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Industrial waste? Unearthed relics of Colonial Cambridge? Abnormally-large cubby-holes?
What, exactly, is the origin of the tall stack of steel circles now sitting next to Bow Street’s Café Pamplona? In place of the regular outdoor dining tables, a sculpture of rusted weathering steel, crafted by sculptor DeWitt Godfrey, has come to decorate winter-chilled Pamplona.
For those of you already craving summer gazpacho and outdoor relaxation, don’t worry, the bewildering edifice is not a permanent exhibition. In just a few weeks, Cafe Pamplona will return to normal. The steel circles—known as “Pamplona”—are part of a new “Public Art/Moving Site” exhibition, sponsored by the Cambridge Arts Council. The council plans to take these shapes to three New England cities this winter and spring.
Godfrey, who is also an assistant professor of art and art history at Colgate University, installed his work in Cambridge this January and it will remain a fixture in front of Cafe Pamplona until Feb. 27. After that, Godrey will construct a new formation in New Haven, Conn. and later one in Bellow Falls, Vt.
In exchange, Cambridge will receive two projects from those two cities—first, an exhibition of models, miniatures, and dollhouses owned by Cantabridgians and curated by Michael Oatman, a professor at Renesselear Polytecnic Institute in Troy, N.Y.; second, the indefinable reinventions of the international group, Spurse Collective, who will install an impromptu eatery in Cambridge, with food and supplies culled from local residents and business.
An exhibit at the Cambridge City Hall Annex on Broadway will accompany each project, giving more background to the transient works.
According to Lillian Hsu, director of public art at the Cambridge Arts Council, this round-robin idea appealed to New England curators on several levels.
Conceptually, erecting the steel structure in subsequent cities seemed like an exciting, open-ended exploration of how artists create public art. But the project also had the practical benefit of allowing each city to apply for a particular grant from the New England Foundation of the Arts, which required that the projects be distributed through at least three states.
Through this short-lived piece, Godfrey says that he hopes to offer a new way of looking at aspects of Pamplona’s “residents” and landscape.
The search for the perfect space for Godfrey’s work was not an easy one; he was assisted largely by Kaz Naganuma, the public arts administrator at the Cambridge Arts Council. Naganuma says that they examined about 20 to 30 plots in Cambridge before securing Pamplona’s approval.
They had initially looked at plots on the campuses of Harvard and MIT, as well as space on the riverbank by the Boston University bridge, but decided that those sites weren’t sufficiently visible or well trafficked to suit Godfrey’s needs.
“We had a couple of places where we probably easily could have installed the works,” Naganuma says, citing the Carpenter Center as one example.
“But I think that, as public art, that doesn’t give us the challenge of, not invading, but going into the public space. So in a way we decided not to go to the university campuses.”
Instead, Naganuma and Godfrey pursued commercial and residential sites in Cambridge. About fifteen places turned them down, fearing that the installation of such a large project would damage their property. Additionally, Godfrey decided not to explore a few options where he thought the work would be associated with a particular corporation.
Therefore, Pamplona seemed to be an ideal spot—an offbeat, well-traveled cultural landmark in Cambridge, with a unique interstitial plot, well-suited to Godfrey’s inventions.
“Not only does it have those formal characteristics, but also the history of Café Pamplona in Cambridge doubles [the effect],” he says. “Anyone who is familiar with Cambridge knows that café.”
Pamplona’s proprietor, Josefina Yanguas, who has run the café for 47 years, welcomed the idea of art in her restaurant.
But even Yanguas was a bit scared by the size of the structure.
“I didn’t have any idea,” Yanguas says, “I thought that it was a little big.”
Yet Yanguas says that she is very pleased with the sculpture and that it has inspired a lot of curiosity among passers-by. She says that she has gotten a wide range of responses concerning the monstrous circles—some people ask her if she will be storing supplies in them, small children climb on them like a jungle gym, and still others have mysteriously inquired if she’s found oil.
Accordingly, a set of “response boxes” have been placed next to the piece. Some people have written that they’ve enjoyed the “country-climbing in the big city.” Others are less pleased; one onlooker in particular wrote that he finds the sculpture “an ugly, rusty eyesore!”
Yanguas says that she expected a variety of reactions to any kind of contemporary art, mentioning that her friends back home in Spain had similar reactions to the Gehry-designed Guggenheim museum in Bilbao when it opened.
“Everybody was amazed. Either you love or you hate it. But maybe they say the same thing about Michelangelo,” Yanguas says.
Godfrey, a Yale and Edinburgh-educated artist, says that he has been working with this style of non-rigid steel forms for about ten years, and at this large scale for about five. This kind of work, he says, is meant to be interactive—it’s fine to stand in the large circle at the base of the sculpture. He says the piece is meant to be “something you should or can touch.”
Nevertheless, Pamplona marks a shift for Godfrey.
“It’s, in a sense, the most public work I have ever done,” Godfrey says. “Primarily, I have worked in galleries in museums, sculpture parks.”
He continues, “When you see something in a gallery or in a sculpture park… you are prepared to encounter something unusual. I like the interventionist kind of quality of how this piece works in a place like Cambridge, it’s a physical insertion into a space.”
The companion exhibit, “Pamplona Inside,” is very public as well. As part of 344 Broadway’s Cambridge City Hall Annex, the work is plainly visible to citizens waiting to renew a parking permit or handle other municipal business. The piece consists of five smaller steel circles, leaning on one larger circle, through which visitors must walk to enter either the gallery or offices.
Last week, as the deadline for parking permit renewals approached, long lines curled around the first floor of the annex, allowing visitors to stare distractedly at the steel bubbles for an hour or so.
Most said that they hadn’t thought too much about the sculpture, but a few passed the time by contemplating the new art.
“It’s nice to see the contrast between the curves of the sculpture and the right angles of the building,” says Tim Sprague, an aircraft mechanic from Cambridge. “Also, it looks like it’s made out of scrap and I like it when things are made out of scrap.”
--Crimson staff writer Alexandra N. Atiya can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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