Monday, July 24, 2017 This Week's Paper

Know Your Public Art: Point Defiance Mystery Sculptures

This spring will mark 15 years since the completion of the Point Defiance Promenade – the half-mile stretch of concrete walkway that runs between the boathouse and driftwood strewn Owens Beach. The promenade was dedicated April 12, 1997. During the planning stage, a group of artists joined the project in an attempt to lend visual interest to what was seen as a bland concrete expanse. The artists (Scott Bailey, Toot Reid, Dan Senn, Myrna Orsini, Stephen H. Wong, and Cindy LaBlue) decided to include a series of poems by local poets that are etched into the concrete. There are also a series of square holes set at intervals along the promenade's edge. These look as if they once belonged to fence posts that have been removed. The holes are framed in charming little mosaic vignettes of glass, broken dishes and tiles. They were put in place to function as miniature tide pools.

The largest artwork affiliated with the promenade project, however, is a set of three towering, kinetic sound sculptures that stand at the beginning of the promenade. This untitled installation consists of three telephone poles upon which awkward, mechanical contraptions are mounted. These involve aluminum rockers and tubular "bells" (welders' oxygen and gas bottles with the bottoms cut out). In principle, wind is supposed to activate the rockers that cause strikers (devices made of rusty rebar) to hit the bells. Upon close inspection one can find handprints (those of Wong, his son and his then wife) etched onto the posts.

One may imagine that this wind-driven sculpture was supposed to act as an environmentally friendly machine – slowly waving its long arms and sounding its mysterious, resonant bells to welcome visitors as they set off on a stroll along the promenade. Their placement, however, is unfortunate. Set between the boathouse and the steep hillside, the rockers seem rarely to get enough wind to function as they were intended. Devoid of their intended music they are unable to draw attention since the industrial materials that they made of tends to blend in with the various posts and equipment associated with the boathouse. They are rumored to make a sound but it is said to take a pretty stiff wind to make them work.

On the day that his humble reporter observed them just one of the rockers moved halfheartedly in the breeze, but it did not deign to make a sound on its tubular bell.

While the mostly mute sculptures have visual interest in their own right, they do not appear to be living up to their full potential. They are not the kinetic, musical sculptures that they were designed to be. Perhaps they could be retrofitted with sails, fins or blades that would make them move receptive to an average day's breeze. We might then have a chance to discover their charm and come to love them. As is, they are excess furniture.

Near the kinetic sculpture is an aging concrete bench from which the song of the resonant bells could (in theory) be enjoyed. Or one can just sit and imagine what they might sound like if they did decide to ring. Does that make this conceptual art?

Wong is a designer and architect who, in the mid 1990s, did the remodeling of the Tacoma Children's Museum. In conjunction with partner Greg Kono, Wong also designed many of the exhibits of that museum.

A plaque on an adjacent wall of the boathouse gives a list of the artists, organizations, funders and poets whose efforts resulted in the promenade, as it exists today.

If the nearly invisible poetry and the silent bells associated with the promenade seem like a halfhearted effort, perhaps that is not the worst outcome. The main attraction of the promenade, after all, is the natural beauty of our own Puget Sound that the promenade allow us such glorious access to.