The Clark Art Institute’s Sprawling Outdoor Exhibition, “Ground/work”

Commissions from six contemporary artists dot the museums picturesque 140-acre campus

A cultural fount set within the idyllic Berkshires, the Williamstown, Massachusetts-located Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute (aka The Clark) opened its first-ever outdoor exhibition, Ground/work, this month. Commissions by six international contemporary artists comprise the non-prescriptive, non-hierarchical experience, wherein guests are welcome to explore the sculptures at their own pace—scaling hills and wandering fields and forests along the way. Guests can view all of the large-scale works in roughly an hour if they choose—or stretch each moment for true reflection. None of these works assert their presence; rather, they integrate into the picturesque surroundings. They duet with nature and dance to the seasons. Despite the diverse terrain, they’re also all ADA accessible with assistance from a vehicle dedicated to the exhibition—which will be open through October 2021, 24 hours a day, free of charge.

Constructing a sense of refuge had been an interest of the guest curators, Molly Epstein and Abigail Ross Goodman, well before they realized Ground/work would come to fruition in a moment defined by COVID-19. They were tapped in the spring of 2017 and knew then that they wanted to embrace the idea of spending time outside, engaging with nature while finding intimate experiences with sculptural objects. This paralleled the desire of director Olivier Meslay, who joined The Clark in 2016—two years after an addition by acclaimed architect Tadao Ando shifted the physical perspective of the museum from the street to the ground’s Stone Hill.

“Our real interest was to bring six extraordinary artists who work in sculpture to the site, to get them to spend time with the architecture and with the collection and allow them to respond to the landscape by making new work,” Epstein tells us as we peer across the installation. “Two of them had never worked outdoors before. Many of them have used materials and production techniques that were novel to their practice. We were really interested in the idea of material innovation.” Development of the show truly began, according to Epstein, with an invitation from them to each artist.

“Our curatorial work is very artist-driven. We wanted the artists to drive the process and to make something here that felt brand new to them,” she adds. In addition to granting artistic freedom, the curators allowed each artist to pick their own site. This decision-making ability impacts the entire experience, for many reasons, first of which is evidenced through Hudson, New York-based visual artist Jennie C Jones’ “These (Mournful) Shores” (2020), which extends from the Ando building itself.

Jones’ first visit to The Clark was on a snow-saturated, blustery and dramatic day. After exploring the grounds with the curators, “she felt herself called back to the building, as a kind of mothership,” Epstein says. “Her practice engages with the histories of minimalism and modernism—by reassessing their narratives and integrating Black voices. She responded to the architecture and began to think of the Ando wall as a record player arm, touching down on the landscape.”

Her work is a momentous Aeolian harp, played by the wind. It explores the idea of sculpture as an instrument—and then some. Jones was drawn to the tumultuous seascapes of Winslow Homer in The Clark’s collection. The placement of her work allows the harp to “call out to the Homer paintings and call out as a siren song to the landscape.” Those who visit on a windy day might hear the mournful soundscape the powder-coated aluminum instrument produces.

“There was a real interest in engaging the whole campus—engaging artists to think about the site as a raw material and integrate it into the object as participant or subject,” Epstein continues. The first work to be installed this summer, Analia Saban’s “Teach a Cow How to Draw” (2020), hugs the landscape for 620 feet. The LA-based, Argentine artist tasked a local from  Pittsfield to install the cedar-wood piece, which is, in essence, a fence that prevents the real-life pasturing cows from getting too close to the museum.

“Her practice involves working with the readymade and reimagining and repurposing what we know to be art,” Epstein says. It replaces the standard split-rail fence that once stood there. Though, even a quick observation reveals that this is not only a functional fence. Each segment is actually a composition strategy—be that the rule of thirds or a two-point perspective—approaches to drawing from throughout the history of art. It will weather with the seasons, too.

Further up the hill (though visible from the parking lot), New York-based Eva Lewitt’s three “Resin Towers” (2020) glow amidst the landscape. They were “conceived of as three color studies, with the fourth sculpture being the seasons,” Epstein says. Further, the 11-foot-tall sculptures cast colorful shadows on the ground; they play with light, which emphasizes what’s happening within. Of note, one of the three—”Resin Tower C (Blue)”—has been removed temporarily for conservation purposes.

