by Vatsala SethiDec 26, 2022
Moving away from the conventional instructive nature of the wayfinding to showcase the route to a destination, the public installation of the sculptures Wayfinding by the New York-based conceptual artist, Chloë Bass, are driven by emotions to let its reader take a moment of pause to introspect, ponder and analyse. To catch the attention of the passer-by, the engaging yet stimulating words of the installation at the Pulitzer Art Foundation’s outdoor spaces and neighbouring areas are a rightful encapsulation of her art practice, which oversees the blending of performance, situation, conversation, publication, and installation. The works are divided into four “chapters”, and each work is situated at one specific location of the four sites: the sculptures in the form of a billboard reads a question raised by the artist.
The site-specific installations were originally commissioned by The Studio Museum in Harlem, in New York City, and presented at the St. Nicholas Park from 2019–20. To broaden the scope of the initial ideas, for the installation at St. Louis, Bass closely worked with community partners. In an interview with STIR, Bass takes us through the journey of making this project, “For me, it begins in observation, and ends in emotional experience. It's no secret that the world is full of signs: we put language into public space all the time, to the extent that this language both fully guides our days, and also often becomes very close to unnoticeable. I've long noticed the places where signs are beautiful, or accidentally funny, or go slightly wrong, or become, in context, a type of found poem. Wayfinding seeks to formalise those types of observations, inserting poetic language and image back into the landscape as a way to publicly orient emotions rather than directions.”
Given the nature of the public installations, the outdoor play of light and shadow is crucial to the reflective surface of the sculptures. The position of the viewer along with the movement of the natural light could make the text either transparent or refractive. Bass gives an explicit account of her studio practice before the works are presented to the public, “My studio process for the work is a combination of digital sketching, writing and editing, identification and manipulation of archival images, and discussions with fabricators about the best ways to produce the physical project in a way that both conveys the metaphor of the work through material choices, and will serve as a safe, durable, and beautiful installation for an outdoor environment.”
This waltz shared between the two – light and reader - could suggest the words yarned together lend a unique meaning to the audience. In other words, Bass refrains from imposing a unidimensional understanding on her installations. The multiplicity is a key feature of her works that invites diverse audiences in an effort to experience a multifaceted sensorial value. The sense of disconcerting dawned on the perceptive mind if not overtly, but subtly hints at the parallel between the political economy and human emotions. Concurring the same thoughts, Bass states, “This is true of a great deal of my work, although I rarely seek to make those politics a central position. I think that daily the lived experiences have a huge impact both on how we interpret political or cultural events, and on how we remember history later. I want to make work that rests in the crook of those two rivers.”
At the rising trends of polarisation, and to bridge the yawning gap, the public art has the potential to break the homogeneous structures. The institutionally supported work such as Wayfinding available at the public greenspace, in the words of Bass, “is neither exclusive, nor generalised: it's always there for you, and it's emotionally and materially specific. It is elegant, and it is free.” The collective awareness and sensitivity towards the other through public conversation is a means to channelise togetherness. The open spaces of nature for Bass would serve a public function, “even if it's primarily aesthetic, which I think is only one aspect of this project) that holds direct value and care. In the United States, we tend to really devalue publics, and public experiences, and over-value privacy and exclusivity. I want to do the opposite in my work.”
In the absence of loud embellishments, it is the simplicity of the sculptures that make them easily accessible. The works are, as Bass mentions, “An invitation to experience private moments in public space.” It is the amalgamation of creative intelligence and artistic expression that could pave the way for conversations and contemplations. For the hustlers that we have turned into despite spending more than a year with the pandemic, the Wayfinding is attentive to the viewers’ close participation and open a possibility to “sit with it. Take the time. There are no wrong answers.”