I took my first trip to the Seattle Art Museum's Olympic Sculpture Park yesterday with Lynn, Rex, and Ben. Ben was delighted with it: things to run around and look at, meadows, trains and train tracks, boats in the distance, a fountain...remarkably toddler friendly if they can remember to not touch most of the art (he did a great job). My reaction was very positive, as was Lynn's. (Here's a set of photos.)
I had heard it was pretty great, but I have to say it's far beyond great--it's an incredible realization of the melding of public art, public space, private space, and urban life, incorporating infrastructure (the roads and train tracks running all around and through it) and presenting a simulacrum of nature, too, that's both self-conscious (the beautiful, enormous metal tree sculpture that the crows find convincing enough) but not so ironic that it's not just also a real meadow full of native plants and wild flowers.
The space was seen as pretty troublesome because of the intersecting streets and the train tracks running through it. Somehow, the museum and its park designers managed to turn each weakness into a strength. Every part of the park has multiple approaches. Even the garage, integrating underneath the southeast corner of the park, has three separate exits (an elevator and pedestrian access on either end).
As you walk, you are presenting always with a unique outlook, whether "art" or "nature" is involved. I set those off in quotes, because part of the art is the mise-en-scéne: the placement of the specific created pieces or scenarios in the greater context of the park itself. There are no two moments when the park looks the same, and it's difficult to predict from any point in the park how the scenery will look when you take the next step.
They have also managed, again implausibly, to use monumental art that doesn't make you feel tiny. Instead, they have created the right spaces and relationships, so that you can take in the scope of something like Richard Serra's Wake--giant metal waves that were made in a ship-making ironworks--or Alexander Calder's Eagle without feeling overwhelmed by their size.
Claes Oldenburg/Coosje van Bruggen's Typewriter Eraser is positioned in a pretty jaunty way, to provoke you into seeing something unexpected in the landscape. It's a joke that an obsolete tool, a typewriter eraser, something that has been in little demand for decades, was turned into this massive, persistent object in 1999 (in an edition of three, from what I can tell, with another in D.C.). It's intended, clearly, to be amusing that it's sitting there out in nature. But it's not nature. From the angle of my photo above, you think you're looking at an endless park. Walk down the hill, and there's a huge street right there, and urban life. Walk above it, and you get a nice clear look at it, much more as if it's within the sculpture park. (There's also apparently a plaque forbidding photography of the item.)
Calder's Eagle I find much less successful as anything but an icon of the park. Up close, it's not that interesting, and its placement is rather dull. From any place other than right underneath it, however, it's an iconic image of the park, visible from great distances due to its location, color, and size. Lynn points out that that's its purpose, and she's right. But I think it's the only failure of imagination in the park, not being able to site the object and make it iconic at the same time.
There's quite a bit more, too, hard to take in at one setting. The cafe is rather nice, again a sort of monumental space that's designed for many purposes, and with lots of light. The food, very good. Someone had had a birthday celebration there that day, so were offered some free cake!
We took one path through the park, so we have a lot more to discover on subsequent visits, but it's a good first pass at a phenomenal new element of Seattle's landscape. We're doing pretty well: world-class new library (and building); world-class new sculpture park. How about world-class light-rail and transportation system (due in 2009, in its first phase)?