In my job as a technician in the Museum’s Conservation Center, one of my duties is helping maintain the works of art in our outdoor sculpture Park. I routinely take trips into the Park to assess the condition of various pieces and to commune with the environment (and to see how the environment, in the form of carpenter bees and plants, might also be “communing” with the art).
One sculpture in the Park that has always inspired my contemplation is Steven Siegel’s To see Jennie smile. This 24-foot-tall sculpture incorporated over 20,000 pounds of News & Observer newspapers. Siegel and a team of 50 volunteers spent two weeks installing the work in 2006. Community involvement is an important aspect of the artist’s work. as reflected by the title of the piece. In an interview with the artist, Siegel tells his story of a volunteer inspiring his naming of the work.
Using specific materials to emphasize the ephemeral nature of our landscapes, Siegel always inspires discussion about environment and art. Visitors have often asked whether the newspapers are detrimental to the environment, as they are expected to decompose in the landscape during the piece’s lifetime. (The answer is no: the newspaper uses vegetable-based inks, and the glossy inserts were removed before installation.) I have found myself staring at the top of the sculpture among the trees and wondering if the local birds have taken part in the work as they construct their nests.
In June 2009, a conversation began among staff members regarding To see Jennie smile. We began to notice the sculpture leaning slightly to the right. Staff members of the Planning and Design, Conservation, and Curatorial departments decided to monitor the changes in the sculpture over the next six months. We photographed Jennie at various stages of deterioration and finally made the decision to remove the piece. On May 20 the NCMA staff said our goodbyes to a work of art that has delighted us, and the public. for four years.
The deinstallation took just a couple of hours and was pretty painless. After wrapping the entire piece in black landscaping fabric, the crew was able to pull the sculpture to the ground with a backhoe. The discarded newspapers and wood infrastructure were hauled off in a large truck. The staff, visitors, and the inhabitants of the Park will surely miss Jennie—especially the 3-foot-long black snake that had taken up residence inside it.
I revisited the sculpture’s footprint last week in search of remnants of the past. I performed my own little archaeological dig at the base of a tree and found small bits of Jennie. The ongoing presence of the work in the landscape—even after deinstallation—actually made me smile!
These remnants called to mind a quote in an interview with Siegel in Sculpture magazine:
“I believe that we are the landscape, not only by our physical presence, but also by the messes we leave and the way we reconfigure all of the material around us—from the roadway to the recycling of cans to nuclear waste. Our presence is there in every molecule.” Excerpt from an interview with the artist and John K. Grande, a contributing editor for Sculpture, and curator of earth art at Canada’s Royal Botanical Gardens.