From now until October 31st, The Arts Center at Governors Island, in collaboration with the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council (LMCC), will showcase three site-specific exhibitions. These include Meg Webster’s Wave, Onyedika Chuke’s The Forever Museum Archive_Circa 6000BCE, and Muna Malik’s participatory sculpture initiative Blessing of the Boats. As an incubator for creative expression, The Arts Center at Governors Island aims for its exhibitions to be spaces open for dialogue with a focus on projecting sustainability and equity in their works.
Meg Webster’s Wave
Curated by Alice Russotti and located in The Arts Center’s Upper Gallery, Wave masterfully connects the audience to its natural landscape components while highlighting the important role humans play within our planet’s ecological biomes. Drawing from a selection of pieces from Meg Webster’s career, which first began during the 1980s, Wave emphasizes the artist’s continued commitment to exploring nature in her work.
Through foregrounding the growth, evolution, and creation of the organic materials found within Wave’s works of art, Webster brings the exhibit into direct conversation with the natural world. In addition, striking connections are made between the past and present. Wave is rooted in the historical art movements of minimalism and land art while simultaneously engaging with contemporary conversations surrounding nature, ecology, sustainability, and technology.
“[Webster’s] passion and commitment to presenting [nature’s] radical content is intoxicating and drive’s one to learn more about the world around us that we so often not only overlook but also misuse,” Russotti said. “Through a visual language of poetic simplicity and physical directness, she shows us that the simplest of organisms exist because of a universe of wonderfully complex interconnecting systems.”
Wave is split into six distinct sections. With nothing separating each from the other, visitors can move through the gallery as if they have become another living and evolving entity transplanted into its confines, only to later be returned to the outside world upon exiting. The first section, Waterfall, consists of projections of the Houston Brook Falls in Maine from 1996. The recordings perfectly capture the area’s idyllic landscape, honing in on the waterfalls‘ serenity. Directly in front of Waterfall is Largest Blown Spheres, a series of five blown glass orbs. Made from human breath, the orbs are the largest size possible without using artificial means, connecting them to one of the world’s most important natural organisms.
To the right of the orbs is Moss Mound—created in 2021 within The Arts Center. Reaching just below eye level, Moss Mound presents the rolling hills of nature in a beautifully condensed form. Its curves break up the gallery’s rectangular space. Adding to the gallery’s reflection on nature is Nearest Virgin Forest, a chorus of unedited bird and insect field noises that can be heard while traversing the space. First recorded in 1987 and then again in 2021, the sounds emanate from the Hutcheson Memorial Forest, one of the last uncut forests within the Mid-Atlantic region.
The final two works—Growing Piece and Pollinating Garden—both created in 2021, interconnect with their shared usage of organic materials, space, and time. At 54 feet long, Growing Piece sits across the gallery’s floor as a living nursery for plants located in Pollinating Garden, just a short walk away on Governors Island at GrowNYC’s Teaching Grove. Over the season, seeds germinated within Growing Piece will be transported to Pollinating Garden and elsewhere across Governors Island to continue their natural life-span while also serving the environment’s bees, butterflies, insects, and pollinating plants. In doing so, Wave is brought into direct conversation with Governors Island’s ecosystem.
“The unique context of The Arts Center and Governors Island is central to the work presented, providing audiences with opportunities to inquire into these systems and environments that bend, fluctuate and connect us, while creating possibilities for conversations and change,” Lili Chopra, Executive Director of Artistic Programs at LMCC, said.
Onyedika Chuke’s The Forever Museum Archive_Circa 6000BCE
The Forever Museum Archive_Circa 6000BCE project, located in the Lower Gallery of the Arts Center, focuses on creating social change in the context of the United State’s criminal justice system. Utilizing sculptures as an archival form of investigation, orphaning, and rehoming mythical markers, Onyedika Chuke works to expose the less visible but deeper psychological meanings they shroud. Co-commissioned by LMCC and Pioneer Works, the exhibition traverses the history of the United States’ penal codes from antiquity to today.
Chuke was inspired to create The Forever Museum Archive during his time collaborating with incarcerated individuals as a New York City Public Artist-in-Resident at Rikers Island from 2018 to 2019. There, Chuke fought to create better access to the arts and foster dialogue between New York City policymakers and individuals in custody. This connects to his installation’s larger goal of shifting debates surrounding the purposes behind the United State’s justice system to critically examine how it came to be and the powers which have kept it alive.
As Gabe Florenz, Curator for Pioneer Works, commented, “His work immediately stands out on a visceral level and once you start to look closer you realize there are layers and layers you can peel back.”
Upon entering The Forever Museum Archive, visitors are immediately introduced to a labyrinth of Quaker church pews. These pews connect to the Christian Church’s involvement in establishing the first institution for the punishment of criminals in the United States. A Renaissance painting—a tool commissioned by the Church to promote their belief system over all others—in the foreground further highlights the ways in which capital and religion intersect with the carceral system. Interspersed between the pews are two of Chuke’s new hand-sculpted works created in replication of the decapitated head and dismembered feet of the Greco-Roman deities Hercules and Hermes. In encasing these sculptures within the pews, Chuke works to subvert the mythologized notion of heroism in Euro-American philosophy.
To the left of the gallery is another sculpture molded to resemble the structures of the human body’s thoracic spine. It serves as the point of origin for a series of plastic tubes pumping a solution of liquid soap throughout the exhibition. The cleaning product used was specifically chosen as it was produced by Corcraft Industries—the brand name for New York State’s Division of Correctional Industries. With Corcraft paying its incarcerated workers just 16 cents an hour, the tubes and soap were created by Chuke to critique the exploitation of prison labor. In a way, as the tubes travel across the floor, they could represent our body’s central nervous system, highlighting the pervasive cycle of oppression and injustice found within the United States today.
For Chopra, “As the site of The Forever Museum Archive_Circa 6000BCE, Governors Island is a potent stage for these layered and interconnected dynamics, as the land of the Lenape, the Island’s original inhabitants; in its later colonization and use as a military base; and presently as a space for public life and social engagement.”
Muna Malik’s Blessing of the Boats
As the final exhibit on display at The Arts Center at Governors Island this year, Muna Malik’s Blessing of the Boats is an outdoor interactive steel boat-shaped sculpture. Over the years, Malik has worked to generate cultural awareness in connection to the arts, with her most recent work focusing on capturing the narratives of women and refugees of color through poetry.
Blessing of the Boats seeks to foster collective empathy and action through individual engagement by asking its viewers to consider the prompt: “We have an opportunity to set sail towards a new future—what society would you build and how do we get there?”
To do so, visitors are encouraged to create origami boats in which they can write their answer to the suggested prompt before placing it into the crevices lining the sculpture’s structure. Inside the Arts Center, sealed packets with materials to create the boats can be found, allowing anyone to participate in the sculpture’s effort of collecting the thoughts and dreams of all its visitors.