Beth Dunlop Miami Herald November 7, 2010 Natural Beauty
Barbara Neijna’s extraordinary ‘Foreverglades” wins prestigious award
By Beth Dunlop Special to the Miami Herald
The vast, compelling work of art celebrates one of the world’s great miracles – the slow-moving “river of grass” we call the Everglades. But the art, which fills much of Miami International Airport’s oncourse J, is in many ways a miracle on its own. Barbara Neijna’s Foreverglades is one of the largest public-art projects ever built, covering floors and walls of two floors of the concourse, filling it with words and images, color and light – and even more, perhaps, with insight and inspiration.
On Friday, Neijna and Foreverglades received the fist-ever international Art and Work Award for a project in the built environment, an award of such magnitude that other finalists included the city of London and Royal Dutch Telecom. The award was announced at the 2010 World Arhitecture Coference in Barcelona. It’s an extraordinary honor for an extraordinary accomplishment
Some 10 years in the making, Foreverglades is simultaneously poetic and powerful – art about the extraordinary and intricate beauty of the natural environment. But it is also Neijna’s ode to a book, the profound and beautiful The Everglades:River of Grass, the seminal 1947 masterwork by Miami’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas. Her words are engraved at the beginning of the book (and into the terrazzo floor at the beginning of the concourse): “There are no other Everglades in the World. They are, they have always been, one of the unique regions of the earth. Nothing anywhere else is like them, their vast glittering openness, wider than the enormous visible round of the horizon”
The words are set into the floor as if they were contemporary poetry, some the type larger and some smaller. Other passages appear on glass panels set in front of brilliant-hued backlit photography, closeups of the grasses of the ‘Glades rendered as brilliant and profound as the windows of a cathedral. And on the upper floor – closed to all bur those going through Customs – the story is told in single words, still set into the floor – incoming, unseen, dark.
The last word is ‘life’ ”, Neijna says, and the word in the space before that is ‘miracle’ ”
For Neijna, Foreverglades represents much more than a labor of love; rather it is a labor of life. She is an internationally regarded public artist, a sculptor and a photographer whose work is often of monumental scale, and yet – as Foreverglades shows – she is utterly sensitive to the smallest nuances, to the intimate minutia of the environment and the vulnerability of it all.
“I’ve been involved with the environment in my work for many years,” she says. One the walls of her Coconut Grove house are photographs, hers, that at a glance seem to be explorations of form and beauty and on closer examination turn out to be startling examinations of putrid waters in Mexico – art with a message.
And there clearly is a message to Foreverglades. Start with the name, which can be read in more than one way: For-Everglades? Forever-glades? It is both a testimonial to the enduring, empowering quality of the environment and a plea to protect it, forever. The first hint that there is something amazing underfoot – and before our eyes – comes just at the entrance to the concourse where Neijna has crafted a single “blade of grass” in terrazzo, gradated stripes of blue turning into green. The blue-green blade leads travelers into
the concourse and in turn, onto the dark sparkling terrazzo emblazoned with text that moves from one end of the concourse to the other. That blue-green blade re-emerges at the far end of the concourse, somehow completing the thought.
The concourse – part of the MIA’s new South Terminal – was designed by Carlos Zapata in conjunction with MGE Architects of coral Gables, Zapata, whose architectural practice is now in New York gained recognition early in his career while based in Miami for his design for the sleek Publix by the Bay as well as an award-winning house in Golden Beach. The concourse is likewise a sleek offering – especially when seen on approach from an airplane – but its interior is really given over to the tour de force that is Foreverglades. It is part of the airport’s ambitious program that embraces Art in Public Places (a percent of the construction budget goes to permanent art) and rotating galleries.
Neijna did plans, structural design, even the hardware along with all of the photography that is transformed into windows and small, unexpected tile-sized inserts in the floor, ka total of 250. The concourse includes 450-0 liner feet of photography details blown up many hundreds of times to a point of imposing abstraction and expressed in glass panels that range up to 60 feet long.
The large photographs area set into cast stone walls panels imprinted with wave patterns, shells, leaves, grasses, bark, rock, along with random “found” objects. Some have drawings, in pencil or graphite, as if they were hieroglyphs. There are 1400 such panels, and none are the same. Thin horizontal bands of photographs divide the wall panels in a narrow burst of color.
