Writers Block — a series of installations pairing writers and artists, constructed in 2004 behind Palmer Square on Paul Robeson Place — is having an encore. A new sculpture garden, this time called Quark Park, represents the work of 14 teams comprised of a different distinguished scientist, an artist or sculptor, a landscape designer, and in some cases an engineer (as well as works by three individual people) — revealing yet again what an extraordinary garden of scientific and artistic talent grows in Princeton’s own backyard. From Princeton University president and molecular biologist Shirley Tilghman to Princeton sculptor Jonathan Shor to Freeman Dyson of the Institute for Advanced Study and “rocket scientist” Congressman Rush Holt, Quark Park represents a remarkable intersection of intellectual and artistic creativity.
For example, the installation created by Holt and Dyson and installed by KSS Architects of Princeton “reflects the understanding that the basis of human time telling is the sun,” says Allan Kehrt, partner at KSS Architects. “The park is designed as a place of quiet reflection, allowing visitors to observe the passage of time through tracking the sundial’s shadow as it moves across the site. Benches are provided for this observation and the plantings within the garden reminds us of the life our sun supports. The shadow indicates the time of day in Eastern Standard Time ignoring our manipulations of time for our convenience each summer. Accompanying explanations illustrate the geometry behind the a sundial, and a deeper explanation of the physics of the sun.”
The land on which Quark Park stands is slated to become a residential property in spring, 2007, but the managers of Palmer Square are letting organizers Kevin Wilkes, architect and founder of Princeton Design Guild in Belle Mead; Peter Soderman, garden artist and founder of Bohemian Grove Garden Design in Princeton; and Alan Goodheart, founder of Alan Goodheart Landscape Architect in Princeton — the team behind both Writers Block and Quark Park — use the space through the fall. The installation may have to come down this winter, but Soderman believes that its influence will long outlast its demise. “It’s a grand gift from Princeton to the Garden State, the beginning of something special that will be exported from Princeton,” he says, adding there are hopes that the idea of the installation will spread and that actual parts can be moved to other places.
Wilkes says the lot on Paul Robeson holds a lot of visual and civic weight. “We believe that any vacant lot in a downtown commercial district is deadly to street life and the realm of public contentment. When you walk down a block in a downtown, various commercial, public and pedestrian activities bring life to the sidewalk.
“This particular section of Princeton, Paul Robeson Place, is bereft of civic public life. It once was a thriving African American community but it was bulldozed in the name of “improvement.” Now it has lain fallow for over 16 years. We want to resuscitate this section of town, even if only temporarily, to bring life back to its silent sidewalks. Quark Park will bring people to Palmer Square and the downtown of Princeton in general. The business community should see this park as a strategy to boost their sales and improve the quality of a visit to downtown for their potential shoppers and patrons,” Wilkes says.”
Visitors to the site are likely to be struck by how dense the installations and the plantings are. Dominating the greenery are corn stalks. This is silo corn, not planted until the third week of June, yet already higher than an elephant’s eye. (Actually, it should reach 18 feet.) Within concentric rays are the installations, each with its own plantings and distinctive look.
Wilkes says that Quark Park’s thematic blend of science and art “can teach us, especially when filtered through our democratic meritocracy, that our culture, enlightened by the discoveries of science and enriched by the interpretations of artists, can move into the future with faith and hope and a reasonable sense that we are advancing intelligently as humankind. It is so easy to be pessimistic and negative and to say no, no, no; to be, in short, uninformed. But Quark Park challenges us to be aware and better informed and to say yes, yes, yes.”
To the right near the entrance is a collection of brightly-colored circular disks and a bundle of brightly colored wires. This installation — combining the work of noted molecular biologist and Princeton University president Shirley Tilghman, professor of engineering and applied science Jim Sturm of Princeton University, sculptor Nancy Cohen of Jersey City, and landscape designer A. R. Willey of Stony Brook Gardens in Pennington — is meant to convey something of the way in which the brain receives and processes smell.
As Tilghman explains, smells are picked up randomly by the nose and sorted by the brain. In the installation the circular disks represent the sensors in the nose. The colored wires represents the paths the odorants take to the brain. “When the brain gets a message from several receptors carrying the same odorant, it will recognize the smell,” says Tilghman. She adds that several different odors can be detected around the installation, although she points out that every time a car drives by, the pleasure of the smell will be affected. Lights traveling along some of the wires are meant to convey how the impulses go from nose to brain. According to sculptor Cohen, it is probably best to wait until dusk to see the movement of the lights clearly.
