Artist Mia Feuer‘s plan to install a sculpture of a sunken gas station in the Anacostia River has been shelved. The buzzy proposed project first hit a snag yesterday, when a coalition of opponents sent a letter to the arts commission objecting to Feuer’s piece. The sculpture, “Antediluvian,” was part of the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities’ “5×5” exhibition of public art installations across the city. Citylab first reported that the project would be killed. According to that report, the arts commission informed Feuer that her plans for the project couldn’t go forward.
In a brief conversation, Feuer confirms to Arts Desk that the project won’t take place in the Anacostia but says she does not know if it is canceled for good. An arts commission spokeswoman, however, says the agency is seeking a new location for the installation, but that it’s too early to name any potential sites, which would be subject to a “complicated” permitting process.
A sculptor whose exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art this winter included a functional ice-skating rink, Feuer said earlier in the day that she was caught off guard by the controversy, which quickly ignited in the media after the letter became public. The project has raised more than $9,000 through an Indiegogo campaign.
“It was never my intention to disparage the river or the history,” Feuer said this morning. “I’m listening so carefully to everyone’s concerns. They all mean something to me. I’m not just brushing them off.”
According to arts commission spokeswoman Sarah Massey, the decision to pull the project from the Anacostia was entirely the commission’s. Massey says the letter from opponents did not factor into the decision as much concern over disturbing toxin testing by District Department of the Environment. “This was brought to our attention a few days ago,” she says. “That’s when the commission started bringing over the DOE to check on what that was all about, what was happening, and ensuring there wouldn’t be any issues with this project.”
After learning more about the DOE’s testing, Massey says, the commission concluded the piece could not go forward. “We’re not going to put a piece of artwork in there that could conflict,” she says. “This was not an easy decision for anyone to make. The commission stands behind this artist and this project and really wants to make it happen.”
District Department of the Environment spokeswoman Donna Henry says that arts commission Executive Director Lionell Thomas spoke to DDOE Director Keith Anderson “as recently as yesterday or this morning,” seeking “technical advice and direction on this issue.” She said she did not know what Anderson told Thomas, but stressed that Anderson’s typical role in such a conversation would be advisory since no permit applications had been submitted.
Thursday’s letter, addressed to Thomas, urged the cancellation of “Antediluvian” on symbolic and practical grounds. “Several of us have been working for years to change the image and the reality of the Anacostia River from a badly polluted eyesore and public health hazard,” read the letter, signed by a dozen boating, environmental, and civic groups, plus dozens more individuals. “There could hardly be a worse public message than sinking an entire mock gas station in the Anacostia’s waters.” The letter also detailed an ongoing project from D.C.’s Department of the Environment to sample the riverbed and suggested the sculpture could be disruptive.
According to Feuer, before Thursday she received no feedback from the commission that installing the piece in the Anacostia would create trouble. She also said she didn’t even suggest the Anacostia when proposing the project.
“I didn’t have a site,” she said. “All I wanted was a body of water that could be seen from traffic.”
As for soliciting community feedback before proceeding with the project, Feuer said, “I’ve only been in D.C. for five years. I guess I didn’t know or think to start reaching out because our site wasn’t—I didn’t even know what our site was.”
Anacostia Community Boathouse Association vice president Jennifer Ney, one of the opponents of “Antediluvian,” reiterates that her objection is not to the theme of Feuer’s work, which comments on rising sea levels resulting from climate change and on oil dependence. “Our objection is to the location,” says Ney. “If it could float in anything else, the Tidal Basin…that would be fine.” Ney also believes that using the Anacostia River—which has such a specific history as a dumping ground for pollutants and as the physical and psychological boundary between D.C.’s least prosperous wards and the rest of the city—obscures Feuer’s larger points about climate change. “I missed that entirely,” she says. “I think that message will be lost.”
Ney, who says she began discussing her concerns with others several weeks ago, adds, “We don’t feel that the artist took the time to understand the complex history and what’s already underway here.”
In the earlier interview, Feuer stressed that she is here to learn. “Tonight I was invited by members of Anacostia who live in the neighborhood and support the project,” she said. “They’re taking me on a boat tour. That’s what I want to do right now and engage with people and listen. That’s kind of all I can do today.”
Feuer went on, “I’m an artist. What I do is respond in a poetic and visual way to the moment, the times that I live in. So this is it. It’s a continuing response. The piece is not out there. It’s not complete. So let’s talk about it. Nothing has been built yet.
“Inititally my biggest, number one goal to this piece was to inspire and provoke dialogue,” Feuer continues. As to the nature of the dialogue, which has veered far from a global discourse on climate change and into a thorny local debate on optics, she had little to say.
“Out of my control,” she said.
Rendering courtesy D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities. Jonathan L. Fischer contributed reporting. This article was updated following interviews with Massey and Henry