UW News

June 22, 2006

Downtown art to be reborn on campus

Some major earth moving will be taking place in the shadow of George Washington this summer. The parcel of land between Henry Art Gallery and By George is being completely stripped and replanted in connection with the installation of a major piece of art.

The art work is called Nine Spaces, Nine Trees, and was previously located downtown at the old Public Safety Building, which has since been demolished. Pieces of the work have been in storage, and it will be reborn on the University campus later this summer.

But first the land has to be prepared. A crew from Facilities Services planned to start this week with tree removal, according to Jon Hooper, facilities manager of the Central Maintenance Zone. Once that is done, the whole area will be excavated, removing all turf down to the waterproof membrane that protects the Central Plaza Parking Garage beneath.

“Then the people from Fabrication Specialties, who are installing the artwork, will come in and construct a kind of pad on top of the membrane that will support the fence posts that are part of the work,” Hooper said. “After that we’ll backfill the soil.”

Nine Spaces, Nine Trees, created by San Diego artist Robert Irwin, will be in the center of the roughly 75′ by 200′ chunk of land. Originally constructed on a rooftop plaza, it consists of nine trees placed symmetrically on a 60-by 60-foot grid, each in a planter that is also a seating area. The trees are enclosed in wire mesh fence that divides the space into nine “rooms.”

Of course, the trees from the original work are long gone, and so is the fence, which was coated in a vinyl material that deteriorated. What remains to be moved are some of the planters from the original work and the aluminum structure that held the walls; the rest is being re-created for its new site.

The trees to be planted here are hawthorns. “Irwin used a flowering plum downtown, but he learned that that tree didn’t do well in a container,” said Campus Art Administrator Kurt Kiefer. “The hawthorn is a better choice for that. Also, the hawthorn has five different color periods. It has bare branches, flowers, green leaves, orange berries, and fall foliage.”

The fence, which was coated with blue vinyl in it’s original form downtown, will be purple here. “It has nothing to do with the Huskies,” Kiefer said with a wink. “Irwin chose purple to complement the orange berries.”

Although some people think of wire mesh fences as ugly, Kiefer says this particular fence will be attractive. “Depending on where you are, it can seem dense — because you’re seeing through multiple layers — or it can seem more transparent from another place,” he says. “It’s very elegant and very beautiful.”

Only some of the original planters are going to be moved to the new site. Originally, there were nine square benches that were the planter boxes for the trees. In this iteration there will be four of those, and interspersed will be five round benches that are more like picnic tables. You face outward on the square benches, inward on the round ones.

The fact that there are so many changes to the work in its move to campus means that this is a transfer of intellectual property rather than physical property. When the work was created in 1983, the city owned half the copyright and the artist the other half. The city transferred its half to the University, along with the right to take whatever physical components of the original piece are still usable.

“What I think is really interesting about this is we’re taking something that’s a concept, not an object, and saving it,” Kiefer said. “And it’s going to end up as a model for other works throughout the country that are on marginal buildings from the 1970s and really don’t have a structure.”

Nine Spaces, Nine Trees should be in place by the end of the summer. A dedication is planned for sometime in mid-October.

Meanwhile, Facilities Services staff are taking the opportunity to improve the whole site that surrounds the artwork. Hooper said the area will get new grass and a new irrigation system, which should improve its overall appearance.

“The plants there haven’t been doing well, so it’s looked shoddy for a while,” Kiefer said. “Since this is one of the main entrances to the University, we’re happy that it’s going to get a facelift.”