Move Over, Bertha: Grand Art is Coming to Seattle Waterfront | KUOW News and Information

Move Over, Bertha: Grand Art is Coming to Seattle Waterfront

Mar 31, 2015

Visions of a post-viaduct waterfront graced with million-dollar art are rising above Seattle’s stalled tunneling project.

Officials may be reluctant to predict when the massive digger named Bertha will be fixed, but designers and city planners are dreaming of expanded pedestrian paths, entertainment options for families and art on a grand scale.

Last year Seattle's Office of Arts and Culture awarded several grants for public art installations on the waterfront. The largest, more than $1 million, went to Ohio-based artist Ann Hamilton.

She will create something for Piers 62 and 63, adjacent to the Seattle Aquarium. But she has no idea what that something will be.

You won't see a large bronze sculpture, and you probably won't see a mural. Hamilton says, for her, public art is all about responding to a particular place, "tuning it."

"All projects are a long collaborative conversation with a place, an institution, the people."

Artist Ann Hamilton
Credit Creative Commons

Hamilton is no stranger to Seattle. Twenty years ago she transformed the Henry Art Gallery on the University of Washington campus into a dark, mysterious habitat for 200 live canaries who flew free through the building, despite protests by animal rights activists.

More recently, Hamilton created a floor for the Seattle Central Library. The floor is made of a pale wood that appears pretty utilitarian from a distance. But if you take a closer look at the wood, you'll see hundreds of words in many languages. They're raised slightly above the floor itself when library patrons walk over them, the dust from their shoes makes the words legible.

And this spring, Hamilton's work is back on display at the UW's Henry Gallery. For a show called Common S E N S E, Hamilton has mined the Henry vaults, as well as archives from across campus, to create another museum-wide installation that includes everything from antique Native American clothing to photocopied images of dead, stuffed mammals and birds.

"I feel at home here," she laughs. "Everyone always asks, 'When are you moving, Ann?'"

The Seattle waterfront project marks the first time the MacArthur prize-winner will create an outdoor work on as grand a scale as her many indoor installations. Hamilton applied for the commission because the notion of civic spaces intrigued her.

"I see what can happen in those parks. You can watch the city melt off people."

Hamilton plans an extended stay in Seattle this summer, to get a sense of what happens along the waterfront and to learn more about the city as a whole. At this point she has no firm delivery date for her artwork; that will depend in large part on the timetable for the tunnel construction. She doesn't even know if what she creates will be permanent.

Hamilton does know that she hopes to make something that will help visitors experience the movement of the tides and the wind, to make a place where they can step out of their daily routines.

"Maybe one of the most important things that art can do for us now is help us reset our sense of time," she explains. "Seems like we're always racing against time, rather than being in it. Maybe there's the possibility within the space of the work to exhale, a little bit."