Tilghman says she wants people to come away with from this exhibit with the understanding that “science, like the visual arts, is a creative endeavor.” She personally “found the experience of working with serious creative people from a different arena a heady experience — we had a blast.”
Sculptor Nancy Cohen agrees. “At our first meeting Shirley and I started talking about where there was common ground betwen my work and her research. She’s a very informal person, very real, very down to earth. She’s incredibly busy but when you have an appointment she’s completely focused on the task at hand, just as straightforward a person as you could hope to meet. We both wanted there to be a sense that there was something actually happening in the sculpture. Shirley recalled a sculpture that she had seen in the Guggenheim some years ago that had movement to it, and it became clear that here was this scientist who could run a university and also had art experience. I can’t imagine having had this experience with anyone more interesting and easy to deal with.”
To the left as you enter the park stands a series of granite columns. These form part of Perry Cook and Jonathan Shor’s lithophone, a percussion instrument that consists of rocks that are banged with some kind of stick. Cook holds a joint appointment at Princeton University; he is both a member of the music department faculty and associate chair of computer sciences, and his work is concentrated in psychoacoustics, music synthesis, and models of instruments. He is the only graduate of the University of Missouri at Kansas City to be honored twice as a distinguished alumnus, once in music and once in engineering. Shor is a sculptor who lives and works in Princeton. Also part of the team are wood artist Jen Cole, and landscape designers David Fierabend and John McDowell, partners of Groundswell Design Group in Hopewell.
Shor says the lithophone “is not a new invention. A 4,000-year-old lithophone was discovered in Vietnam.” The lithophone in Quark Park is made of granite slabs chipped off piers that once supported a bridge in Perth Amboy. (As he did for the Quark Park installation, Shor often works with materials salvaged from abandoned buildings or fallen trees.)
According to Cook, although some lithophones are tuned to specific pitches, Quark Park’s is not. Each of the 17 columns has a microphone at its base; if you take one of the metal tubes tucked in the first column and hit another column, that microphone will pick up the sound you make and after a moment’s delay, you will hear both the sound of steel hitting granite and the sound of the granite reacting. Visitors are encouraged to try hitting the lithophone. “Just don’t bring a sledge hammer,” says Shor, who, unlike other visual artists, encourages the public to touch his work.
Visitors can also hear a tape of a piece Cook wrote for the installation. Watching in Shor’s studio as the three Perth Amboy slabs were fashioned into 17 columns, Cook recorded the sound of the stone cracking. From this he wrote a 15-minute piece that plays continuously at the Quark Park site. In this piece you hear a “sizzling frying sound as the granite gives up its energy,” he says, as well as various hammering and tapping sounds.
The striking tall bamboo structure near the middle of Quark Park, made up of two interlocking letter Cs, is meant to suggest the hippocampus, the part of the brain that is necessary for learning. It is the creation of Tracey Shors, a professor in the department of psychology and the Center for Collaborative Neuroscience at Rutgers, and sculptor Steven Weiss, who lives and maintains a studio in Princeton. Weiss also teaches sculpture, drawing, and anatomy at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Landscape designer Dolph Geurds of Washington Township worked with Shors and Weiss on this installation.
In constructing the hippocampus Weiss says he had in the back of his mind a memory of the serpentine brick wall Thomas Jefferson had built; bamboo was, however, readily available and considerably cheaper.
According to Shors, there are three main sites in the hippocampus, and photographs of the cells in each of these sites have been colored and attached to the bamboo walls. Also part of the exhibit are sculptures of a male and a female face. Schors says the tree roots that protrude from their heads are intended to “illustrate the branching of dendrites,” which looks strikingly like the pattern made by roots. Shors hopes that visitors will “learn something about learning, about the biology underlying learning.”
Also planned for Quark Park is a stage, which will be used for lectures, science demonstrations, musical events, symposiums, and community programs. The Arts Council of Princeton also plans to present events in the park.
Quark Park opens formally to the public on Saturday, September 9, with a gala on Friday, September 8, but most of the installations will be ready before then, and the public is welcome to visit before the official opening as long as no actual construction work is going on. The park will be lit until 11 p.m.
Wilkes says: “We want visitors to have a moment of enjoyment, a glimpse of beauty, and a sense of the dimensions of contemporary science. We want children to connect to the realm of science in a way that is fascinating and intriguing, without having to resort to a blackboard and a textbook. We want visitors of all ages to leave with a sense of wonderment and delight, filled with thoughts of why things are the way they are.”
Quark Park, Paul Robeson Place, Princeton. Open daily to 11 p.m. Gala opening, Friday, September 8, 6 to 10 p.m. $80. 609-936-8618. www.quarkpark.org.