Million-pound artwork, once doomed for demolition, finds a new home

A million-pound art installation in Washington, DC, once marked for demolition, will be relocated instead, thanks to a new agreement between the National Geographic Society and American University.

The company’s executive staff declined to be interviewed, but released a statement saying they were “happy” with plans to move Elyn Zimmerman’s iconic stone and water facility “Marabar” from its grounds at the university campus. The deal ends a debacle that began almost three years ago, when the company told Zimmerman it no longer wanted his sculptural work, erected in 1984.

“It is a piece that is part of the history of landscape architecture,” said Jack Rasmussen, director of the American University Museum, which will now be responsible for safeguarding “Marabar”. “A woman sculptor in the 1970s and 1980s who did that?” It’s revolutionary.

Members of the company’s board of directors had applauded when the plans for “Marabar” were unveiled, according to David Childs, the architect who selected Zimmerman to create the installation, a few blocks north of the House. White. Zimmerman, 76, named his work, a grouping of granite stones around a pool of bubbling water, after the fictional caves in EM Forster’s novel, “A Passage to India”.

The company is the nonprofit arm of National Geographic Partners, the majority of which is now owned by the Walt Disney Company. When in 2019, the company embarked on plans to build a new entrance pavilion and rooftop garden for rent, it decided “Marabar” was a barrier.

Because part of its land is in a historic district, the plan was submitted to the city’s Historic Preservation Review Board. After the review board gave the project “concept approval” in 2019, Zimmerman assumed his artwork was doomed. “I would never have faced Disney,” she said.

But advocates for the Cultural Landscape Foundation, a Washington-based nonprofit, have made “Marabar” a famous cause. More than two dozen architects, art critics and museum executives sent letters to the review committee urging members to save “Marabar”.

Despite objections from a lawyer hired by National Geographic, the review board ordered the company to return for another hearing, claiming it did not provide enough information about “Marabar” when it called. submitted his drawings. In March, National Geographic publicly pledged to save Zimmerman’s work, not by rethinking its expansion, but by paying to move the granite stones, weighing up to 250,000 pounds each.

American University, the new home announced this week, is just four miles away. The location is currently a grassy oval lined with crepe myrtles and park benches, opposite the university’s Katzen Art Center. The “Marabar” granite stones will be visible from Massachusetts Avenue, just north of Ward Circle, one of the busiest roundabouts in the district.

“I’m glad it’s still in Washington,” Zimmerman said, adding that she had planned a new setup for the stones and the pool. Rather than a long rectangular fake stream, the fountain will be crescent shaped. It is not yet known whether it will be emptied for the winter, as is the case for its fountain in the form of a lock in the Capsouto park in TriBeCa.

In a statement, Cultural Landscape Foundation President Charles A. Birnbaum wrote that “while we are disappointed that ‘Marabar’ is not staying put, we commend the company for working with Ms. Zimmerman on this resolution. . “

For Zimmerman, the success of “Marabar” had led to public art commissions around the world, including a memorial to the first World Trade Center bombing and an installation commemorating the 2008 Beijing Olympics. But another of her critically acclaimed works was recently demolished in San Francisco, and she remains concerned about the fate of public works of art.

Still, Rasmussen has said he hopes the “Marabar” saga can become a “learning moment,” starting with an interdisciplinary exhibit at the Katzen Arts Center chronicling its construction and relocation.

The excavation of “Marabar” began earlier this month, with the goal of installing the work at the American University in the summer of 2022. At this point, Zimmerman also plans to announce a new name for the artwork. “It won’t be ‘Marabar’ anymore,” she said. “It will be something new.”


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