JUNEAU – “Aquileans.”
That’s the name of a series of 10 metal sculptures that now grace the Juneau waterfront as they are installed this week. Some like the concept, while many think it’s garish, oversized, and a distraction from the natural beauty of the surrounding area. And still more complain about the choosing of a California artist rather than a homegrown Alaskan sculptor.
Others say birds have found a new repository for poop. In fact, “aquiline” comes from the Latin word for eagle, and is sometimes used to describe a nose that resembles a beak, with a downward curve.
The 10 stainless steel sculptures are part of the City and Borough of Juneau’s cruise ship berths project, and are funded through a “1 percent for the arts” program. That rule requires construction projects dedicate one percent to an artistic installation of some sort.
Artist Cliff Garten of California won the art bid in 2015 after a panel reviewed 28 concepts. The sculptures are being bolted to bollards along the waterfront that were formerly used to tie up cruise ships, and will stretch from Marine Park to the Mount Robert’s Tramway building. The installation is due to complete this week.
Garten said the origins of the sculptures are found in archetypes of the Alaskan landscape: “The form is a combination of two iconic ecological Alaskan shapes – a whale fluke and an eagle’s wings in flight. Set against the landscape of mountains and ocean, the sculptures will create a recognizable character for the waterfront and bring a contemporary aesthetic to the social and economic life of Juneau.”
They will also likely be noisy whenever the wind blows along the waterfront, and might be especially loud during gale-force southeasterlies or Taku winds. As wind howls through power lines, Juneau can expect some eerie sounds to be heard from the 10 unintended wind harps. Dogs may find the noise unbearable at certain harmonics.
The sculptor wrote: “The sculptures are made of ¼” laser-cut stainless steel plates which shape the 3/8” stainless steel rods that twist and turn to create the form. The sculptures reflect and refract sunlight during the day and are illuminated with a program of color changing LED light at night.”
Juneauites will attest that the sculptures may not refract all that much sunlight in the rain forest, where direct sunlight is infrequent, but that description can be chalked up to aesthetic hopefulness.
When coated with freezing rain and snow, they’ll transform in ways even the artist probably cannot imagine. And when illuminated by LED lights during the winter, they’ll probably find greater acceptance with the public than they’re currently experiencing.
Critics have been quick to judge. Even though the sculptures are not fully installed, an overwhelming number of the comments on Facebook have been negative:
“Vegas garishness on Juneau’s natural beauty of a waterfront. Someone dropped the ball,” commented one person on the Juneau Community Collective Facebook page.
“The 1% for art program should absolutely be restricted to Alaskan artists. So much ugly nonsense like this comes to Juneau from out-of-state for no reason. Alaska has one of the most unique and vibrant art communities in the nation. We hear that we are broke and struggling, that our PFD needs to be confiscated, then we see crap like this paid for with large sums of Alaskan money that was mailed out of state to someone far far away. Disgusting and unacceptable,” wrote another.
“Nimbus for the 21st Century,” commented one critic, referring to the most controversial sculpture in Alaska, which has been, at times, homeless due to its color choice and general unattractiveness. Nimbus, also conceived by an Outside artist, never really grew on the public, and for a while was parked in a Department of Transportation maintenance yard, before being revived this year for installation near the State Museum building.
“Why spend Alaska money on a Californian artist? It would make good sense to hire an Alaskan artist,” asked one Juneauite, in a sentiment echoed by several who said they’d rather see totems.
In Juneau, stirring up artistic controversy is a time-honored form of entertainment. This year, howling of the poop-covered Aquileans sculptures will only be matched by the howling of the general public, and possibly the howling of downtown dogs.
As for Must Read Alaska, these stainless steel looms look ripe for another type of artistic installation if the wind-harp effect becomes a problem: guerilla yarn bombing.