When Neijna began the project, she thought she might just use a quotation or two from River of Grass, bu the books current publisher (Pineapple Press of Sarasota) told her to use as much as she wanted. Thus words and images intertwined. “In fact,” observed retired Miami Herald art critic Helen Kohen, “it is actually the product of two artists, Neijna and the writer Marjory Stoneman Douglas (1890-1998) both poets, both leaving permanent impressions on our culture and the physical world.”
Kohen critiqued the piece when it was complete in 2007, saying that “Foreverglades has an encroaching and enveloping narrative power. “You are immersed in the tropics within its confines, feeling the fragility of the environment, exposing yourself – or perhaps unwittingly at first – to the geological history of its most vulnerable and most necessary body of watery grasslands.”
History links past to present, and clearly in recent decades the Everglades has faced threats from a host of sources, polluting agricultural runoffs to the ever menacing and life-defying urban sprawl. From the loss of our water supply to the diminution of the world’s bird population, the ecosystem that begins in the river of grass seems to hang in some jeopardy always.
Passengers can follow the lyrical text as they walk the concourse. The final quoted passage reads, “Perhaps even in this last hour, in a new relation of usefulness and beauty, the vast magnificent, subtle and unique region of the Everglades may not be utterly lost.”
It’s all there, transformed from life to art, to life-giving art: Foreverglades into multiple dimensions- visceral, cerebral, aesthetic, tactile, intuitive and more. ”It’s a plea for help, a plea for awareness,” Neijna says, “but at the same time, it’s a work of art and art for art’s sake.”
[Barbara Neijna for December HOME Miami]
By Helen L. Kohen
What a moment for an artist, and what a challenge: create a public work of art for an airport, a work for an in-fact art gallery as long and wide and high as a cathedral. Though triumphant in its completion, and as fiercely confident an artist as ever, even Barbara Neijna stands in some awe at the perfection of Concourse “J” in the new South Terminal at Miami International Airport. It’s meant ten creative years to the Miami artist, a project involving walls, windows and floors, a totally ordered corpus, a singular precinct for art extending through two levels, made from thousands of different components. She has designed, planned, engineered, fashioned, fitted and touched every one.
Conceptually one of the largest public art works anywhere, “Foreverglades” is actually the product of two artists, Neijna and the writer Majory Stoneman Douglas (1890-1998), both poets here, leaving permanent impressions on our culture and the physical world. Douglas’s venerated ode to Florida’s unique geography, “The Everglades: River of Grass”, published in 1947, was the inspiration for the entire ensemble, from the book’s words inserted into the terrazzo floors, to the cast stone wall panels that bear traces of Florida’s flora and fauna, to the glass ribbons encapsulating actual photographs of Everglades grasses.
Neijna fans will be quick to see her signature in everything. An installation artist, sculptor and photographer, she has always been concerned with place, its history and spirit. She is a natural maker of passageways. Even her most muscular works of sculpture chart ways through openings and closings, thresholds and doorways. Born in Philadelphia, Neijna moved to Miami with her family in 1960. An award winning artist with four totally filled CDs of her artworks past, present, and future for a handy resume, her private and public commissions create landmarks. Art enthusiasts will recall her extraordinary “Interior Landscape” (1995) installed in the New Works Gallery of the Miami Art Museum. And viewers can see “Accordant Zones” (1991-1994), an environmental park designed with Ned Smyth that re-creates Florida’s eco-systems on the river side of the Broward County Judicial Complex in Fort Lauderdale. Perhaps what is little known, is that Neijna was a co-founder of one of the earliest established art schools in Miami. She is a consummate artist.
Nor is “Foreverglades” her first venture in the actual and metaphoric deep waters of a spoiled ecology. For a startling and extensive series of photographic works and installations on the subject of our seeming disregard for the human need for clean and plentiful water, she waded into Mexico’s putrid rivers to capture the precise sights and colors of a corrosive environment. Florida’s Everglades is a less worrying site for picture taking, but the act needs the same sort of artistic heroism. Neijna is slim and slight but she wrestles whatever she must for her art. She made frequent trips to Canada, Germany, and England to direct the production of the many elements of the Concourse “J” project, traveling back and forth as needed during the airport construction for confabs with on-site workers, architects and engineers. She has her own, custom-fitted harness for work done from a forklift. “Esthetically and technically I have no limits,” she says. “I do not want any aspect of what I do to be an accident.”
