Friday, June 22, 2012

Meijer Gardens' Midwestern Charm

Not far from Grand Rapids, off a four-lane causeway, Frederik Meijer Gardens welcomes visitors in a low-key, mid-western kind of way. Founded in 1995, after more than a decade of planning and fundraising, the 132-acre garden and sculpture park still has a great deal of room to expand its collection. Meijer Gardens is the kind of place that exudes comfort in its mission and daily fulfillment thereof. It is at once a tribute to its founders, Lena and Frederik Meijer, founders of the successful big-box chain that has nested quite comfortably in the Great Lakes states despite encroachments from its southern cousin, Walmart. It is also a place for families to come together to walk through a horticultural landscape, enjoying evocative, but not overly challenging sculpture, and for those cash-cows of the museum/library/aquarium/garden world, weddings!

I visited Meijer Gardens on a hot and breezy Sunday afternoon in May. Irises were still in bloom, but the hot weather had propelled them a little past their prime. The highlights of our visit were probably the section of preserved wetlands, traversable by wooden boardwalks, the children's garden, the impressively large "American Horse" sculpture by Nina Akamu, and a giant stainless steel neuron set within a grassy meadow.

In the wetlands, an experienced birdwatcher alerted us to ducks, red-wing blackbirds, and an abundance of turtles and frogs. We adopted him as our guide and joined a group that included two delighted young girls who exclaimed every time they encountered a new frog on a lily pad or mossy log. 

After taking an air-conditioned break to view some of the indoor botanical gardens, we headed straight for the "American Horse" sculpture we'd heard so much about.The "Horse" by Nina Akamu is a replica of a Leonardo DaVinci monument that had been destroyed 500 years ago. Akamu became part of a project to replicate the 24 foot tall horse in Milan, Italy, and with financing from Frederik Meijer, in Michigan as well.  We were a little bit skeptical at first, because the idea of a horse-sculpture seems common, or even trite. But it's pretty impossible not to be impressed by a 24-foot horse with a front hoof raised high, holding a kind of powerfully destructive potential energy.

Next, we made a sweep of the actual sculpture grounds. Here, I was impressed by the utter lack of density. There were people there, and even a wedding photographer preparing for an event that would happen later that evening, but we could feel almost alone as we encountered sculptures tucked behind trees or across ponds.  We almost missed the "Neuron" by Roxy Paine. Looking at that sculpture, I felt that a neuron is meant to exist just like that, made of metal, in a meadow in Michigan.

Meijer Gardens is the kind of place that doesn't seem to require narrative. It can exist as a simple, living work of philanthropy, a legacy to its chief benefactors, and also a place that has room enough for visitors to create their own memories.  Unlike the Henry Ford, Meijer Gardens is less about the vision of the Meijers than it is about sharing beauty with future residents of Michigan and the world.  That's an attitude I can certainly respect in a philanthropist. 

Monday, June 04, 2012

Substance and Meaning: "Swept Away" and Book Culture

For more about the MAD Museum go to
During my last trip to New York City, I took an evening to indulge my interest in the intersection between physicality, functionality and aesthetics but going to the Museum of Art and Design (MAD) with a close friend.

Neither of us had been to the museum since it opened up its relatively new space at 2 Columbus Circle in 2008. But every Thursday night, MAD opens its doors until 9:00 pm and invites visitors to "pay what they wish." It was the perfect opportunity for us to explore.

We were duly impressed. MAD's featured exhibit that evening was called "Swept Away" and remains on view through August 12 2012. The exhibit follows in the museum's tradition of presenting international perspectives from emerging artists and designers using unusual media. In this particular case, the media were particularly ephemeral: dust, smoke, dirt, and sand.

My work for the 9/11 Memorial Museum project has strengthened my interest in dust as a component of art and artifacts, lending them physical gravity as evidence of a particular human event. The 9/11 Memorial's artist registry includes works from artists who incorporated dust from Ground Zero and lower Manhattan into their personal artistic response. Works by Jourdan Arpelle and Ejay Weiss provide notable examples.

In "Swept Away," artists' and designers' approaches to the media vary widely. Their works run the interpretive gamut as well, from subtly political statements about the destructive nature of war or the pervasiveness of environmental pollution to placid musings about the workings of nature. One of my favorite pieces used smoke as a kind of paint to produce images on the inside of glass bottles. Another preserved the ashes from a set of the artist's favorite books in unique vials of hand-blown glass.

When I read a feature in Slate magazine by Michael Agresta about the future of physical books, this particular piece came to mind again. The feature is called, "What Will Become of the Paper Book?" and posits that books will only be produced physically when their medium lends additional meaning to the book's text. Perhaps in the future, someone will manage to produce artwork from discarded pixels. Undoubtedly, the artistic and historical conversation about form and meaning will remain lively for years to come.