As I wandered through the fabrication facility toward a massive work in progress, I couldn’t help but remember sculptor Gordon Reeve describing the aesthetic of working in a factory space, among giant machines looming like “resting creatures”. The space echoed with sporadic sounds of metal on metal, a shifting and grinding emitting from the tools wielded by the few workers still on their afternoon shift.
The sound reminded me of experimental musicians rehearsing, bringing up sonic visions reminiscent of Harry Bertoia. “Sound is so precious,” stated Reeve speaking to the layered thoughts and feelings that went into the realization of his most recent creation. If you haven’t heard yet, Niagara has recently become home to a magnificent site-specific sculpture, Niagara Strait, the latest work of Niagara artist Gordon M. Reeve, renowned sculptor and award winning documentary filmmaker.
Bookended by the massive rocks of the Gorge on one side and the Botanical Garden on the other is a man-made plaza where the sculpture now sits. This sculpture provides a pathway between these two very different worlds. A strait describes the narrow passage connecting two larger bodies of water; taking its name from the functional nature of the river, Niagara Strait is meant to honour the history of the land and the people that lived here long before any of us. It serves as a portal, its massive scale physically allowing viewers passing through to emerge on the other side and back to life as we know it.
The stainless-steel walls weighing about 16,000 lbs stand slightly tilted, leaning towards each other. What looks like two walls is comprised of three sections. One wall presenting a narrow opening which was inspired by the effects of water running over stone in the gorge for “countless eons of time.” With rainfall or snowmelt, water running along this opening might offer a pleasant surprise to one’s ear or adventurous hand when exploring the wall. When conditions are right, the tilted overhang will also allow water to run past the edge in its own sort of waterfall. Such features affirm Reeve’s position that his work, which is always site-specific, is not self referential or decorative but rather hopes to engage the viewer with their surroundings.
It doesn’t ask for nods of approval to the successful installation of a logistically awkward behemoth, or as a stand-alone piece that can be captured with a camera – whether in a tourist selfie or for a textbook of contemporary art. Not that these are discouraged or unlikely for that matter, but there is more to this work than first meets the eye.
To Reeve, stainless steel has unique qualities somehow representative of our time. With this work, he contributes a reference to the here and now which will remain indefinitely; site-specific geographically as well as temporally. While the structure is permanent and the cold steel seems unchanging, every experience within these reflective walls will be different as the clouds of time pass by. Looking up past the sculpture’s sheer edges that frame the everchanging sky, watching the light dance across the reflections caught in the finished steel, or simply listening to its sounds – one senses a mixing of the natural and the artificial.
“As you pass through the steel corridor, sound from one world you are leaving diminishes, and, for moments, you are contained in a kind of middle placewhere the walls mix light and sound for you alone,” explained Reeve.
Sound is particularly important to Reeve’s process. You might be surprised at what sonic rewards a bit of tapping, banging or brushing might bring when you experience the work in person. Voices and sounds around the sculpture take on different timbres as you pass through. Who knows what you’ll hear as you take shelter here on a windy day. It’s up to the individual how they engage with the work, but it won’t be hard to get lost in the surface of swirls; the metal’s finish changing as you move or as light refracts on its own terms.
The work has been on a transformative path on its way to where it sits now; from the mind of Reeve, shaped by his vision and experience, to the drawing boards and through the steel factory, the individual parts, hung, shaped, welded and moved around until it was ready for installation. Travelling by convoy with police escort, flatbed trailers and cranes, it finally arrived at its now permanent home. Carefully guided and supervised by hoards of movers and shakers, T.V cameras and officials looked on as it settled onto the concrete foundation already in place. Over a day of laughing, smiling, swearing and sweating, what was hoped to be a few hours work, was finally cleaned up with handshakes and pats on backs long after dark. Now several days before its public debut, Niagara Strait still sits closed off by a construction fence, pavers in place and its intricate lighting system cycling. The time approaches for the official unveiling.
This event will include the performance of Barbara Croall’s new composition for traditional flute, and a rendition of Karl Jenkins’ Benedictus by the Walker String Quartet. Barbara Croall, Odawa First Nation (Giniw dodem, Manidoo Mnissing) composer and educator, wrote this piece specifically for the sculpture and its unveiling. Both her music and works like Benedictus provided much of the sonic backdrop to Reeve’s creative process while developing Niagara Strait.
The depth and emotion of the music reverberates throughout the nature of this work; listening to some of Croall’s previous works and watching the 2 Cellos performance of Benedictus, provided me some pleasant chills.
The unveiling will take place on site, May 9 2019 at 11am in front of the Botanical Garden and Butterfly Conservatory (2405 Niagara Parkway, Niagara Falls, Ontario). If you can’t make it then, be sure to go visit the work – rain or shine. Also keep your eyes and ears out for announcement of a short film based on Niagara Strait, this will be screened and released by RiverBrink Art Museum later this year.