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Mauling Sprawling Art Installations: Are Outdoor Works Destined for Desecration?

A family outing last Sunday to the Nassau County Museum of Art with my two Long Island grandchildren began auspiciously but ended on a discordant note: After my little ones cheerfully created fish-themed collages in the Manes Education Center, we went out to explore the sculpture installation on the spacious grounds of the Roslyn Harbor, NY, museum.

We were instantly attracted to the dazzling domes of Marko Remec‘s “Vertebrate Progression (Field Totem),” 2018, sited in close proximity to the museum’s main building and “stretch[ing] like a diamond tennis bracelet [a very Long-Island simile] over the landscape,” in the words of the museum’s description. It was one of two works by the artist that were “commissioned for the Museum and sited by the artist himself.”

Here are the museum’s online photos:

But that pristine procession was a far cry from from the widespread damage that we surveyed on Sunday. Here’s one detail:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Five-year-old CultureGrandson‘s face went from gleeful to solemn as he pointed out to his little sister the fragments from one of the wrecked domes. “That’s a shame!” he twice proclaimed.

I didn’t even know he knew that word, let alone how to use it so appropriately:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Uncertain about whether this damage was caused by visitors or by the inherent fragility of the domes, buffeted by the vagaries of weather, I contacted the museum and received this explanation from Fernanda Bennett, its deputy director and registrar:

Visitors regularly step and sit upon the Marko Remec sculpture, “Vertebrate Progression,” despite signage throughout the property and enhanced signage by this specific work of art—not to touch, sit, etc. [I read that sign to my grandchildren as we approached the piece, now in pieces.]

We consider it vandalism and if we catch you: There is a fine. Sadly, with 145 acres, it is nearly impossible to stop all visitors and even with a guard nearby [who kept an eye on us while we were there], it only takes a second for someone to plop down on one of the domes and dent or shatter it.

The domes have been frozen into the ground most of the winter. We were hopeful the damaged domes would discourage future dome sitters, but this has not been the case. We plan to remove the damaged domes in the very near future, once the temperatures overnight are regularly above freezing.

We are unsure how to prevent future dome sitters from continuing to damage this work. Fencing is not a reasonable option and the costs of a full time guard every day is prohibitive. Sadly, the desire to take a selfie sitting on a shiny dome seems to override reasonable peoples’ normally careful behavior. Thankfully, no one has been injured.

I asked (but have not yet received an answer) whether the artist would restore the piece. Perhaps he’s had second thoughts about having accepted such a calamitous commission.

One takeaway for custodians of outdoor sculpture in difficult-to-guard public settings may be that such works had better be less fragile (and less inviting to thoughtless selfie-seekers) than Remec’s “128 33-inch dome mirrors, nylon twine and assorted steel hardware.”

But that’s blaming the victim. Outdoor art installations are always vulnerable. Without full-time guards, it’s particularly difficult to prevent stealth vandalism such as recently occurred to a Sterling Ruby sculpture and an Eric Mack fabric installation that were part of the Desert X site-specific installations (to Apr. 21) in Coachella Valley, CA.

Ruby’s sculpture, “Specter,” was defaced with tough love (a graffiti heart)…

…but has since been repaired.

Not as fortunate was Mack’s installation, “Halter,” burned to the ground on Mar. 11, under circumstances still being investigated.

Here it is, in better days:

On its website, Desert X tried to make the best of this sorry situation:

Like all works created for Desert X, it [Mack’s “Halter”] was created to exist temporarily [but not that temporarily!] in the desert environment, known for its beauty but also for its extraordinary and at times extreme conditions, and to being open and accessible to a diverse, public audience.

While we are saddened by the loss, we recognize how privileged we and the desert community have been to have had such a powerful and moving piece, enjoyed by thousands, as part of Desert X.

It seems that when it comes to outdoor art, the traditional Latin aphorism may need to be flipped:

Ars brevis, vita longa.

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