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PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 23.2 (2001) 68-70

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Bonfires Of Urbanity
The Public Art of Barnaby Evans

Lee Klein

Barnaby Evans, WaterFire: A Sculptural Installation, Providence, Rhode Island, Summer 2000.


It was under a half moon and with a backdrop of a skyline prominently featuring several domes (including the large glass rotunda dome on the Providence Place mall and the full dome of a quintessentially post-modern Westin Hotel, which in this configuration becomes strangely reminiscent of the famous half dome of Yellowstone National Park and, by extension, Ansel Adams's take upon it) that I witnessed the lighting of the bonfires of the hallmark performance art event of Providence, Rhode Island, WaterFire: A Sculptural Installation by Barnaby Evans. WaterFire consists of baskets of wood placed along the Providence River and lit by torchbearers conveyed at twilight to the waterside pyres by motorized barges. These boats resemble Venetian mortuary vessels, only with outboard engines. The torchbearers on the boats are clad all in black, and the overall atmosphere of the setting is as if it is occurring on the river Styx. Most of the populace that has come to observe waits around what could be described as a tidal basin or watery cul-de-sac. It is here that the launches circle prior to the lighting of the fires and where the anticipation of the gathered crowd grows. The fires are lit to a score of mostly instrumental selections in a musical program, which continues throughout the conflagrations, often concluding in the early hours of the following morning. Throughout the course of the event people walk along the riverside in the reflective traditions of the paseo and the passeggiata as the shadows of the flames lick the city's buildings in a spectral caress.

This ephemeral performance piece is emblematic of a primal awareness, serving as a symbol of the restoration of the elemental consciousness or the elemental in art in a restored urban center. Though the detachment of the populace from the urban or town center had its beginnings in the triumph of the automobile and the coming of the age of television, the era of the internet has not lessened the displacement of metropolitan population form the public sphere. WaterFire, first performed or deployed by artist Barnaby Evans in 1994, is only emblematic of the isolated art event as a catalyst for a city to lure people back to a showplace area, here the Providence River waterfront. [End Page 68] [Begin Page 70]

At one time Providence was a prosperous port. WaterFire reminds the city of this historical era, when the city had its good fortune delivered upon it providentially, if you will, by its elemental relationship to the water. On the most basic level the source of prosperity was the river and the sea at its outlet. In this age the equation no longer exists; it has been inverted. Providence now depends, for its well being, on a diversified economy whose leading sectors include education and high technology companies. WaterFire reaffirms the city's relationship with the forces of nature, reminding Providence of its physical and spiritual geography. It was the allure of fire that drew neolithic man to the public arena. Yoking the opposites of fire and water from the quaternity of the elements is guaranteed to arouse mystical feelings in spectators.

WaterFire also shows the multiple-use plan the city of Providence set into place by building Providence Place itself. This establishment is a large urban shopping mall whose positioning at the foot of the tidal basin creates for it a role as a great backdrop for the lighting drama and a renewed sense of the focal public space. Within the Place's walls is a collection of today's more rudimentary public entertainment venues, including a multiplex cinema, an abundance of upscale, nationally-known shopping outposts, and a mega-gameroom/bar/dinner theatre/dining experience. The proximity of this behemoth multi-use facility to the new urban spectacle proves that an elemental urban undertaking whose primary divinings are borrowed from nature can...


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