Massive sports stadiums stand on Cincinnati's central riverfront, but I seldom see passersby except for game days. Preparations continue for the August opening of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, but it remains to be seen just how many people will regularly pass through its doors. The restaurants and retail stores across the river at Newport on the Levee are popular but banal. It's a shopping center much like countless shopping centers across America, with a big empty box where an IMAX theater used to operate.
Public art is the missing link that prevents these spaces from being inviting and attractive.
The Theodore M. Berry International Friendship Park, opened by the Cincinnati Park Board on the riverfront east of downtown last May, is the jewel that regularly attracts pedestrians, runners and bicyclers, whether families or couples.
The park is the one spot where people can connect with the Ohio River and the surrounding Cincinnati hills. It's beautiful, almost meditative, and thanks to a recent arts gift by the city of Munich and that city's building department the Friendship Park has an extra burst of sparkle.
Visitors to the recent Earth Day activities at Sawyer Point who strolled through the park would have seen German architect Peter Haimerl and his construction team finishing the installation "Castle of Air" along a winding walkway near the park's western border, in the Garden of Europe section.
"Castle of Air" is a mix of the Pagodenburg in Munich's Nymphenburg Park, a lodge built in 1719, with Dan Graham's modern-day installation "Two-Way Mirror Curved Hedge Open Parallelogram," an outdoor piece made up of a large two-way mirror, stainless steel and trees. Its octagon shape is expanded with added boxes along its perimeter.
"Castle of Air" is as much a building as it is sculpture. A highly polished, stainless steel exterior provides added shine.
Plopped in the center of the Friendship Park's subtle, surrounding earth sculptures and rock formations, "Castle in the Air" is a burst of minimal, conceptual, poppy art. It shines like a stranded spaceship or unearthed gemstone. What makes the piece stand out from its bucolic surroundings is key to its appeal.
It's the Monday afternoon following the weekend dedication for "Castle of Air," and a small group of Park Board administrators led by Gerald Checco, superintendent of operation, some local architects and members of the Munich delegation gather in the black box performance space in the lower level of the Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art to hear about the program.
The CAC's basement space is a dark, claustrophobic counterpoint to the warm and inviting Friendship Park. Yet, out of the sunlight, the magic word that made "Castle of Air" a reality is shared with the small audience by Munich administrator Horst Haffner: "Quivid."
It's the new word commissioned by the building department of the city of Munich to designate the community art and building program (Kunst am Bau). While the word is comical, the Munich program is inspirational.
International artists including Vito Acconci (subject of a recent Solway Gallery exhibition), Jenny Holzer, Kiki Smith and Rodney Graham have works installed throughout Munich, from an elaborate rooftop wind rotor (Acconci) to subway murals and a series of photographs installed on waste disposal trucks. The photographs are of trips taken by Munich workers who have returned to their homelands via a waste truck converted into an elaborate RV.
The Munich activities are impressive, an example of how the arts become a natural part of the landscape. Later this summer, a new Munich park project with 11 installations opens to the public.
"Some people say that this is so much money for such a thing (art installations)," Haffner said, referring to one of the park's planned sculptures. "We do not need it. Take the money and use it for other things. But I hope its happens ."
That's something that doesn't need to be translated into English.