Casting a Concrete Past: Barbara Westermann’s “Regional Planning Lab”July 31, 2015
Public art resident Barbara Westermann points to a dimly-lit photograph on her computer screen. An array of cement bricks lies on a table, illuminated by the harsh light of on-camera flash, in what looks like a basement.
“These are what they call ‘test briquettes,’” Barbara says, explaining how engineers would pour cement into these sponge-shaped molds to test the material’s strength. “This little thing was the standard of quality, and the whole livelihood of Rosendale was in there. When you think about how complex built architecture is―sometimes what runs it is very simple.”
Above Barbara hangs another picture of three glowing, blue letters: R P X—short for Regional Planning Lab: UNDER CONSTRUCTION, her two-part work for the au•gust art festival, WSW’s inaugural program of video, installation, and performance art which will run August 7–29th. RPL’s subject is Rosendale, whose industrial past as a cement mining town places it in unique relationship to urban infrastructure and modern architecture.
“My subject matter are cities—where urban planning and architecture become public art,” Barbara explains. I’m always coming back to, investigating through art, the built environment which creates social [space].”
Barbara’s research-driven methodology uses digital maps and historical documents with a utilitarian (dis)regard for aesthetics and materials. She brings the visual vocabulary of urban planning and architecture to works of sculpture, public art, and printmaking. As an artist, she acts as a liaison between these data-driven fields and the public; she makes highly complex systems tangible through visual, non-technical language in a way that’s both informative and empowering for participants.Regional Planning Lab considers the rural landscape of Rosendale in symbiotic relationship to its dense metropolitan sister, New York City, and addresses the intricate structures that physically, socially, and politically compose environments. Her five-week public art residency will culminate in a mural on WSW’s construction site and in two community workshops that invite the public to learn about and cast cement.
“I’m seeing it as a beautiful coming-together,” she says. “The cement comes from here; it has a history, and it’s connected through the river. For me, coming here is like a spiral.” Barbara has been casting concrete objects for decades. As a sculptor visiting this former cement town, she pays homage to the utilitarian material that has been foundational to her work for so long.
Through aerial views, her mural will follow the Hudson River and Rondout Creek—a tributary of the river that runs directly through Rosendale—from the village to New York. Barbara calls the Hudson Valley a “green lung,” an environmental science term that describes parks and other forested areas which surround urban environments. “What interests me in architecture and cities is that they provide a boundary and a protection around nature. It’s like skin: it’s like the thin layer that holds everything together,” she says In her WSW apartment-turned-studio, she traces Google maps on vellum to scan, invert, enlarge, and tint them to resemble blueprints, which will be wheat-pasted on a plywood wall at WSW’s construction site. Together, the panels “zoom out” on the landscape to reveal both places situated within complex matrices of intricate data, illustrating the flow of cultural exchange and commerce.
The installation will create a backdrop for Barbara’s two community workshops on August 8 and 9, which are designed to situate Rosendale’s elusive industrial past within our domestic present. Barbara invites the public to cast everyday objects in cement and learn about its history, techniques, and mold making. Spoons, water bottles, baking molds, letters, and even test briquettes will be available for casting. Studio intern Maya Hyman will invite participants to create “concrete poetry” with a cement alphabet.
Overall, Regional Planning Lab explores labyrinthian relationships between history, landscape, and city through what’s tangible and relatable—like the small test briquette, the foundation of a cement history. It creates a space for exchange and invites consideration of our environment.
She writes, “Sculptors, like poets, deal in the concrete—in this case the play on words is apt, as we will revisit a concrete past through art practice, celebrating cement, as it was made in Rosendale.”
Join Barbara Westermann for Regional Planning Lab: UNDER CONSTRUCTION on August 8 and 9 from 2–5pm at Women’s Studio Workshop. Learn about cement casting and come away with your own cement objects.
RSVP by calling (845) 658-9133, and view more event details on the au•gust art festival schedule.
Barbara Westermann is a German sculptor and installation artist who uses sculpture to ‘embody’ utilitarian objects. Her work has exhibited internationally at Malkasten in Düsseldorf Germany, the Tate in London, the Whitney Biennial, MoMA PS1, Dia Art Foundation, and Paula Cooper Gallery, among others. View more of Barbara’s work at www.barbarawestermann.com.