) Indeed, the conversation these works create amongst themselves and engage us in is an important end in itself. Connecting our day-to-day lives with life of the larger community, and all its delights and problems, makes it possible for us to shape our mutual future. Engaging with TEMPO also makes for an interesting day discovering new pockets of this fair city, and you may very well come away with something to think about.
The city’s website provides suggestions for different ways to experience TEMPO, including TEMPO Convergence, when all nine works “will be presented together at Edward Rendon Sr. Park […] as part of the East Austin Studio Tour, November 11–19,” as well as guided and self-guided tours, on foot or on bicycle. The experience is largely in the visitors’ hands. A visitor may not intend to be a visitor; they might be a library patron or a family visiting the nearest park and find their day graced by public art.
(1) Petr V. 2000. “Zen Philosophy and the Nature of Time.” Originally published in the Journal of the National Museum, Natural History Series, p. 119-122. http://www.mprinstitute.org/vaclav/Zen2.htm
All photos by Philip Rogers.