Jails and prisons give a twist to the conventional percent-for-art formulas. Who is the audience? Inmates? Guards? Neighbors? The press? Politicians? The guy driving the delivery truck? Hard to tell.

Years ago I advised a state corrections system commissioning artwork for their new $100 million high security prison. After fussing quite a bit with the silliness of buying art in general, they set their collective hearts on buying ONE piece of art requiring ZERO maintenance and would sink to the center of the earth at the first opportunity.

They commissioned a $1,000,000 cast iron ball and chain and set it in the turnabout. At four tons, it’s sinking into the soil as I type.

I imagine the Multnomah County administrators who advocated for and built Wapato Jail in North Portland knew the $56,000,000 state-of-the-art jail would never open. Corruption? Likely; no one will ever investigate. Incompetence? Certainly; we’re too convivial to point out the obvious.

Wapato Jail was located on empty land owned by the County in the North Portland industrial area called Rivergate. Surrounded by flood channels, a polluted lake and a landfill, and with jets launching overhead every few moments, the parcel proved hard to lease.

The percent-for-the-arts artwork which came from the Wapato Jail construction, I think for the most part, is not at Wapato. The artwork is to the East across the polluted and vibrant Smith and Bybee Lakes, and in Delta Park scattered around a sewage treatment plant. It’s a series of hideous peeled trees with weird pods attached – perhaps for animal nests – by Fernanda D’Agostino and large molded concrete objects, shells, bones, ancient pods, by Valerie Otani – items expected on a science fiction movie set.

Anyway, at the Wapato Jail, empty, locked and surrounded by high fences and cameras, are a series of artifice river pilings aligning the entrance road. The first set are bound with steel cables and bolts, then come single posts, then a clutch of five or so pilings. Real pilings can still be found at the riversides, made from tall pines and soaked in tar and fuel oil, a toxic swill called creosote, possibly at the McCormick & Baxter Plant down the way.

Finally, in the parking lot turnaround are more pilings, set in a V-shape, various heights, the tip pointing generally toward the confluence of the Columbia and Willamette Rivers, about a half mile off at Kelly Point Park. The V-shape can only been seen from the sky.

See the V-shape formation of pilings from high above by clicking here.

I’m certain there is some sort of artist’s statement which tries to make sense of this waste, set out before waste, surrounded by waste; but it’s unimportant because it’s overwhelmed by context, out of control by the artist. It’s just sad, another ball and chain.

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