There are simply not enough superlatives available to properly laud the work of Access Arts Detroit, the group behind the Belle Isle Public Art Exhibit up now through June 29. The current exhibit features 11 installations — each one site-specific — as well as performances, artist talks, workshops and a panel discussion, all encouraging and facilitating greater participation with the pieces and the park.
I had the pleasure of attending an artist talk this past Wednesday, the 27. The evening kicked off with a musical performance by James Cornish on a public beach — flanked by the Detroit Yacht Club and the city skyline glittering in the distance — accompanied by a trio of dancers, led by Lisa LaMarre, moving between the sand and water. As Cornish’s horn players blared and the dancers undulated gracefully, a crowd began to gather and watch, many of them brandishing phones and snapping photos.
Following the music, we went on a paddleboat tour of Lake Tacoma for an up-close look at pieces by Chido Johnson and Ginger Chase. Johnson’s piece, titled “Not Yet Sure” — a giant, grinning, glowing head floating atop the water — is as grotesque as it is comical, and I couldn’t help but giggle at the absurdity of it. Chase’s piece, “Jewels for the Jewel: Belle Isle as Site,” is more clinical, and even practical — a floating glass vitrine, fogged with condensation, serving as a secure connection for the buoys that rope off part of Lake Tacoma. The piece hearkens back to a previous era on Belle Isle when the lake was a hotspot of recreation for wealthy Detroiters, and the buoys served a practical, recreational function in terms of partitioning the lake. The piece also looked like it could be a terrarium in a science lab, a piece of jewelry floating atop the lake, or even some critical part of a larger experiment, which in many ways it is, as the piece dramatically increased the odds of our group climbing into paddleboats, exploring the lake and having a free-floating conversation about art, Detroit, and the past and future of Belle Isle.
The final piece we looked at, “Medusa Gardens,” by Stephanie and Julie Howells, is giant plastic jellyfish ringed internally with sound-sensitive lights and hung from a tree. The jellyfish looked both playful and slightly obscene, as though they’d been wrenched from some other world and exposed to ours. As I gazed at them, letting my mind drift, a crowd again began to gather — intrigued and curious — wondering what we were taking such an interest in. The resulting conversations — between art patrons and casual park-goers — were in many ways representative of the overall success of the installations.
By bringing art out of the galleries and museums and placing it in a place of recreation and relaxation, a few incredible things happen: it exposes art to people who might not otherwise seek it out, it encourages conversations that go far beyond the specific installations, and — especially in the case of Access Arts Detroit — it also reinforces the already-existing beauty of the installation site, in this case Belle Isle. A Detroit original, Access Arts is evidence that artwork not only serves a real human need, but also brings people together and opens minds.