Public sculpture draws attention to Great Lakes ecosystem

Aug 5, 2016
Originally published on June 15, 2016 4:08 pm

Downtown Rochester, N.Y., can feel a little removed from the Great Lakes. The front lawn of the Christ Church on East Avenue is almost 10 miles from the shores of Lake Ontario, which might be why some passers-by don’t recognize the lakes -- even when they’re standing right in front of them.

People walking past a newly-installed public sculpture series mistake it for other things, including a fountain or a snake with a long tail.

Here on the lawn of the church are essentially five large concrete sinks, crafted in the shape and proportion of the Great Lakes. Silver faucets run continuously, cycling water through the sculpture.

“The project is focused on water conservation around the Great Lakes," says the Rochester-based sculptor, Kevin Dartt.

It’s called “What You Put In,” and Dartt has designed a delicate little ecosystem. One stray piece of debris could clog the fountain.

“Little occurrences of water abuse, they can add up, so this sculpture is meant to address that, represent that, in a fun and interesting way,” he says.

The piece will be displayed for the duration of the summer as part of a public sculpture series from the Rochester Contemporary Art Center.

Over the next few months, Dartt plans to watch people interact with the sculpture. Best-case scenario, he says, the community will become stewards of these mini-lakes, respect them, and take care of them.

“Worst-case scenario, you find it filled with garbage one day, which would be interesting as well.”

Dartt's piece is part of a tradition of contemporary political art born out of grass-roots social movements of the 1960s.

That's according to Claudia Mesche, a professor of art history at Arizona State University and author of the book, "Art and Politics: A Small History of Art for Social Change Since 1945."

Artists like Dartt, she says, use their work to make political statements about the relationship between people and the environment. “Using art to construct a link that has to do with the habits of various communities and reminding those local communities that they are part of a larger ecosystem.”

There are as many ways to construct that link as there are artists. Marie Lorenz, for instance, is a New York-based artist who navigates and documents waterways in boats she makes herself from recycled material. Her video installation is currently on display at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo.

Even Dartt has experimented with other media, creating a Lake Ontario pool net and a Lake Ontario water filter for refrigerators. “I kind of feel somewhat like an environmentalist."

Dartt says his projects are created with the hope of inspiring change.

Measuring that change can be challenging, but Mesche believes a lot of artists would be happy to reach even just one or two people. “If their consciousness is raised, maybe their habits are slightly altered, if they become more critical of their own habits or more critical of the situation, than that's enough."

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