For whomever might arrive….

Joe Scanlan, 1991

Santa Monica-based artist Maria Nordman has been making artworks in locations where people live and work since 1969, and has distinguished herself throughout Los Angeles, New York, and Europe with her projects. A brief description of some of Nordman’s earlier work suggests a few of her artistic concerns, most importantly the respect she affords to whomever happens to encounter one of her projects, and the significant role those persons play in shaping meaning in her work.

It is each person’s experience of Nordman’s work that defines it at any given moment, depending on the duration of their visit, the quality of light at that time, and whatever knowledge and interest each person brings to the situation’s history and details. In simple terms, Nordman’s work allows people to choose to interact—or not interact—with it.

In Dusseldorf in 1979 Nordman realized Three works in three locations in the city, open day and night, a public project that exists as part of the permanent collection of the Kunstmuseum, Dusseldorf. The artwork consists of five, four-meter square areas of ground within the city that allow for public interaction with them. In a small meadow adjacent to the city’s international shipping docks on the Rhine, Nordman placed a four-meter square area of red iron slag, on top of which she set four white park benches, one on each side, facing in. At the intersection of Grafenberger Allee and Altenberg Strasse Nordman placed two four-meter square areas adjacent to each other, one being a mosaic of white sandstone open to the sun and the other a mosaic of black basalt in the shade of a long row of chestnut trees. In Dusselford’s Public Gardens Nordman prepared two more four-meter areas, each near the other and oriented towards the direction of the sun. One is filled with white ash that is made by burning black sea sludge, and the other is filled with black ash taken from the city’s trash incinerators.

The first setting allows for, quite simply, discovering a place to rest or read and choosing to be in that place. The arrangement of the inward-facing benches, however, allows for the possibility of facing and sitting next to other people who have seen and chosen the same spot. It is a microcosm of settlement, of the initial impulses of selection that are the seeds of our villages and cities.

The stone pieces and the ash pieces could be intersections where people meet other people whom they know or don’t know; places that people encounter and notice or not notice; with their passing leaving or not leaving a trace. The stone settings could be very much like flat pictures or stages, frameworks in which each moment of the day’s light, the trees’ shade, and passing people become part of the work. The ash pieces chronicle those people who encounter them, making various footprints or walking cane marks in the soft ash. The ash piece’s existence could be continually renewed by the ground crew of the Public Gardens by raking the ash at the beginning of each day.

Between 1981 and 1982 De Appel Foundation assisted Nordman in the restoration and presentation of a flat-bottomed riverboat named Tjoba. This type of long, low riverboat is normally used by shippers to transport their cargoes of sand, cotton and coal between riverports in Europe. Nordman’s intervention involved restoring the cabin, the galley, the pilothouse, and the sailors’ quarters to their original condition, and placing in the cabin white spreads for the bed, two white folding chairs for the kitchen table, and a fiber mat for the floor. The massive hold of the ship was de-rusted and coated with white fish oil paint. In the center of the hold, directly beneath the boat’s access hatches (from which the hold received daylight), Nordman placed a steel cardanic structure: an inverted pyramid-shaped gyroscopic table that is filled with water and remains parallel to the surface of the river, regardless of the ship’s pitch and roll.

Once prepared, Tjoba was sent up the Rhine river, from near its mouth in Amsterdam through the Netherlands, France, Germany, and Switzerland, docking along the way in Dusseldorf, Cologne, Bonn, Strasbourg, and Basel, and then returning to the Netherlands to dock in Rotterdam, Groningen, and Winschoten. In each of these ports two to four of the ship’s 46 hatches were opened to let in people and sunlight simultaneously, the gangplank was put ashore, and the boat was made available to the public for the duration of each stay. Whomever might be at the docks and notice Tjoba—“whomever might arrive”—was welcome to investigate the interior of the ship. Once inside, the hull of the ship becomes a resonator adjusting the sounds from both inside and outside the ship: the nearby industrial sounds of each port, the ambient footsteps and conversations of people inside the ship, chunks of ice percussing against the hull in winter, or the wing beats and cries of passing gulls.

For The Renaissance Society, Nordman will present another phase of her work Conjunct (city of light) (1989—), a number of wooden elements made of Douglas fir, cedar, ceramic and glass that can be assembled into a small 2 room shelter with minimal living tools such as a blanket and water pitcher. It was originally exhibited fully assembled in New York’s Central Park. The cedar elements are done by master craftsman Makoto Imai according to a drawing/plan of Nordman’s. These finely crafted elements will be presented as sculpture, arranged in such a way that the available light in the gallery may pass beneath and between them. The meaning of these pieces as sculpture—or as proposed sculpture—is determined by whomever is present.

New drawings/plans by Nordman will also be present in other parts of the city. Nordman’s drawing/plans on vellum are not hung on walls. Rather they are presented between framed glass panels in freestanding boxes and exist only as each observer chooses to pull them out. On the one hand the drawings contain aspects of the sun and the light that passes through them; on the other hand they could contain proposals that could be realized on public grounds in Chicago. In the case of each drawing the observer is free to choose to collaborate in the initiation and realization of those proposals.