Message in a Bottle
Using thousands of recycled water and milk bottles, Professor and Head of SculptureEllen Driscoll has created an ambitious new work of public art for Providence’s waterfront. The “archipelago of floating forms” has literally transformed a section of the Providence River near the south end of RISD’s campus after it was unveiled on Saturday, September 17. CalledDistant Mirrors, the installation reflects on the past and present by looking at Rhode Island’s history in light of contemporary conditions, and vice versa.
Driscoll addresses issues of sustainability and consumption through a cluster of plastic, manmade “islands” representing geographic land masses – haunting, delicate forms that evoke the New World utopia of colonial-era America along with its 21st-century distopia, fueled by our oil-based economy. She says that after winning a Robert and Margaret McColl Johnson Fellowship from the Rhode Island Foundation she set out to create “a simple visual allegory for the predicaments of over-consumption and reckless profiteering at the expense of egalitarian values.”
For Distant Mirrors, Driscoll relied on help from Rose Heydt, Dianne Hebbert, Ponnapa Prakkamakul and Megan McLaughlin, and collaborated with several local groups, including the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation – the state landfill and recycling facility that supplied her with mountains of used beverage bottles. She also worked closely withJennifer Smith, site manager at Roger Williams National Memorial just north of RISD’s campus.
Rhode Island’s founder, Roger Williams, actually figures significantly in the piece since the largest of the geographic forms Driscoll created is a floating map of the 52 plots of land that Williams apportioned to those who shared his beliefs in egalitarianism and separation of church and state. The religious radical envisioned a utopian community in the new colony he founded, but due to political conflict, profit-seeking and the colonization of indigenous populations, “the community was eventually destroyed, acting as a haunting tale for our own time,” Driscoll points out.
After a few weeks, the initial floating map will be replaced by another one representing the crowded McMansions and triple-deckers that pepper our contemporary landscape. Both large maps are complemented by two floating forms in the shape of North America surrounded by smaller maps of oil fields in Venezuela, Mexico, Canada, Nigeria and Saudia Arabia – the top five suppliers of crude oil to the US.
“Distant Mirrors asks viewers to look at the butterfly effect of our simplest actions,” Driscoll says: “Drinking milk or water from a plastic bottle, produced by oil. Who do we see in the distant mirror as we do so?”
View the piece from the South Water Street Bridge in Providence, near Hemenway’s Restaurant. (map)
An interview with Literary Arts and Studies faculty member Taylor Polites, who encourages students to engage with Providence’s rich history and diverse community.
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