Thousands of people flocked to the musical and theatrical events presented by the Burlington International Waterfront Festival over the past couple of weeks. The number of tickets sold — or given away — will enable organizers to determine almost exactly how many showed up (not including, of course, the concertgoers sitting in their boats just off Waterfront Park). It’s far more difficult to say just how many took the time to examine the festival’s visual-art offerings, such as the group exhibit under a tent, the new stainless-steel sculpture given to Vermont by the province of Québec, the temporary “Fort Sub Rosa” construction by Graham Keegan and Britt Browne, and other commissioned and pre-existing public artworks along the waterfront.
And we may never know how many people — perhaps just one — took a look at Alisa Dworsky’s installation and proceeded to demolish it. The Montpelier artist and her volunteer helpers began setting up “On the Level/Under Water” on July 4 on the lawn adjacent to the ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center. They installed 180 bamboo poles and some reflective blue tags on nearby trees, signs and buildings. The group returned on Monday morning to find that “someone had destroyed our work by tearing almost all the stakes out of the ground and creating a teepee form with many of them,” writes Dworsky in an email. “Clearly some folks were feeling both destructive and creative.”
With so little time left — the installation was to be on view just until July 14, the end of the fest — Dworsky was not able to rebuild. Commissioned by Burlington City Arts for the Quadricentennial, “On the Level/Under Water” was intended to “explore the interface” of water and “its use to establish an idealized spatial geometry,” according to the art-speak in a BCA-produced walking guide to the waterfront’s public art. Translation: Water level, which is generally uniform depending on time of year, has historically been used as a marker in engineering and construction projects, such as in the building of cities. You want to build a reasonable distance above the water level.
“The lake, in its past, has been at a higher level,” Dworsky notes. The blue markers, like trail blazes, were to be mounted at a uniform level in the surrounding landscape, radiating outward from the center of the installation. At a certain eye height, the field of marks would have “flattened” into a straight line, echoing the water’s “horizon.”
Residents of and visitors to Burlington may recall Dworsky’s previous — and much more successful — installation in the Queen City. Titled “A Time to Rend and a Time to Sew” and sited on the north lawn of UVM’s Fleming Museum, it involved “dressing” trees in various lengths of bright-yellow, crocheted polypropylene rope. Part of the museum’s “Material Pursuits” exhibit in 2007, Dworsky’s installation survived unscathed (if you discount the ravages of weather) from early September to mid-December. In 2001, she sited an installation of reflectors along the highway near Danville for a piece titled “Luminous Fields” that was “activated” by changing light conditions, including the headlights of passing cars.
The artist is saddened but philosophical about the vandalism of her latest project. Though the “missing” installation feels a little like a “phantom limb,” Dworsky says, she’s calmed down about it. “I accept that works of public art are, by their very nature, vulnerable,” she says. “One must build them nonetheless. I’ve taken great pleasure in being able to think about our built environments and our rural landscapes, and how I can reflect and respond to the qualities of a site through my art.”
Did the person or persons who ruined this artwork find pleasure in it, and if so, what’s that about?