Friday, May 21, 2004 - Page updated at 01:34 A.M.
Art installations at Seattle's new library intrigue and inspire
By Sheila Farr
Who'd have thought an escalator would end up being one of the coolest places to hang out in our new Rem Koolhaas library building?
That's where artist Tony Oursler installed his ensemble of virtual talking heads in a broken-out section of wall covered in glass. The video projections put library guests nose-to-nose with several strange, murmuring apparitions for the few seconds it takes to ride between the fifth and third floors. The moving stairs glide by so fast and the vision is so tantalizing, I kept riding up and down, trying to take it all in.
I visited the library last week to preview three new site-specific pieces commissioned from stellar artists Oursler, Ann Hamilton and Gary Hill. All have strong international reputations for trendsetting work, and what they've produced here adds meaning, pleasure and prestige to our new library. (Another series of works, "Library Unbound," is planned for later this year and 2005.)
It's rare for Seattle to commission public artworks of this caliber. But I have to tell you the building itself is so captivating it's impossible to separate the architecture from the art. From its shiny, welcoming lobby to its blood-red heart to its airy, exuberant peaks, our new library is a thrilling place to be.
During a brief, rush-through of the 11-story building, the details stood out: The cool functionality of cement, glass and steel joins with ecstatic rushes of ardent color; vast expanses of wide-open space intersect with the rhyming grids of pattern in floor, ceiling and railing panels. Everywhere you look, there is something wonderful to see, and the artists responded to the distinctions of the building design. They made artworks that reflect their own sensibilities as well as the character of the place a testament to the power of site-specific art.
Sadly, two sculptural works that have been re-sited from the old library to the new don't fare so well in the transition. The graceful George Tsutakawa fountain that lived in its own spacious plaza at the former Fifth Avenue library entrance got squeezed into a little oblong pond against a landscape mound on the Fourth Avenue side. It looks crowded and tacked on. There should have been room to accommodate the fountain properly, but the landscaping competes with the fountain instead of framing it. Inside, on the eighth floor in the art and music section, a three-panel Glen Alps metal screen, also commissioned for the 1960 opening of the old library, got respectful treatment. But its material and style isn't a natural fit in the space.
Hill's video is more elegant and intellectual. He calls it "Astronomy by Day (and other oxymorons)." The rush of computer-generated video images plays on a 40-foot square wall above the library atrium, visible from multiple floors and vantage points. Watching it is like moving through space, passing the skeletons of three-dimensional objects. Hill puns on the open grid of the building's steel and glass exterior by reducing everyday objects a toilet, a lamp, a shopping cart, a stool to wire-mesh forms. The building doesn't have the thick, opaque surface we expect from such a structure, and Hill lets us see what life would look like if other objects shed their dense pelts, too. In daylight, especially if the sun is shining, the play of imagery fades to an ashen whisper. At night, presumably, Hill's "Astronomy" will animate the vast atrium in a "Space Odyssey" kind of way, as if we were rocketing through the galaxy of ordinary life.
The first artwork you'll see coming in the Fourth Avenue entrance is Ann Hamilton's 7,200 square-foot floor design in the Literacy, ESL and World Languages (LEW) section at the south side of the main floor. Hamilton had maple floorboards routed with lines of text in 10 languages, using the first sentences of books found in that part of the library.
A pleasingly mysterious pattern of familiar and foreign alphabets and phrases, the words appear backward, as if you were looking down at a line of wooden type on a printing press.
I like to think of the library as the printing press and us as the paper. As we walk over Hamilton's "LEW Floor" the words from 10 languages imprint on our soles, so that gradually and effortlessly we assimilate a little bit of those cultures by moving through such a grand repository of learning.
Hamilton's artwork is subtle and may not get the oooohs and ahhhs that Oursler's gets, but it's a thoughtful addition to the space and a pretty metaphor for our new public library.
Sheila Farr: firstname.lastname@example.org
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