Art Where You Least Expect It (by Clairan Ferrono)

High Line

This past summer I read a fascinating article in The New York Review of Books (Aug 13,  2009) called Up in the Park by Martin Filler.  The question arises in every urban environment as to what to do with outmoded infrastructure. Often it is torn down to create room for yet another mall, or housing development, or high rise, but more and more frequently these days it is being recycled “into a new kind of public recreation space.”  This is the case in NYC, where a “long-defunct cargo railroad trestle” called the High Line, which traversed about 1 1/2 miles through the West Side of Manhatten, was turned into a park. opening in June 2009.

The High Line, an elevated train 30 feet in the air, originally built during the Great Depression to facilitate delivery of goods to manufacturers  as part of the West Side Improvement Project, “followed a mid-block, back-door path in the Chelsea district between and through spaces behind buildings, which made the tracks virtually invisible.  It was last used in 1980, fell into disrepair and was virtually forgotten.  Joshua David and Robert Hammond discovered their mutual interest in the High Line and dedicated themselves to saving it–as a city park in the sky. What could be a more magical (and useful) transformation?

Recently I came across another example of art in an unexpected place — Japanese rice fields.

Farmers in rural villages in Japan, by carefully planting different colored rice, create monumental images of mythological figures or gigantic field murals.

These murals cover 45,000 sq yards of rice paddy fields in the village of Inakadate.  Of course the designs are invisible from ground level, so viewers must climb to the top of the local village office to see the murals.  The village started rice paddy art as a local revitalization project in 1993.  Now it has spread to other villages.  The warrior seen here is in the town of Yonezawa. Computers are used to plot the planting of four different colored rice varieties.

Talk about thinking outside the box!

5 Responses to “Art Where You Least Expect It (by Clairan Ferrono)”

  1. 1 margaret January 8, 2010 at 2:16 pm

    Paris too has a disused railway turned into a park. The Promenade Plantee is 2.8 miles long, with a cycleway underneath and walkway above. It heads east from near the Bastille. The arcades underneath the viaduct have been made into workshops for artists and craftspeople. It’s quite a surprise to come across it if you don’t know it’s there!

    Near my home on the fringes of inner London, a disused railway, victim of the “Beeching” cutbacks to the British railway system, provides a pleasant walkway but was getting overgrown and frightening. Fortunately some pruning has brought back the walkers. Whether recreational facility or art park, such environments need maintenance.

  2. 2 clairan January 5, 2010 at 9:13 am

    Someone could do a nice post on gov sponsored art. I, like June, live in a city (Chicago) rich with public art. Everyone knows the Calders and Picasso, Claes Oldenburg (now that baseball bat is funny!), Ben Shahn and Chagall, and I think you remember the cows, which were followed by furniture and globes, etc.; but even in my neighborhood (Hyde Park) the Architecture Foundation does a tour of the sculptures. The most famous is Lorado Taft’s Fountain of Time. Most of them are not funny, however, but many are very interesting. When I first moved here in the 70’s as a graduate student in comparative literature, there was also a lot of funky art in people’s yards, some good, some just odd, random mosaic stuff and unusual collections (piles). I loved coming upon it unexpectedly!

  3. 3 Olga January 5, 2010 at 1:46 am

    Hooray indeed for the art of the boulevard – the unexpected delight of finding a sight and/or sound which tickles the fancy when rounding a bend seems even greater when it is deliberate. It seems somehow like a doubling of generosity when it is ‘official’, perhaps because something obviously meant to please many people for free has been thought about, organised, and payed for – just to give pleasure.

  4. 4 june January 4, 2010 at 9:53 pm

    Thanks, Clairan,

    I spent a good part of another life in small towns in backwater states, and when I came to Portland, I found myself stunned by the amount of art and the wondrous and funny kinds of art that are all over the city. By now, of course, this is usual in big towns/small cities like Portland, but back in the late 1980’s, I hadn’t encountered it.

    The wildly colored, huge Salmon cutouts in aluminum in the downtown parking structure sent me into gales of laughter the first time I saw them; my grandchild loved the little horse-trough fountains with fish and deer and beaver next to the courthouse; Portlandia (100 feet high, reaching down to the city) on her pedestal in front of the Michael Graves Building arrived, I believe in the pouring rain on a barge in the early 80’s. I looked and looked for it when we moved here and then one day, quite by mistake, there she was, holding out a finger to me. I stopped abruptly and said, perhaps a bit loudly, “Look, there she is” and was almost run down by a pedestrian. Then there are the hangovers — Teddy R. on his horse in the Park Blocks, the misshapen elk in the middle of Main Street, the greek-clad lady holding the basin out of which water flows.

    Perhaps my favorite unexpected art is Portland’s Sacajawea statue (circa 1904) which caused a great ruckus during the world’s fair in Portland because there apparently were no tributes to our pioneer foremothers, only to this “Indian woman.” If you’ve ever seen the DAR-supported statues of the Pioneer Woman with the rifle, the baby, the kid clutching her skirts and no man, that’s the DAR model, put up specifically to counter Sacajawea — who just keeps pointing west, looking aloof, at the head of a great public park. There is no DAR statue in Portland, Oregon, although there is one in Cottonwood Falls, Kansas.

    Now having regaled you with all that, I’ll admit that I never knew of the rice field art. And I’ve been reading about the Highline, but haven’t seen it. It sounds like a great success. Cities have made a great comeback since the 70’s when NYC went broke. Hooray for art on the boulevard!

  5. 5 Pam January 4, 2010 at 6:32 pm

    Thank you for this post, I found it fascinating and I particularly like the Japanese story! I suppose it is similar to installation art only useful at a practical level as well! I may not ever get to New York again (I am in Canberra, Australia and only spent one day in New York many years ago) but I would love to see the High Line. Thanks for posting.

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