Not every art opening features frogs in full-throated chorus, but then again, The parliament of reality at Bard College isn’t your everyday installation. This 100-foot-diameter island is the latest work from Olafur Eliasson, the Danish-Icelandic artist whose waterfalls ringed New York Harbor last summer. As the artist’s largest permanent outdoor public commission in the United States, the project marks an ambitious blend of art, architecture, and public platform.
Inspired by Iceland’s original parliament, known as the Althing (or a “space for all things”), the project was spurred by a long-running discussion with Tom Eccles, Bard’s executive director of the Center for Curatorial Studies, about creating a public work on the college’s upstate New York campus. The result is an agora-like artwork that is “productive, proactive, inclusive,” as Eliasson said at the project’s inauguration on May 16.
The $1.4 million installation—funded by the LUMA Foundation, which supports art and cultural ventures—sits adjacent to the college’s Frank Gehry–designed Fisher Center for the Performing Arts, and consists of two central elements: the island, which rests on a concrete foundation within a small lake, and a 20-foot-long bridge covered by a steel canopy. Topped with boulders as seating, the island’s round bluestone surface is incised with a pattern of intersecting lines based on old navigational charts and meridian lines. The bridge’s steel latticework forms a similar pattern.
Creating the latticework was one of the project’s greatest technical challenges, noted Ricardo Gomes, an architect in Eliasson’s Berlin-based studio. “The tunnel is made of five layers, and of course each layer has a different curvature,” he said. Conveying the complex shapes of the interwoven steel tubes to German fabricator Pollux required several horizontal sections to indicate the exact placement of each tube.
Around the perimeter of the lake stand 24 golden rain trees, which will eventually grow large enough for the branches to nearly touch, giving the island the feeling of a secluded clearing, according to architect-of-record Robert Nilsson. With yellow blossoms in spring and yellow leaves in fall, the trees will form a blazing circle of color.
The full arboreal effect may take a while, however, and adjusting to the slow pace of landscape architecture initially frustrated Eliasson, Gomes said. But “eventually Olafur settled with this idea that the more you use the piece, the more interesting it will become.” Judging from its early uses—a conference on music as torture, a site for improvisational dance—Eliasson’s installation has a promising future indeed.