Concourse “J” is all about moving through an anointed space, moving in one direction, and paying attention in the process. Neijna’s canvas at MIA is huge, but the travelers/viewers experience of it begins at their feet, with the image in the terrazzo carpet of a single blade of sparkling, healthy grass. There is another at the end, where the tarmac begins. And all over, on two floors, the Douglas text is there too, selected words and phrases, in letters of varying sizes, lined up so it can be read at a walking pace. The first line is at once a statement of where you are and a call to arms: “There are no other Everglades in the world.” That theme and its variations are further articulated through Neijna’s uncanny ability to transliterate words and ideas into images, structure and material forms. This is Douglas: “Today Everglades is one word and yet plural.” Neijna’s metaphoric treatment of space dedicated to the Everglades in one integrated work is plural too, made of many distinctive elements.
The cast stone panels, mysterious and minimal where they are mounted high, yield literal meanings when seen close up. When describing the Oolitic limestone, the rock found in the Everglades, Douglas writes, “it holds streaks of sand or shells or pockets of humus.” In creating her own stone panels Neijna cast all sorts of materials and images evocative of the environment of the grassy waters. One is cast with Seminole Indian beads, another has a single perfect shell embedded in its center. There are discernible outlines of grasses and bark on many panels, and what looks like the leavings of an animal paw in another. Douglas mentions that a map of Florida reveals the shape of a “great pointed paw.” Some panels are set high up in a staggered pattern, a reference to saw tooth grass. One panel within sight is signed by Neijna in pencil, while others bear more elaborate graphite drawings on their surfaces. A favorite is one impressed with the outline of a tiny, fat model airplane. Find it. Whatever of the artwork is within touching distance can be touched, it is there to be noticed and enjoyed. In a real sense this is hand made art, every bit. No two cast stone panels are the same, and there are over 1,400 of them.
The use of glass is particularly intriguing, and quite literally legible. Both the large expanses of the material and the thin skeins of glass that define corners and turns in the architectural treatment are imprinted with the images of grasses Neijna photographed on her many trips into the Everglades. The glass holds the only true color in the artwork, and it is the element that enlivens the embracing space with light and movement. In her book Douglas delights imaginations with such color crazed descriptions as, “boiling red flames,” “bright crisp blue,” and “roily tangerine and orange.” Adding symbolic levels to her own placement of colors, Neijna encoded them. Blue refers to healthy, well-watered grass, the Glades under optimum conditions. Yellow connotes dryness, and red is fire. Because the indigenous red, blue and white mangroves of the Everglades leach color into the waters, Neijna manipulated her film to achieve the altered tones that signify wetness. In addition, she used double exposures to suggest the actual depth of lush vegetation in a healthy environment. It is all subtle, yet obvious. Natural light or light reflecting through the glass shimmers like water. Wherever you look in Concourse “J”, you know it’s South Florida, and you know the story.
There are not many artists who could fill the alarming dimensions of Concourse “J” with purpose and radiance. “Foreverglades” has an encroaching and enveloping narrative power. You are immersed in the tropics within its confines, feeling the fragility of the environment, exposing yourself – perhaps unwittingly at first – to the geological history of its most vulnerable and most necessary body of watery grasslands. Passengers entering have been seen slowing to read every word of the floor text, and youngsters have crawled over the area to trace out their letters. In the conception and execution of the work Neijna has certainly tapped into every talent and skill and technique and means of artistic expression she has. When the public art commission to take design charge of near every surface in the new airport concourse was won, she admits, “I took everything I have ever done and used it.”
It’s a sculptor’s job to tackle space, not just the actual physical space occupied by the work of sculpture but the viewer’s space from which the art is contemplated. While space in an airport is managed by the forms and functions of getting on and off planes, Neijna has neither prohibited that interchange nor ignored it. Instead she superimposed her own program of coming and going, delineating movement by texts and images, by their scale and placement, taking control of the flow with no obstruction save for the provocation of Douglas’s words and her own interpretations of them. There are no other Everglades outside Florida and there is no airport concourse quite like the one in Miami that spells that out. “Foreverglades” is an eloquent masterwork, an art installation that parallels the printed effort penned 60 years ago to stay man’s greedy incursion upon Florida’s most tender region. And it is more, bigger, writ large with texture and context, and totally accessible. Airports everywhere might well be green with envy of its clear message.
