5 Museum Memories of Storm King Art Center (New York, USA)
By Prof. Nidhip Mehta
Architect and Former Dean, Pearl Academy School of Design
My favourite museum to visit in the entire world isn’t even technically a museum at all. It’s 500 acres of rolling hills, woodlands, and green fields that holds one of the best collections of large scale sculpture and land art in the world. It’s about an hour north of New York City. One of best times to visit is during the autumn when the leaves change colours and the entire site itself becomes a natural work of art, and the man-made sculptures take a back seat to the great artist Mother Nature herself.
I’ve visited Storm King often, but I love taking others there, and it was on such an occasion in 2012 that I invited some friends from an internet science fiction community to take a day trip from New York City to spend the day there, roaming the grounds, admiring art, and enjoying a picnic. This visit was fortunately during the peak foliage season when the colours are at their most vivid.
My favourite piece at this place is “Storm King Wall” by Andy Goldsworthy, an exclusively outdoor artist from the UK who comes to a site and creates a piece using only what is found on the site, even the tools he uses are those found onsite. The wall is over 750 feet long, built of native dry stones, and it meanders through landscape beneath a canopy of. It dives into a pond and emerges again from the other side. Because the wall snakes through the landscape, there are loops and ovals that enclose trees, and when people are present, it forms enclosures that are almost like conversation pits. The rustic nature of the wall calls back to ancient stone walls that divided agricultural fields in Britain. On this day, the leaves were a bright yellow colour, giving the entire area a warm, glowing, golden feeling.
Another interesting installation at Storm King is called “Solarium” by William Lamson. It’s a small glass greenhouse located at the top of a rise in an open field with views all around. The special thing about this installation is that the interstitial space in between the glass panes is filled with sugar syrup, in varying shades of red, orange, and amber. The idea is that plants create sugars through photosynthesis, so the light they require is itself filtered through layers of sugar. The effect is that this little glass box looks like a bright orange jewel sitting in the landscape, and during the autumn, the shades of amber and orange take on even more significance. It’s not meant to function as a proper greenhouse, but I can easily imagine sitting there for hours with a book, bathed in the warm autumnal sun as breezes flow across the top of the gentle slope.
Many works at Storm King are versions of land art – manipulations of the earth into geometries, and patterns. Maya Lin, the architect who designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC as a student, created a land art at Storm King called “Wave Field”, a series of undulating curves in an open grassy field, simulating the ocean waves near the shoreline. The wave field is frozen in time, and although it’s interesting to look at in itself, the piece becomes activated when people are standing or sitting on the waves, themselves frozen at the cusp of a wave seemingly about to break, but which never does. Despite standing on waves of earth instead of water, one still gets the feelings of motion, of expanse, and of the rhythmic and permanent flow of nature through time. This is one of those works of art which makes a thousand times more sense when occupied by people.
One of my most lasting memories of this visit involved no art piece at all. Rather it was a simple dried flower that I discovered walking through the grounds, amongst a bed of fallen leaves. The flower had an interesting streamlined shape and had clearly fallen and dried before its full bloom. All the petals were intact but dried up into an almost alien shape, delicate and fragile. In death, it was frozen into rictus of unfulfilled potential, yet still achingly beautiful. This small, fragile little object that I could just as easily have stepped on, was the most poignant reminder of the impermanence of time and life. All the other man-made works of art reflected on this idea. There was Goldsworthy’s wall which took an extraordinary amount of time and effort to shape 1700 tons of stone into a shape that recalled a more rustic time. There was the greenhouse made of sugar, that reflected the chemical time of natural processes used by plants to grow. There was the field of waves, frozen in time, but dynamic in apparent motion. The season itself – the autumnal transition of summer’s end, marked by the splendid outburst of colours before the onset of winter. All of these, and this little flower, made me think deeply about time, place, history, life, death, and our place in the natural world.
All photos by Nidhip Mehta
VarnikaDesigns initiated the ‘Museum Memories Project’ on April 15, 2020. In this Oral History documentation project, individuals are requested to send in 5 memories of 1 museum they have visited anywhere in the world in their lifetime (more than 1 entry will be required for multiple museums). These memories could be in the form of max 10 photographs, doodles, sketches, poetry, illustrations, along with a write up.