On August 16, Providence’s newest art space, the WaterFire Art Center, opened its doors to the public for the first time. Located at 475 Valley Street, the center is part of WaterFire’s new headquarters at the former U.S. Rubber factory. Noting an absence of places for regional artists to fabricate and display large-scale works, WaterFire envisions the massive 28,000 square foot space as an arts incubator for projects and performances of a scale that simply wouldn’t be possible elsewhere.
The first work to be conceived in the space, Megan and Murray McMillan’s Coal Bin Project, effectively transformed the Art Center’s hangar-like structure into a Claes Oldenburg sized-coal mine, with nine giant geometric boulders of “coal” that were fabricated on site over the previous months. Friday night’s event was the boulders’ bon voyage party, a ceremonial procession to mark the next phase of the McMillans’ project. The space itself was quite dark, as a mine should be, with the boulders themselves serving as the only source of illumination, reflecting the light of the several small lamps aimed at them. A live band tucked into an alcove a full story above our heads provided a lilting, suspenseful soundtrack. Over the course of the evening, a small army of volunteer “miners” loaded the boulders one at a time, slowly and methodically (and manually!) into U-Haul trucks. More than mere heavy muscle, every miner also was involved in the fabrication of the 400- to 500-pound objects, and each time they hefted a boulder into a truck, it felt as somber as any heartfelt goodbye. The evening was marked by ritual, creating a solemn and introspective atmosphere that actually reminded me a bit of WaterFire (sans the Del’s and fried dough). The two works conceptually complemented each other quite nicely.
The second half of the performance will unfold at the boulders’ ultimate destination, MassMOCA, where they will be filmed as they are hoisted from a coal bin left over from the museum’s days as the Sprague Electric Factory and docked into a Japanese Tea House. The resulting footage will become part of an exhibit at the museum in 2015.
I’m anxious to see what future projects the WaterFire Art Center will play host to. The space is truly unique, and I’m very much looking forward to seeing how it looks in the daytime, as Barnaby Evans excitedly told me that the sunlight just pours through its many glass windows. And I really, really want some of those safety orange lifting straps the miners used to heave the boulders into the trucks. Five hundred pounds with your bare hands!