Space Gallery and the city opens up pathways for public installations
Picture yourself on a peaceful walk along a quiet trail. Save the occasional runner or couple walking by with their dog, you are alone in nature. The sound of the wind whistles through the reeds, and last year’s fallen leaves crunch beneath your feet. You round a corner of the trail—and you’re facing an industrial drainpipe lurching out of the water, belching exhaust. Surely this doesn’t belong here.
This is the feeling artist Andy Rosen evoked with his Unpack installation on Portland’s waterfront last summer. Portland natives and tourists alike were treated to a little shock as they strolled on the Eastern Promenade Trail and came upon a small pack of wolves, or “feral dogs” as Rosen refers to them, standing atop a cluster of pilings on the shoreline. Some of the dogs looked trapped and angry, others lost and frightened.
Rosen constructed the seven dogs, life-sized and covered in fake fur ranging in color from heather grey to light brown, over steel-based skeletons, materials for which were provided by Maine Hardware, one of the several sponsors of the project. He affixed them to the old pilings, leaving the installation up from August to November of 2015.
The installation’s success lay in its ability to trigger a multi-layered internal dialogue. Did the dogs invade our space? Did we invade theirs? Did your own animal instinct cause you to be frightened, even if only for a second? Did you feel sorry for the critters, now trapped in a space where they once could run free?
Whether you gazed admiringly upon the handmade, vegan-material sculptures, or you were among the gruff handful that called City Hall to complain about them, the installation succeeded in making people look at a place they may have seen a thousand times before in a different light, raising questions and sparking a discussion about a space that may have previously gone unnoticed. A familiar location that your eyes may have skipped over became a point of discussion. “It was my intention to pit something made up against something real to better understand my own sense of what is domesticated,” says Rosen.
Unpack was a result of SPACE Gallery’s Kindling Fund, a program created by the gallery’s executive director, Nat May, and supported by the Andy Warhol Foundation’s Regional Regranting Program. The Kindling Fund supports Maine’s visual arts community by providing grants for projects that engage the public in inventive and meaningful ways. The first round of grants went to ten projects in 2015, including Rosen’s Unpack, which May called “one of the most successful public art projects I’ve seen in Portland in the last 15 years.”
May’s mission, both personally and in his role at SPACE, is to empower Maine’s artistic community, while simultaneously broadening the reach and accessibility of Maine’s visual arts culture. He says Rosen’s project, like others supported by the Kindling Fund, represented an opportunity to support a project that would provoke unexpected responses.
Rosen’s project was the first to successfully use a process finalized by the City in 2013 to allow for temporary art installation on public land, setting the stage for future project proposals. Previously, there were no rules or guidelines in place to support such projects. Now Caitlin Cameron, urban designer for the city of Portland’s Planning Division, along with an ad hoc review panel, vets each artist and project with an eye for practical considerations such as public safety and environmental impact. For Rosen’s project, for instance, he had to consult the harbormaster to find out if the installation would impact native birds’ nesting habits.
“Rosen’s project demonstrated for other artists in the community that public process doesn’t have to be daunting or arduous,” says Cameron. Since Rosen’s Unpack, the Planning Division has seen an increase in applications to create art installations on public land. Opening in June will be The American Dream, a sculpture in Lincoln Park by Judith Hoffman sponsored and funded by TEMPOart, a private temporary art group formed in 2013. Other recently approved temporary art projects include New Mainers by the University of Southern Maine Art Department’s artist-in- residence Natasha Mayers in the Portland International Jetport’s arrivals hall, and Icelandx207, which will culminate with a temporary art gallery by Justin Levesque inside an Eimskip shipping container in Congress Square Park to coincide with the 2016 Arctic Council meetings in October.
Rosen’s feral dogs are now on their way to New York City to be displayed at Jim Kempner Fine Art, in full view of the High Line Park, looking trapped, angry, or frightened and perhaps changing the way New Yorkers view a familiar site.
unpackproject.com | space538.org