Barbara Neijna Interior Landscape Miami Art Museum Miami, Florida 1995
“YET THE SPRINGS OF FINE WATER HAD FLOWED AGAIN. LTHE BALANCE STILL EXISTED BETWEEN THE FORCES OF LIFE AND OF DEATH. THERE IS A BALANCE IN MAN ALSO, ONE WHICH HAS S ET AGHAINST HIS GREED AND HIS INERTIA AND HIS FOOLISHNESS: HIS COOURAGE, HIS WILL, HIS ABILITY SLOWLY AND PAINFUYLLY TO LEARN, AND TO WORK TOGETHER
Marjorie Stoneman Douglas, The Everglades River of Grass, 1947
Barbara Neijna has moved from the anonymous pure white surfaces of the Independence Place sculpture in Philadelphia (1981-87) to the richly textured, intimate surfaces of Florida limestone – fossilized coral — and shell of the CFA’s Interior Landscape sculptures. The change in surface symbolizes a change in attitude: where Neijna worked in reaction to the environment, she now works out of herself, and in supportive rapport with it. She personalizes her geometry with material borrowed from the environment, thus affirming — indeed, celebrating – the environment’s presence, rather than, as the Philadelphia sculpture does, standing aloof and apart from it. No doubt the difference is necessary: one must always ruthlessly define a “transcendental” space for oneself in the claustrophobic Northern urban environment while in the South, there still seems to be more space than one can use. Also, in the North, nature is a token presence, while in the South nature is not only more self evident, but almost overwhelming. So one must make one’s private peace with it. And yet nature is under attack also in the South. In fact, it is on the verge of destruction. Neijna’s Miami sculptures are ecological in import, an acknowledgement, as she says, of the “threat to our water habitats, toxic waste, receding shorelines, etc.: Her sculpture is a caring, preservative response to the Florida environment, and yet, in Shellscape, an object lesson in it precarious state: the angle raised a few degrees, the entire house of shells would come tumbling down. Neijna’s Miami sculpture may be a memento mori for the Florida environment, rather than monuments to its durability.
While there is a swing in mood from Philadelphia to Miami, Neijna’s sculpture remain triumphantly geometrical, Minimalist and perfectionist. In Night Sea Memory, eight Suprematist squares, serially repeated in two rows of four squares, each magnificently black, confront us. Each resounds like a bell, acknowledging the toll of time. The work is an abstract drawer: in each square’s center is a small compartment containing personal memorabilia, including shells from local beaches. Thus Neijna takes a constructivist convention and makes it freshly poetic by personalizing it. She gives an old idea new emotional purpose, in the process revitalizing it. Like all the Miami works, Night Sea Memory is site-specific and archeological in import: a personal excavation, in contrast to some of the other works, which relate to Neijna’s excavations in Florida’s Native American villages. It, too, articulates a core of selfhood, and functions as a talisman or stele of identity: a marker in time and history, if, in the case of Night Sea Memory, an individual rather than collective marker.
Archeology acknowledges death, even as it restores the dead to illusory life, and all of Neijna’s Miami sculptures can be understood as ambitious efforts to restore what is environmentally dead or dying to emotional life. At the same time, she never loses her esthetic purity, even as she suffuses her abstract geometry with lifeworld meaning and imagistic overtones, making it personally symbolic. Her use of black is perhaps most indicative of this, for it unites Ad Reinhardt’s idea of black as the ultimate articulation of the art-as-art (art as nothing but art, which means that it is not life and utterly selfless) with Kandinshy’s view of black as “a totally dead silence…..motionless like a corpse.” *1 Black as absolute art, black as the ultimate tragic material – and black as a site to be excavated.
Taken as a whole, the works in the CFA installation form a hermetic architecture like the Philadelphia sculpture. They are even more sacred in import or, rather, a different kind of divinity – the Earth Spirit rather than the Sky Spirit – is being acknowledged and worshipped here. One has the distinct feeling of entering a sanctuary or temple in which primitive mysteries are enacted. Each sculpture has a strong presence, as though it was a uniquely sacred being as well as part of a holy family of subjective objects. The shrine’s entrance is marked by a wall Stele of oolite limestone, not unlike the circular shields that adorned ancient Greek temples, in sacred memory of the dead warriors who used them. In the entrance hall a giant cone of earth – Florida muck, peat, humus, marl — is suspended from the ceiling. It is ceremonially elevated, a sacramental Host waiting to be consumed. Is it sacrilege to suggest that it is the earth crucified? The work is entitled Under the Green Coat is an Endangered Heart, and it is no doubt a sacred heart. This is no indifferently grandiose, ironically abstract earthwork, like those of Michael Heizer and Robert Smithson, but one with indeed heart – a beating, still living heart, as the earthblood that drips through its skeletal mesh suggest. It is in emotional fact a body dying on the cross of environmental abuse. L Night Sea Memory is also a kind of suffering body, each compartment is a little reliquary. The work is a kind of catacomb, in which the dead are stored for the instruction and edification of the living. Silent Speheres lead one through the sacred space, spreading like the words of Mallarme’s poem Un Coup de Des (A Throw of the Dice). They form a kind of concrete poetry — as concrete as the earth, for each sphere is made of Florida conch, scallop, oyster, and coquina shells, and native oolite limestone. Each is full of traces of the sea: indeed, each is ironically amphibious. Neijna uses here material discreetly: it never spreads aimlessly, but is always contained by the geometry, which is human in scale, however abstract in form. This each sphere taking the modular foot as its measure, has a twelve-inch diameter. Geometry, we may recall, was sacred to the ancients, for it was a symbol of reason and intelligibility, as Plato tells us. Neijna uses it to contain raw material, thus making it sacred or, rather, since the material was excavated from the sea and earth, confirming its sacredness.
