During her speech at the announcement that her installation will anchor the Benjamin Franklin Parkway’s centennial celebration, artist Jennifer Steinkamp said her first reaction to the Parkway Council committee’s initial query was to look up the site on Google Maps.
The William Penn Foundation granted $1.25 million for her latest piece, Winter Fountains for the Parkway, and it’s still hard to discern whether or not the internationally renowned digital installation artist is any better acquainted with Philly.
Steinkamp said the Parkway Council contacted her about a year ago to gauge her interest in creating the artistic centerpiece of Parkway 100 (with major exhibitions, programming, and events running from September 2017 through November 2018).
The plan for Winter Fountains, “inspired by the signature fountains of the Parkway landscape,” appears ambitious and potentially beautiful. Five massive fiberglass domes, 35 feet across and seven and a half feet high, encrusted with glass beads, will be placed along the parkway (locations TBA). With digital projections playing across the rounded surfaces at night, the installation will debut in December 2017 and remain through March 2018.
That’s right, an outdoor art installation designed for night viewing on the parkway, that longtime bane of pedestrians, in the middle of winter. So, despite all the wow factor of this million-dollar-plus art installation, given the timing, will anyone other than the usual motorists hurtling up and down the parkway get a good look at it?
In her speech to assembled press and city leaders at the Logan Hotel on a frigid March morning, Steinkamp’s remarks were refreshingly spontaneous compared to addresses from leaders of the Parkway Council Foundation, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, PECO, PNC Bank, channel 6ABC, and more. She recounted walking the parkway with Council leaders the night before, chuckling at how unpleasant this was in the freezing weather.
After the formal remarks, Association for Public Art (APA) executive director and chief curator Penny Balkin Bach (APA partnered with the Parkway Council to commission the work) insisted, during a brief interview, that Winter Fountains will be a powerful new parkway pedestrian activator, and people will be eager to come see it in the cold-weather months.
“I have never done anything like this before,” the Los Angeles-based Steinkamp told me. She’s accustomed to utilizing existing architecture for her work, not fabricated pieces. She hopes these Winter Fountains, whose frames will be created by a company whose only call for such shapes typically comes from churches and mosques, will visually “deconstruct” the buildings around them.
I asked if she wanted to elaborate on creating this outdoor installation for the East coast’s Coldest months of the year. She’s originally from Minnesota, she said, where it’s always either summer or winter. It’s not clear how this reflects on the installation’s timing and development, though.
Fruit, flowers, feathers, ‘Moth’
Steinkamp’s recent work includes massive, mesmerizing digital projections of fruit (2016’s Still-Life in Los Angeles), flowers (2015-16’s Botanic in New York’s Times Square), and feathers (2013’s Murmuration in Long Beach, California). Some of her work has also appeared here. Moth — six-foot-high digital projections of patterned, artfully shredded drapes of fabric appearing to blow in the breeze — was mounted at the Fabric Workshop and Museum in 2012.
On her website, Steinkamp says she created Moth after attending a party with Fabric Workshop founder and director Marion Boulton “Kippy” Stroud. Steinkamp watched Stroud kill a tiny moth and asked why. Stroud answered that moths eat fabric.
“Somehow the image has stuck with me, and I created a piece for the dead moth,” the artist says.
Bach said the APA and Parkway Council searched for a “current, original, and meaningful” artist, and Steinkamp’s work “will greatly add to the parkway’s contemporary reputation” as an art destination.
For the centennial of a defining landmark of modern Philadelphia — albeit a controversial one, which Greg Heller, now executive director of the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority, dubbed “a disaster” in his 2014 BSR essay — it seems strange to recruit an artist so little acquainted with the city that she had to find the parkway online to assess its size.
What about Philly resonates with Steinkamp now? How will her experience of the city inform her design? Hard to say right now, the artist admits. But she’s looking forward to the research.
For a public space and roadway that, by many accounts, has given neighbors and pedestrians a major headache since 1,300 buildings were demolished (between 1907 and 1917) for the high-speed diagonal arterial, some Philadelphians are likely to watch the centennial with a jaundiced eye. We’ll have to see whether the celebration’s signature art piece will embody the city in a meaningful — or even accessible — way.