Berlin-based Nairy Baghramian’s “Knee and Elbow” (2020) marks the first time the artist has ever worked with marble—as expected, it’s more than just composition exploration. “She’s taking a material that’s loaded with connotation—a classical material used for figurative sculpture in particular—and she has subverted our expectation of how the material can perform,” says Epstein. In fact, she inverts expectation, with scarred exterior and a slender portion of polished interiors.

“Over time and in our daily life, our elbows and knees bear the pressure and weight of our existence and how we move through the world,” Epstein explains. “Baghramian asks, ‘What would have happen if she took them out of their standard anatomical position and gave them a rest?'” This exquisite conceptual work offers an extended moment of pause as it’s set amidst a stunning panoramic view. There’s also no correct vantage point for the work—it should be circumnavigated.

Work from two artists play against a forested backdrop. Beyond the cloistered Hemlock Grove, LA-based Kelly Akashi’s “A Device to See The World Twice” (2020) magnifies the woods from a naturally occurring niche. Depending on one’s position, the central lens of the sculpture may appear to hone in on a toppled ash tree. When Akashi first positioned her sculpture, that tree was vertical. “That incident, that environmental chaos and chance, is what the work is all about,” Epstein says. “It’s meant to train our attention on the present moment while allowing us to realize that everything around us is changing. Nothing is fixed.” Akashi certainly plays with perception—allowing viewers to see the world twice.

Haegue Yang, who lives and works between Berlin and Seoul, contributes the three-part “Migratory DMZ Birds on Asymmetric Lens” (2020). During our visit, only two of the three sculptures were on site, though by publish all the conceptual works will be on display. Layer upon layer comes together for Yang’s trifecta—which references a political moment in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea.

For each multi-part piece, Yang 3D prints transparent resin into the form of a bird native to the DMZ. This element, half-composed of negative space, rests atop an asymmetric milled bottom portion. Each collects water and attracts birds, granting an intervention between a native species and a sculpture of a foreign one. “The conceptual rigor and research levels are complex,” Epstein notes, “but each is an aesthetically pleasing piece in a nook.” No works require as much investigation as these, which hide text and quietly speak volumes.

Though Ground/work is the institute’s first-ever outdoor exhibition, it is not their only presentation of outdoor art. In fact, when walking beyond Jones’ cedar structure, one of the first installations one may see is Thomas Schütte’s “Crystal” (2014) pavilion. “It’s not part of the exhibition,” Epstein says, “but was commissioned by the museum in 2017 and it’s so beloved that it is now a permanent fixture.” In many ways, the work accents those commissioned by Epstein and Goodman. It’s also worth popping inside (through the back door, for the full effect) to gaze out the front.

This October, art adventurers from all over ventured to public, outdoor exhibitions in Connecticut, the Hudson Valley and beyond. Ground/work really isn’t like anything else out there. “There was an interest here in offering a kind of counter proposal to what has become a sculpture park experience,” Epstein says. After all, The Clark is a world-renowned museum first. “Storm King is such a special place and Art Omi does great programming both outdoors and indoors. There’s a lot of reverence and respect for those institutions that have been doing outdoor programming at such a high level for a long time, but I think there was interest on the part of The Clark to define it differently.”

And with a year-long runtime outside, the works will likely never look the same twice. Though this benefits locals most of all, day-trippers and repeat Berkshire tourists should be eager to return. “Our hope has always been that people would come many times,” Epstein says. “The experience of the landscape at this very moment is so divergent from how it felt at peak summer when everything was so verdant and green, flowering and gorgeous. This autumn palette works so well with the art—and winter will provide really stark, dramatic moments.” Perhaps the exhibition’s mightiest ability happens to be the way it makes viewers want to come back, the way it makes guests wonder what the work will look like next time.

Images by Josh Rubin, shot on the iPhone 12 Pro