LINCOLN — Although “Jean Shin and Brian Ripel: Retreat” is one of the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum’s fall exhibitions, it got underway this past summer, when the artists created a getaway for museum visitors on the roof deck. “Tea House,” a tentlike structure fashioned from hundreds of thousands of red plastic drink stirrers, provided shade, and museum staff and docents served hot tea in donated teacups. When visitors finished their drinks, they strung their tea bags on the stirrers to dry.
“Tea House,” which served tea into August and came down in September, hit all the notes of a Shin and Ripel collaboration. The duo is married; Shin is an artist and Ripel is an architect. Their large-scale projects utilize commonplace materials, and they are tied strongly to a place and its people. The elements of this exhibit have their foundation in local history. Engaging the community as more than just viewers makes the work feel that much more rooted here.
Now, the artists continue the project inside with two more installations, “Castles in the Air” and “Measuring the Depth of His Own Nature.” Both refer to local sites that have histories as retreats — the deCordova itself, which tea merchant Julian deCordova built as an escape from the hustle of Boston in 1882; and nearby Walden Pond, where Henry David Thoreau found sanctuary in the mid 1840s. While Thoreau built a cabin and deCordova erected a brick palace, the structure each man ended up with reflected his own dreams, needs, and resources.
The dreams drive Shin and Ripel’s work. They investigate how visions are mapped, and how models and maps are vessels for something potent and intangible, no matter how they manifest concretely. For “Castles in the Air,” they turn to Spanish architect Antoni Gaudí, a contemporary of deCordova’s, who was known to dismiss drawn plans for three-dimensional models. He designed his masterpiece, the Sagrada Família church in Barcelona, using string weighed down by pellet bags.
Shin and Ripel have created a rather miraculous reproduction in string of deCordova’s castle, anchored by dried tea bags from “Tea House,” which have a lovely aroma. To make it even more fanciful, the string castle is upside down, with its turrets and peaks pointing toward the floor. But it’s mounted beneath a mirrored panel. Its reflection, then, rises.
The installation is cannily housed in the original deCordova — in the castle itself, and not the new wing — placing the art and viewer inside the reality that sprang from Julian deCordova’s dream. The artists’ take on that vision heightens the sense of conjuring and possibility with its use of ethereal materials and reflection. It’s the dream of a retreat, more breathtaking than what the building itself turned out to be — an awkward mash-up of European Norman and Gothic design, sorely out of place on a Massachusetts hilltop.
Thoreau had a humbler sense of architecture and its placement. Unlike deCordova, he sought “to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms,” he wrote in “Walden.” His attention fell to efforts to live simply, rather than to elaborate design.
“Measuring the Depth of His Own Nature” brings together elements of the cabin’s construction and Thoreau’s larger embrace of Walden Pond. In addition to being a naturalist and a writer, Thoreau was a surveyor, and he surveyed the pond. Shin and Ripel use his map as a source, rendering the pond in a giant pencil drawing across 29 timber planks that take up a wall of the gallery. Thoreau's chart looked straight down at the water; these artists have us gazing at it as it might have appeared to Thoreau from his cabin.
Like “Castles in the Air,” this piece is diagrammatic. It’s not an effort to render reality, but a visualization. Drafting lines fan out around the jagged form of the pond, which is filled in with heavy, almost violent pencil slashes. The heavy graphite application makes the drawing reflective, like water. The rough, knotty planks may echo the wood Thoreau used to make his home, and it should be noted that Thoreau’s father was a pencil manufacturer.
Wall text quotes “Walden”: “A lake is the landscape’s most beautiful and expressive feature. It is earth’s eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature.”
Which returns us to Shin and Ripel’s topic: Retreat. A reprieve from the hassles of daily life, and an opportunity to be with oneself and measure that depth. That might have been easier in the 19th century than it is today, as we carry our distractions and connections to the outside world around in our pockets. But retreat doesn’t have to be to a castle, or even to a hut in the woods. Sometimes, it can simply be sitting on a roof deck with a steaming cup of tea.