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American Society of Landscape Architects


June 2007 Issue

The Speed of Light
An art installation on an Irish motorway is a testimony to the obstructions and hazards facing public art.

By Dorothy Joiner

The Speed of Light William Dennisuk

Artists working in the public realm face a myriad of obstacles, from uncooperative bureaucrats to destructive vandals. American sculptor William Dennisuk, who now lives in Finland, has experienced them all in the course of installing The Speed of Light. Placed along the M1 motorway just north of Dublin, Ireland, the work is a series of 320 red tubes made of semitransparent acrylic, dotting at regular intervals Ireland’s famous green countryside. Spaced 10 feet apart, the tubes are arranged in 80 rows of four, extend for 600 feet, and create a swath 30 feet wide. Designed to be seen by motorists speeding along the highway, the crimson beacons serve to relate the realities of movement, light, and landscape in a single but successive aesthetic experience. During the day, the ruby cylinders contrast with the legendary emerald landscape, and in the dark they emit a soft glow.

Finalist in a 2002 international competition attracting 56 entries from Great Britain, Australia, Denmark, Finland, and the United States, the project costing 170,000 euros ($217,000) is the most expensive ever commissioned under Ireland’s Percent for Art scheme. Despite the project committee’s perspicacious choice and Dennisuk’s meticulous planning, the work has been plagued by unfortunate modifications, delays, and repeated vandalism. The history of the installation is a case study of the Herculean obstacles often confronting those who make public art.

Having to choose an alternate site was perhaps Dennisuk’s greatest frustration, costing the project at least a year’s delay. Even though the undulant landscape he had originally selected was among those sites initially sanctioned by the project committee, his choice was rejected six months into the planning because road lamps—not in place when he first saw the area—might conflict with the illumination of the installation. Opposing the artist’s idea that a simple plate on the back side of each highway lamp would reflect the light toward the road and away from the embankment, thereby precluding interference with the art, the committee insisted that he choose another spot.

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