Photo courtesy Christy Hengst
In my previous blog, I continued defining “site-specific” art, and provided two very different examples, one of them similar to Christy Hengst’s work by melding with its surroundings.
Ms. Hengst kindly agreed to a phone interview. She discussed the evolution of her work—its purpose and methodology.
Christy’s concern about war and peace, evident in her art, has deep roots. During World War Two, her father’s home was demolished in a bombing raid when he was a child living in the German village of Peenemünde on the Baltic island of Usedom. There Christy’s paternal grandfather worked as an optical scientist on Wernher von Braun’s German team, developing the V-1 flying bomb and the V-2 rocket, the first missile ever to reach outer space. Many of these elite German scientists, including Christy’s grandfather, later joined the U.S. space program after the war.
Christy points out that it was surely an ethical dilemma that many involved in weapons production must face: to be able to provide for one’s family using one’s particular skills and education during wartime. Slave laborers, concentration camp inmates, and prisoners of war worked on construction of the Peenemünde test sites and eventual rocket production.
At the original location, a museum was built in 2000. It deals not only with the history of the technology, but also moral issues. In addition, international meetings and cultural events take place there. In 2002 the museum was recognized for its contribution to reconciliation and world peace by the Community of the Cross of Nails in Coventry, England. This organization is based at Coventry Cathedral. Embedded in the high altar cross are three medieval nails from its predecessor, St. Michael’s Cathedral, destroyed by the Luftwaffe. Given its historical significance, this site was chosen by Ms. Hengst as a perfect setting for one her bird “landings.” A parallel site where Christy has exhibited her birds is Los Alamos (NM) National Laboratory.
Before Christy conceived of the “Birds in the Park” project, she experimented with embedding three-dimensional porcelain seed pod shapes in beeswax. A mother of two young children at the time, Christy, in a particularly nurturing frame of mind, gravitated to the gently rounded outlines of seed pods, and found their purpose in nature to be symbolically life-affirming.
Although Christy never completely abandoned seed pods in her work, she turned much of her attention, starting in 2008, to something similar in its curvy form and gentle image: the torsos of dove-like birds. The idea of a flock of birds developed organically out of playing with the material. Another "aha” moment arrived when Christy realized that placing illustrations of both war and peace on the same individual birds made her uncomfortable. Instantly, she decided it was precisely the impact she wanted to have on the viewer. The birds could serve as “mirrors of human activity,” and that included the difficult moral “choices” that we must make. She employed the element of surprise as a way to shake up the viewer’s perspective about war and peace. Beyond that, Christy hoped to make her audience “more observant of their environment, maybe even more conscious of their own processes of perception.”
To maximize her impact, Christy added a dimension to her art: engaging the public. She dubs this “borderline performance art.” which just lacks theatricality. Christy’s audience, even when not aware of her presence, felt free to take pictures of themselves with the art. Even lying on the ground to do so! At the same time, Christy would introduce herself to individual viewers, and encourage questions and comments. (All the while, she was also guarding the fragile and very portable birds.)
Wherever Christy’s art appeared, in places as diverse as New York City and the Galapagos Islands, the exhibit elicited very favorable comments. Emotional reactions ranged from delight to anguish. Serious discussions with the artist herself about the causes of war and solutions for peace often ensued.
There was sometimes another form of public participation. Early in the morning, friends assisted with transporting, unwrapping, mounting (while Christy directed the specific placement of the birds), and, around dusk, collecting and re-packing.