Over the past few years, the mural wall at Dewey Square Park has played host to everything from the playful street art of Os Gemeos to the lush dreamscapes of Shinique Smith.
But as a quartet of workers used aerial lifts to paint a new work, the mural that emerged over the weekend was something quite different. It is just words, a playful Tower of Babel in blue and orange.
“I thought it was time to go away from something so pictorial toward something more conceptual,” said Paul Ha, director of the MIT List Visual Arts Center, who curated the mural in association with Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway Conservancy. “I’m hoping one person will turn to the next as they’re eating lunch and say, ‘What do you think this means?’ Hopefully it will get people talking and meet each other to have a conversation around art, which I think is always good.”
Ha seems poised to get his wish. The mural, created by conceptual artist Lawrence Weiner, envelops the entire mural wall in a field of electric blue. Its title — “A Translation from One Language to Another” — is printed in bold orange letters across the blue plane.
The background is filled with. . . . Oh, wait. Never mind.
“It’s not going to say anything else?” asked Tom Leatherman as he passed by the mural on his way from the gym. “Shouldn’t there be another language there?”
Taking in the wash of blue another moment, he allowed: “It’s good that it’s bold. From a message standpoint, it’s kind of simple. But simple can be good.”
Weiner’s mural may not have been what people were expecting — “how about we bring back Os Gemeos? or just leave the space blank, every change is a heartbreak,” one person lamented on Twitter — but that’s exactly what Greenway’s public art curator Lucas Cowan says he hopes to achieve with the rotating murals.
“This is a very different wall for us,” Cowan said, as workers buzzed in the background. “The great thing about the partnerships we do with this wall is that it allows the organizations to really present their point of view.”
In the past, partnerships with the Institute of Contemporary Art have yielded murals by Matthew Ritchie and Os Gemeos. Last year’s collaboration with the Museum of Fine Arts presented Shinique Smith’s “Seven Moon Junction.” Now, the List Visual Arts Center, known for its contemporary collection and commissioned on-site works, is bringing one of the founders of conceptual art to downtown Boston.
“Each of the four projects has been very different, and they’ve all offered up different currents in contemporary art,” said Ha. “Whether it’s street art, minimalist landscape, or conceptual, they’ve all sort of said this is the arena contemporary art is operating in right now – and it’s very wide.”
But for Weiner, who first conceived “A Translation from One Language to Another” in the 1960s, distinctions between minimalism and conceptualism are less important than how people perceive the artwork and how they incorporate it into their own lives.
“Let’s step aside from the concept of conceptual and this and that, and talk about what it is: It’s an object, a mass, and it’s in the middle of the city,” said Weiner, 73, whose been making text-based work for roughly half a century. “Every time you see a sculpture, what it is is an objectification of an observation of an artist.”
That is to say, he clarified: An artwork is an artist’s idea that has been translated into a visual language. For Weiner, then, a work of art is essentially a document of the artist’s translation — a document the viewer can in turn translate for himself or herself, or not
“Everything is a form of language. A Georgia O’Keefe painting is a language — you read it,” said Weiner. “So what the public is seeing is a presentation of an objective fact, and that fact is a translation from one language to another.”
By that measure, Weiner’s mural is pretty meta. Still, its meaning was hardly lost in translation for Jane Hutchins, who was waiting for the train back to Falmouth.
“It caught my eye, I like the blue,” said Hutchins. “People can do their own translation from one word to another. You think of all the translations we have in Boston, the language and people.”
Hutchins’s husband, David, found it “beautiful.” Still: “I was wondering what else they were going to add.”
Meanwhile, Christiane Lamour, visiting from France, was impressed if nonplussed. “It’s a strange new art for me,” she said.
Cowan said that Weiner’s mural, which will be on display until September 2016, is the first of several language-driven artworks the Greenway intends to exhibit in the next year, including a text-based wood sculpture and a video project. The Greenway is also planning several programming initiatives around the mural and is now working on collaborations with the Boys and Girls Clubs of America and 826 Boston.
“I hope when visitors actually look at the work, they don’t dismiss it,” said Cowan, who added that an opening celebration will be held on Thursday, Sept. 24. “It’s a chance for people to actually look and interpret it for themselves.”
Ha praised the Greenway’s approach to the mural wall, saying its temporary, yearlong exhibitions provide a high-visibility platform for the city to discuss contemporary art.
“The controversy or discussion will happen during that time — hopefully it’ll be lively or argumentative, or whatever — but also people know that it’s not permanent,” he said. “If somebody sees this piece and gets furious and marches down to MFA to see the lineage of contemporary art and how we got here, I think that’s a wonderful thing.”
But for Weiner, the work is less about art historical knowledge, outrage, or relating to other people. It’s about a viewer’s individual response to an object in the world — an object that’s been created by another person.
“Our job is not to throw things at people,” he said. “The work doesn’t exist unless somebody decides to deal with it. You can pass it on your way work, and it’s not going to screw up your day. But if you pay attention to it, it might screw up your life.”