A (Slight) Lament on the Park of Laments
What is the difference between a work of art that is fully spatial and inhabitable, and a piece of architecture? I recently visited (and wrote about, for another publication) 100 Acres, the new sculpture park adjacent to the Indianapolis Museum of Art. It is a wonderful collection of site-specific pieces, and the largest is the Park of Laments, by the artist Alfredo Jaar. Of all the pieces, I think it is the least successful, and I think the reasons why highlight the difficulties that artists have in using materials and methods in which they have not been trained.
Jaar has built a reputation as a political artist. Born in Chili, he now lives in New York but, in the manner of contemporary artists, works all over the world. He does not make paintings or sculptures, at least not in a recognizable manner. His work tends towards the making of poetry and political statements on the one hand, and, on the other, the construction of edifices with a political meaning. His most well-known work showed up in 1987 on a billboard on Times Square. It was a graphic animation that pointed out that a map of the United States was not one of America, and the flag of the United States not that of America: A map of the South and North American continents appeared and eventually took the place of the “R” in America.
The graphics were crude, but the message was effective. So it is here. Jaar intends the garden as a place to sit and reflect on all those who have been lost to wars in these violent times. Certainly the work provides a place where contemplation is possible. As you walk through 100 Acres, you come to a gabion wall: A metal grate holds chunks of Indiana limestone; an entrance leads you through a tunnel down into a lower area, whose sides slope down around you from a smaller versions of the same walls; steps lead up and out into the work proper into a square grass field, the sunken forecourt in its exact middle. The walls screen out views to the park below, leaving you only the scrim of the surrounding trees and the sky above.
You can lie down, or sit on the wooden benches built into the inner walls. You can also sit on the grass. You can think about war, death, and destruction, or you can just muse on the space itself. More likely, you can check your mail or your PDA, have a picnic, read a book, or sunbathe. Indianapolis Museum of Art Director Max Anderson wants people to discover their own uses for the space. He imagines that some day it might even be a place where parties can take place. So far, there are no restrictions on what you have to wear or what you can do. It is an open, free space within the city.
So, what’s not to like? The Park of Laments works well enough, but it is not quite breathtaking. I think the reasons are simple. By entering in the middle, the procession that started so beautifully with the descent into dark, the entry into another world, and then the rising onto a new plane, comes to an abrupt end. Somebody more skillful in manipulating your experience of space might have had you enter at one end, or even at a corner. The symmetry itself is deadening. The Park does not stretch, but sits there. It does not appear larger than it really is, or smaller, the way a space can when somebody has studied the proportions with great skill and attention. The surrounding walls are too low, so that the trees do not appear to be properly cut off, and do not seem to soar above you. You do not feel truly enclosed, isolated, and turned in on yourself in a public space, the way great gardens can make you think you are. Parks and rooms are at least partially about the shaping of space and your experience of space, and Jaar has not done so with great success.
Does any of this matter? Probably not. Most visitors will enjoy the space just in its remove and as a field where they are free to do what they like. I, for one, think the space could have been even better, and hope that artists such as Jaar will avail themselves of the wisdom and skill that architects and landscape architects have when artists use their particular means of representation and enclosure.