From Landfill to Arts Space: Socrates Sculpture Park

If Socrates Sculpture Park on Long Island City is a testament to anything, it is New York City’s ability to regenerate and regrow. Now, particularly, that is a comforting sentiment. While every day it seems someone else is predicting that New York is “over,” I’m here experiencing a very different reality. As Jerry Seinfeld wrote in an August letter to the NYTimes, “We’re going to keep going with New York City if that’s all right with you. And it will sure as hell be back. Because of all the real, tough New Yorkers who, unlike you, loved it and understood it, stayed and rebuilt it.”

Socrates Sculpture Park could be seen as evidence of Seinfeld’s assertion, if on a micro level. Before it was an outdoor museum/arts haven, before it was a city park, even before it was a temporary green space, the five acres of Socrates Sculpture Park was an abandoned riverside landfill. It was also an illegal dumping ground filled with trash. Now, it is a well kept arts space that has shown the work of over 1,000 artists and counting. And it will continue to showcase artists in a public and accessible way.

Founded in 1986 by a community group led by sculptor Mark di Suvero, the park is dedicated to the presentation of public art. The current exhibition, “Monuments Now,” is a three-part exhibit that considers the role of monuments in society. Moreover, it looks to give voice to groups who are underrepresented in our contemporary culture and, particularly, underrepresented via public monuments throughout the country.

The first part opened over the summer with works by Jeffrey Gibson, Paul Ramírez Jonas and Xaviera Simmons. The second and third parts were both mounted in early October. The second features sculptures by the park’s 2020 Fellows and the third part exhibits a monument collaboration created by high school students. All three will remain on display until March 2021.

Jeffrey Gibson’s “‘BECAUSE ONCE YOU ENTER MY HOUSE IT BECOMES OUR HOUSE”

The sculptures consider the American identity, our history, and the people and elements of American culture we revere. In considering this, it also looks at the populations we ignore. Jeffrey Gibson’s tiered structure acknowledges Indigenous North Americans while Xaviera Simmons’ “The structure the labor the foundation the escape the pause” trio of sculptures looks at racial discrimination — both past and present — through text pulled from historical documents and a call for reparations. It is a timely installation, and one that is not only interesting to look at for the average visitor, but also forces you to think. In anticipation of the questions and ideas inevitably brought about by these works, the park launched a “Let’s Talk” education series, “to facilitate safely socially-distant conversations exploring monuments, current events, speculations about the future, and all things in between.” The intermarriage of the work and education initiatives further displays Socrates’ commitment to its artists and to larger conversations happening around the world right now.

Xaviera Simmons’ “The structure the labor the foundation the escape the pause

When I walked out the back gates of the park, I knew I would return. The thing about Socrates is that you can walk through in five minutes, or spend hours within its gates. You can go once and leave satisfied, or come back time and again, be a witness to the changing seasons and sculptures, the new layouts and landscapes. While I was there, the sky was cloudy and a mist from the East River coated everything in a soft grey. I look forward to returning when the sun shines and the view across the river to Roosevelt Island is clear and colorful. Much like our city, the park will change and reinvent itself, and that is why I will keep coming back.