Installations are the carnival rides of art. Good ones swoop us up or engulf us, body, eye, and mind.
Four outdoor installations this summer provide the goods. Two wondrous ones come from octogenarian Japanese artists active in the medium since before the term “installation art” was coined, in the 1970s. Fujiko Nakaya and Yayoi Kusama craft atmospheric environments: Nakaya with fog, and Kusama with mirrors.
Nakaya’s “Fog x FLO” marks the 20th anniversary of the Emerald Necklace Conservancy. FLO stands for Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of Boston’s 7-mile-long park system. Like Olmsted, who fashioned his successive parks to appear wild and natural with native plants and winding parkways, Nakaya shapes and directs fog, collaborating with weather and landscape. Independent curator Jen Mergel organized the project.
The five site-specific fog installations start in the Back Bay Fens and end at Franklin Park, each with hundreds of specially designed nozzles emitting fog at regular intervals from dawn to dusk. Nakaya designed the nozzle to emit 17-micron-wide water droplets, the size of those in natural fog, in the late 1960s.
I visited two. In the Fens, a fog canopy vaults softly over a curving pathway near the Muddy River. It settles over pedestrians, then cascades toward the water, or drops in damp fluffs along the bocce field. At Franklin Park, a fog halo rings the puddingstone ruins of a shelter, then shrouds visitors as sonorous audio by composer Neil Leonard plays. Shiro Takatani’s light installation shines through the mist, but it’s hard to see on a sunny day.
The fog is cool and blinding; I could barely make out the person beside me. It provides a momentary privacy, an unexpected retreat in a public place, as if beckoning you inward. That comforting yet mystifying effect hints, like the furs in the closet in “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” that you may be at the brink of another world. Then it passes, a phantom catching you in its chilly embrace before hurrying off to dance along the river, then vanish.
“Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors,” organized by the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, blew up on social media last year. One Infinity Mirror Room is now on the terrace at the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum. The artist conceived of the form in the mid 1960s, as an alternative to making thousands of objects for what she called “Accumulation” sculptures. Reflections could do the job without the labor.
Holes have been drilled in the walls and ceiling of her piece “Where the Lights in My Heart Go.” Enter the small, dark space, and they become a galaxy stretching in every direction.
Art aims to engage, not costar, so I am persnickety about selfies in museums, but taking a selfie heightens the Infinity Mirror Room experience. Our own constellations can be charted, but Kusama’s repetitive and eternal dazzle is more pattern than map, so there’s less to grab onto. When I focused on my own reflection in the frame of my camera phone, the endless cosmos was contained and a human figure anchored them. It wasn’t bad for the ego, either.
The Polish artist Alicja Kwade likewise deploys mirrors to dizzying effect. Her enchanting “TunnelTeller” sits outside Castle Hill on the Crane Estate, in Ipswich, on the former site of a hedge maze. Her concrete maze is the third installation in the Trustees of Reservations Art & the Landscape initiative, and organized by independent curator Pedro Alonzo.
Stainless steel pipes shoot diagonally through the maze’s walls. Richard T. Crane Jr., who developed the estate in the early 1900s, was a plumbing magnate, and he built Castle Hill like a factory, with a steel frame and poured concrete floors. Kwade’s materials and forms pay tribute to his enterprise.
The maze should be easier to get lost in, but peer into the pipes. They situate you first, framing sightlines across the estate’s rooftop or over the sea. Then all orientation dissolves as the surroundings spin kaleidoscopically in their mirrored interiors.
Blue quartzite spheres stand in the grass, suggesting we’re walking through a giant game involving balls and chutes. Kwade lodges some in the tubes, still and solid in the midst of the swimming reflections, each like the lone viewer in Kusama’s mirrored room, but unlike a figure formally perfect: an oracle, a morsel of penetrating wisdom in a harried world.
Kwade marries the grit of industry with a prompt to marvel. Back in Boston, Liz Glynn’s “Open House,” brought here by the public art agency Now + There, gets entirely down to earth, casting furnishings and architectural details of a Gilded Age ballroom in concrete and placing them on the Commonwealth Avenue Mall. The Louis XIV sofas, chairs, and footstools are hardly plush. When I visited, people in the park chose benches over Glynn’s stony seats.
The work is less sublime than Kwade’s, but it’s more pointed about class, exclusion, and access. Embalming her ballroom and bringing it outside, Glynn employs materials familiar to housing developments, not posh estates.
Imagine if Nakaya and Glynn had worked together. Fog swallowing up the Mall might have felt like the past itself, entrancing and then clearing to leave behind hardened relics of a time when the rich got richer, and the poor got poorer. A time very much like our own.
FOG X FLO: Fujiko Nakaya on the Emerald Necklace
At Back Bay Fens, Olmsted Park, Jamaica Pond Park, Arnold Arboretum, and Franklin Park through Oct. 31. 617-522-2700, www.emeraldnecklace.org/20th
YAYOI KUSAMA: Where the Lights in My Heart Go
At deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, 51 Sandy Pond Road, Lincoln, through Oct. 28. 781-259-8355, www.decordova.org
ALICJA KWADE: TunnelTeller
At Castle Hill on the Crane Estate, 290 Argilla Road, Ipswich, through April 2019. 978-356-4351, www.thetrustees.org/things-to-do/special-events/artxlandscape/tunnelteller.html
LIZ GLYNN: Open House
At Commonwealth Avenue Mall between Kenmore Street and Charlesgate West, through Nov. 4. 617-982-3860, www.nowandthere.org/openhouse