Sheila Pepe during installation of Red Hook at Bedford Terrace at SCMA, July 2008.
Derek Fowles Photography.
NOTES ON LOCATION
Red Hook Terminal is a block or so from my apartment on Summit Street in Brooklyn. When I hear the boat horns at night I am reminded that this is New York City’s last working port. And I hold onto the idea that this is a city with a rich history of physical industry. It is a place where things have been made, sold and traded.
In the 1930s my paternal grandfather and his bothers-in-law owned a shoe repair shop on what was then the acute corner of Trinity Place and Greenwich Street in lower Manhattan. By 1940 the building was taken by eminent domain. It is now the hole where Manhattan-bound vehicles exit the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel.
When I walk out of my apartment at night I can see the entrance to the Brooklyn- Battery Tunnel about a block and a half away. The lights blare green fluorescence until dawn. Robert Moses would have preferred his bridge instead of this tunnel. But it, not to mention the sunken BQE (Brooklyn Queens Expressway) on the other end of my block, I always know he was here.
Last week IKEA opened a huge new store in lower Red Hook (the neighborhood) a few blocks from my home and from my studio. Now the big blue box store sits where there was once a 19th-century dry-dock. Cars, new shuttle buses, and even a water taxi from Manhattan make it possible for New Yorkers to enjoy this shopping opportunity.
Bedford Terrace is in Northampton, MA. It is a short, steep hill that ends at its apex by intersecting with Elm Street. Just beyond that intersection is a museum where I worked for a number of years in the late 1980s: the Smith College Museum of Art. There I learned about the special juncture where a community converges to enjoy learning about, interpreting, and conserving art. There I worked as an assistant and intern, and was taught by the people I worked for: first David Dempsey, then Linda Muehlig, and last but not least, Ann Johnson. Immersed in a collection that would prove to have a deep and lasting effect on my own studio practice, I enjoyed valuable lessons as a young artist.
June 21, 2008
by Sheila Pepe
RED HOOK AT BEFORD TERRACE is a celebration of intersections and connectivity, of places, people, and their labor. The work is made using simple domestic methods—crocheting, knitting, and knotting—and lifted into space with the aid of machinery. It is a contingent structure, formed by gravity and tension, existing only when installed within the architecture of the Museum. Cotton yarn, shoelaces and nautical towline are pulled together to connote various locations and occupations of human industry. As a whole the work is an act to conserve 20th-century notions of the “made”: hand and machine together. Red Hook at Bedford Terrace is also an act of cultural continuation, relying on the aesthetics of mid-20th century New York abstraction, 1970s feminist tropes, and late 20th-century notions of installation as performance and hybrid.
I return to the Smith College of Art, relying on its mission as I do its walls, to preserve an otherwise mutable and ephemeral construction. Red Hook at Bedford Terrace is one of only two works of this kind conserved beyond the end date of its exhibition (the other, Tunnel, 2005, is in the collection of the Jersey City Museum). The rest, over 50 public installations made since 1994, have been installed, then dismantled and recycled into subsequent works. This intentional performance of making and unmaking—of framing the institution from within to privilege the experience of art, rather than the commodity of art—can be tracked back to my days at SCMA. There it was made clear to me that the power of work is not its insurance value, but the capacity to be present enough to apprehend all of its other attendant values. At Smith I learned the relational lessons of conservation—the special ties an artist has with those who would care for and conserve her work. And at Smith I learned first hand from Nancy Spero how a feminist artist infiltrates space to own it, however briefly: a first step in carving a line into history.
New York City has always been a place of monumental loss and renewal. Yet, I find myself here in Brooklyn as we plow into a global 21st century knowing that much of the New York that I am attached to, by both family and art history, is a passing model. My own ephemeral strategies seem to have reenacted a kind of accelerated industry, loss, and renewal that I have associated with this 20th-century city. As this New York gives way to provide another metaphor, it seems right that Red Hook at Bedford Terrace arrests my modernist notions of human labor and connectivity in something both concrete and lasting.