Transformation at Socrates Sculpture Park

In Dialogue
‘Desire Lines’ by Stefania Urist. Image by Alexa Hoyer. Courtesy of Socrates Sculpture Park.

Founded in 1986 by artists, activists, and community members, Socrates Sculpture Park transformed an abandoned landfill into a cultural cornerstone in Queens, New York. This dual-purpose venue serves both as a public park and an exhibition space for contemporary art, targeting early- and mid-career artists. Occupying five waterfront acres, Socrates provides a unique platform for artistic expression and public engagement, offering free access to a civic space amidst the urban environment.

The park has a history of promoting bold creative experimentation, providing a nurturing space for artists to push boundaries and learn from their endeavors. By examining past projects by artists such as Chakaia Booker, Hank Willis Thomas, Maren Hassinger, and Abigail DeVille, one can appreciate Socrates’ pivotal role in facilitating artistic innovation and the integration of art into public areas.

The Socrates Annual 2023, running until March 24, 2024, showcases works by Ashley Harris, Ndivhuho Rasengani, Bat-Ami Rivlin, Kate Rusek, Maryam Turkey, and Stefania Urist. This exhibition, a result of the Socrates Annual Fellowship, provides selected artists with the resources to create significant public artworks. This year’s theme focuses on transformation, mirroring the park’s own evolution, often utilizing found and recycled materials. The exhibition is curated by Kaitlin Garcia-Maestas, who shares insights on her curatorial approach and the significance of this year’s installations.

Tell us a bit about your vision for the Socrates Sculpture Park exhibition program as the curator and director of exhibitions.
My vision is to continue advocating for and allocating more resources to artists that align with the demands of creating large-scale outdoor artworks in the twenty-first century. I feel fortunate to be joining the Park at a time of cultural reckoning, where cultural institutions have the chance to earnestly address and dismantle colonial power structures. I am particularly proud of the Park’s long-term commitment to enhancing our ability to support artists and staff through equitable compensation and collaborative support systems.

The Socrates Annual exhibition marks the culmination of the 2023 Socrates Annual Fellowship, in which six artists are awarded access to the Park’s outdoor studio and the production support to realize their public artworks. What else can you share about the fellowship?
This was my first year organizing the selection and exhibition process for the fellowship, and to say I learned a lot would be an understatement. It’s an incredibly ambitious project for the artists, the staff, and myself alike. It combines elements of an artist residency, RFP (request for proposal), and group exhibition, all wrapped into one endeavor. The production timeline is quite compressed, spanning only 15 weeks. Each of this year’s fellows dedicated their entire summer to making their work, often putting in 10+ hours a day despite challenges like extreme heat, rain, and mosquitoes. Their unwavering work ethic was evident, and I’m proud to say that despite facing a city-wide flash flood the week of the opening, they all managed to complete and install their work on time.

Chris Zirbes, a full-time staff member, works closely with the artists and serves as a vital resource in ensuring the structural integrity of every work before installation. Despite the long workdays, the summer becomes an exciting and fun opportunity to watch these artworks take shape before your eyes. Throughout the summer, many of the Park’s visitors closely follow the production process, as the fabrication studio is open-air and located near the Park’s entrance. For that reason, the opening of the exhibition truly feels like a collective celebration among the artists and our local community.

You are now showcasing the Socrates Annual 2023 Fellowship show. How did the artists interpret the theme of Transformation in their works?

The Socrates Annual is both a production fellowship and an exhibition. As the curator of the exhibition, when I’m reviewing applications, I have to remain conscious of how each of the proposed projects will relate (or not) to each other. What I’ve often found in open-call exhibitions is that sub-themes naturally emerge within a broad overarching theme like ‘transformation.’

In this case, one theme that kept emerging was the use of found and recycled materials, specifically materials that have been discarded or deemed of no value. For instance, Kate Rusek uses recycled aluminum blinds to create an incredibly durable and poetic sculptural form reminiscent of fungi. Each cluster of hand-rolled blinds draws strength from its neighboring components and the suspended support of the trees, echoing the resilience and interconnectedness found in nature.

