This spring, artist Nari Ward unveiled a new work on the High Line presented by High Line Art. Cecilia Alemani, Donald R. Mullen, Jr. Director & Chief Curator of High Line Art, recently sat down with the artist in his Harlem studio to discuss his commission, the inspiration for his work, and the High Line's unique sense of motion and flux.
Can you tell us about Smart Tree, your project for the High Line?
Nari Ward: When I first went for a site visit on the High Line, I had no idea what I wanted to do, but wanted to investigate the place. There was one moment in particular that struck me: I saw a tenement building next to the park, and looking inside it, where you would normally see furniture, curtains – people's lives – someone had turned it into a parking garage. And seeing these license plates and cars, it triggered a memory from when I was growing up: My dad worked for a university in Jamaica, and he would drive their van most of the time, but he always wanted a car for himself. So he bought two cars that he was going to fix up, and he parked them in front of the yard – but never got around to fixing them. They sat there for years, and fifteen years later when I went back, they were still there – and one of them had a lime tree growing out of it! That strange juxtaposition of the displaced cars, with the displaced tree, gave me the idea of trying to reconfigure that memory for the High Line.
I chose a Smart car because I didn't want a large-scale vehicle; I wanted something really discrete, that didn't feel overwhelming, and that referenced the body in a certain way. I wanted it to be about place-ness, or maybe even stasis, which led me to propose that the car wouldn't have wheels, but would be fixed, like a building. Because I also wanted to acknowledge the development that's happening around the High Line – there's a great deal of construction going on.
The cinderblocks are also a memory element, because on a lot of islands, in so-called "third world" countries, and even in some parts of the U.S., you'll see people building with cinder blocks, where the rebar is left sticking out of the top of the building, with the assumption that the next generation will build on top. It's a suggestion of possibility. The tire treads that cover the car are also really important in this regard, because they reference movement, which consumes the piece. I like the absurdity of the car being a giant wheel, and that wheel being somehow fixed in place. I always feel like when I make something, the more absurd it is, the more potential for symbolism and meaning it gains.
CA: Do you think there is also a reference to the High Line itself, being a former railroad, and a park mainly experienced in motion?
NW: Right. There are so many elements of movement, all around the park – the history of the place, the highway underneath, the sense of action that's all around. But at the same time, it wasn't about being of a specific place, but the question of place-ness. I think the tension between the tire treads and the cinder blocks is about this question of place-ness.
CA: Can you talk a bit about your previous work in the public sphere?
NW: Most of my previous public projects have been in some response to a community. In this context, normally you're a guest, and you work with an organization that already has a relationship with folks, with the community there. The High Line project was different, because it felt like here the primary force was instead coming from the site itself, this place, so maybe that's why it became about memory, and about the question of place-ness, how different visual bleeds of information can exist in the space, like the idea of the road, nature, and transportation, and movement being all in a really, really intense dialogue. You become aware of it there.
I noticed when I was on the High Line, that you actually become more aware of your body, even at rest. It's not like Central Park, whose rhythm is that nature is just there. The High Line's rhythm is that you're aware of your dialogue with nature because of the surrounding flux. The High Line becomes even more special and strange because of that – you can choose to be there, with nature, but you can't ignore the intensity of energy of the city in such close proximity. That's really what I wanted the piece to elaborate on.
Learn more about Smart Tree, currently on view at West 23rd Street.
This article originally appeared in the High Line Magazine, which is a benefit of High Line membership. Members keep the High Line vibrant! Your membership today will help us hire the gardeners and custodians who keep the entire High Line beautiful, clean and welcoming. Plus, as a member, you will bring great programs and public art to the park to engage visitors of all ages and interests.