But our passage is blocked by a Scrim, which functions as a veil hiding the holy of holies. We go around it, our sense of mystery heightened only to face another scrim, from which a huge cylinder, also of shell, is suspended – a miraculous defiance of gravity, which signals the defiance of death which excavation from the earth and its pull represent. Thus the holy of holies is doubly veiled, — doubly mysterious, distant, and seductive. The mystery and tension are further intensified – The Balance in fact is full of physical mystery and tension – and we move around this last barrier to finally face the apocalyptic Shellscape, which we saw in the distance through the scrims. This work is ironically if aggressively climactic: the dead riches of the sea confront us, and seem on the verge of engulfing us. Neijna’s sculpture find their ultimate, deceptively simple statement in Shellscape. Geometry no longer contains the sea-earth, but hurls it at us, in punishment for our abuse of the sea and earth. Neijna has used every shell she could collect, to create her most dramatic, confrontational, if also retributive memento more. She lays out her material, in all its disintegrated nakedness. Unexpectedly – who would have predicted Shellscape on the basis of what we saw as we moved through Neijna’s temple, however subtly it is related to Under the Green Coat is an Endangered Heart? — Neijna becomes a female Samson, about to pull the temple down on herself and us.
Shellscape is deliberately unresolved, indicating Neijna’s refusal to be reconciled to the fate of the earth and sea — to death. It makes clear, in a kind of retrospective act, that the works we encountered on our way to it were also unreconciled to fate, however much they literally embodied fate, while showing a contradictory attitude to it. She has made us run the gauntlet of her works only to discover that we have not survived in spirit, however much, for the moment, we remain physically alive. Hers is the endangered temple our civilization had made of life. Thus Neijna’s sculptures invite us to meditate on the fate of nature – the death of nature, as it has been called – as if it was our own death, which, indeed, it is. And yet she has shown us the beauty in death – the ironical beauty of seashells, and of fossilized geometry
Wassily Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art. New York: Dover, 1977 p.39
Richard Vine Art in America May 1996
Neijna has consistently resisted the easy seductions of a tropical esthetic. Eschewing flamboyant colors and subject matter, keeping her concern for nature under disciplined control, she has produced a body of work that ranges from small wall-mounted objects to freestanding geometric forms of sometimes monumental scale. All of her work combines a refined sense of mathematical proportion with an acute feeling for materials and socially significant themes. …the work suggests a parallel between ecological processes of accretion and decay and psychic processes of remembrance and forgetting.
…….the geometric precision of Neijna’s sculptures and their just-so-placement imply a quasi Platonic belief that the saving constancy in a world of perpetual flux (embodied in substances like peat and limestone) may rest in a high formalism that transcends without renouncing all local inflection, however poignant.
Elisa Turner Miami Herald Oct, 7, 1996
Interior Landscape Miami Art Museum
Neijna accomplishes shifts in scale. These shifts create handsome formal tensions, and beyond that reflect Neijna’s fascination with fusing the small and large histories of our world, the humanly personal and the mysteriously primeval. The echoes of the long-ago past, and especially of the sweeping, prehistoric looking expanses found in the Everglades, have become a more dominant presence in Neijna’s work in the past 10 years. To her those expanses are massively sculptural as well as hauntingly fragile, and an awareness of the besieged ecosystem has gradually informed her work.
Walking among these scrims and objects gives viewers a subtle stream of changing images, massive and intimate, textures and blurred, old and new. Neijna’s installation is wonderfully compelling. It beautifully evokes a sense of artistic form and South Florida place.