‘Imagined Fungal Experience’ by Kate Rusek. Image by Alexa Hoyer.
Courtesy of Socrates Sculpture Park.

Similarly, Bat-Ami Rivlin repurposes bathtubs originally designed for interior domestic use, now positioned outdoors to carve a wheel into the air, creating frames for the body in seemingly impossible positions in space. Ironically, both Rusek and Rivlin’s monumental outdoor installations are made from household objects initially intended to control natural elements like sun and water.

‘Untitled (12 tubs)’ by Bat-Ami Rivlin. Image by Alexa Hoyer. Courtesy of Socrates Sculpture Park.

I hope these clever reclamations of discarded materials inspire further exploration of how other domestic materials can be integrated into outdoor sculpture. Recycling materials not only proves economical but also aligns with the sustainable practices that Socrates seeks to uphold in all our programming. I’m truly impressed by the innovative uses of material these six artists have demonstrated and the unique transformations that have resulted from their work, coupled with their ethical approach to art production.

Can you guide us through the show – How do you see the dialogue between the artworks and in the context of the landscape?
Each of the projectsresponds to the site in a unique way, with some works delving specifically into the history of the Park’s landscape. For instance, Ashley Harris and Ndivhuho Rasengani, who brilliantly applied as a collective, drew inspiration from the ancestral histories ingrained in the site. Their transformation considered the evolution of the land, from its origins as the ancestral land of the Lenape, Carnarsie, and Matinecock People, through its phase as a dumpsite to its eventual metamorphosis into an arts space. The concrete bases showcase gradient hues and impressions of elements such as rope, native grasses, and leaves gathered from the Park while they were working on-site over the summer. In essence, the Park made a living and lasting impression on the sculptures, which were crafted from a fusion of blown glass, recycled metal, and concrete. Considered one installation, these forms pivot and morph in response to the site’s natural forces—wind, rain, and human interaction.

‘Dwell in the Light’ by Ashley Harris & Ndivhuho Rasengani. Image by Alexa Hoyer.
Courtesy of Socrates Sculpture Park.

Maryam Turkey’s installation considers the full spectrum of the Park’s visitors, namely children. Drawing inspiration from her childhood in Baghdad, where mud structures bore the imprint of human touch, this immersive work echoes the architectural imperfections and textures that fascinated the artist as a child. Facilitating tactile interactions through its textured surfaces and intricate puzzle-like form, the artwork serves as a juxtaposition to the prevailing tide of mechanized construction and architectural rigidity. During the exhibition opening, Maryam was thrilled to see how intuitively young people gravitated towards her work, as though they knew it was for them. For her, this interaction validated the success of the design and reflected her childhood ambitions.

‘Deconstructed’ by Maryam Turkey. Image by Alexa Hoyer. Courtesy of Socrates Sculpture Park.

Stefania Urist’s installation perhaps engages most overtly with the landscape by utilizing phragmites, an invasive European reed grass thriving in North American wetlands. Over the summer, Stefania worked closely with NYC Parks to collect phragmites deemed invasive and a nuisance to the city. Once collected, she embarked on an incredibly laborious process of weaving the phragmites into fences, which were later used to create an immersive, winding installation resembling a historic map of New York waterways. While phragmites create monocultures and suppress native flora, they paradoxically act as a carbon sink, absorbing emissions, purifying waterways, and enhancing storm resilience. This work delves into the complex interplay of human-defined borders and species migration. In an era of rapid global change, the artist prompts us to consider who holds the authority to dictate habitats for certain species.

‘Desire Lines’ by Stefania Urist. Image by Alexa Hoyer. Courtesy of Socrates Sculpture Park.

What is your vision for the rest of the programming?

We will have a closing reception on Saturday, March 23, 2024, with artist-led tours of their installations, and a special poetry reading by Emily Toder will be presented at Untitled (12 tubs) by Bat-Ami Rivlin.

Featuring works by Merlin Carpenter, Maia Chao and Josephine Devanbu, Johann Diedrick,  Sophia Giovannitti, Liz Magic Laser, Ari Melenciano, William Powhida, Bat-Ami Rivlin, Rose Salane, Finnegan Shannon, TJ Shin, and Julia Weist