It is the most gorgeous and uplifting thing I have seen in a long time.
Janet Echelman’s massive new aerial rope sculpture seems like an illusion when you first spot it, almost too good to be true. Suspended high above one of the Greenway parks, the mostly orange form looks unreal from a distance, like the flare on a camera lens. Get closer, and you see the huge nets swelling and rising with the breeze. Its colors grow vivid in the sunlight, fading when it’s cloudy. It is soft and organic in a canyon of hard-edged glass and stone. Spend a little time with it, and you see more. It doesn’t just alter the space, and the sky above, but also the people who take it in.
Like all great art, it is transporting. It also reflects the kind of courageous, free-spirited vision for the city that many have been longing for forever.
Including me. The new installation moved me to tears, silencing in the moment one of my longer-running belly-aches: the dearth of public art in Boston; the uniformity of the art we have — stodgy legions of bronze figures depicting politicians and sporting or other heroes; the lack of ambition in our shared spaces. We’ve had some great departures from that tradition over the years, but none this dramatic and accessible.
Credit the Greenway Conservancy for this. The string of parks freed up by the Big Dig was meant to reconnect the city to its waterfront. And over the last few years, the much-maligned Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway has proven it’s up to that promise. The beautiful space is alive, and treasured. Last year, officials clocked over a million visitors — and that’s just people who logged into the free WiFi, rode the spectacular carousel, took in events, or lined up at food trucks. Many more tourists and locals wander through each day or rest on the grass.
The Echelman sculpture reflects the Greenway’s mission perfectly. Suspended by massive cables between International Place and the Intercontinental Hotel, it knits the city together. And not just physically. The massive undertaking drew together engineers, property owners, and philanthropists. It has also become a phenomenon on social media, one of those rare shared experiences, driving people to see it for themselves, making them proud.
“I don’t think we’ve seen anything this big in Boston,” said Rachel Childers, who plays French horn with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and was visiting with her 2-year-old son Wednesday morning. “For the city to invest in something like that, to make something beautiful for the community, it’s wonderful.”
To be fair, the investment — expected to top $1 million — mostly came from private donations. The vision came from the folks at the Greenway, who have planned five more years of temporary art installations for the chain of parks. The city came through with fast permits and vital bureaucratic grease.
The sculpture, and much that goes on here, makes the Greenway one of the city’s most consistently contemporary places. The parks exude ambition — unlike, say, the squandered opportunity that is the South Boston Seaport, where acres of blank canvas are pocked with samey, developer-driven glass towers that scream cost-effective timidity.
“We see little installations in Boston, but this is huge, so different,” said Jenna Kish, who works nearby. The sculpture reflects the Boston she knows: “new and innovative and different.”
She was among the scores who visited Wednesday morning. Tourists leaned out of passing trolleys, cameras turned skyward. People stretched out on the grass to watch the sculpture move (hammocks are coming next week). Strangers talked to each other about the work. Even those who weren’t so sure about it stopped a while to look and wonder.
“It’s kind of weird,” said Pat Crann, who was on one of his regular Greenway walks with his buddy and fellow retiree, Bob Heenan.
“It’s different as can be, that’s for sure,” Heenan said, a bit skeptically. “But experimentation is good.”
Is it ever.