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
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
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