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Celebrating the public art of Alice Aycock.


Since 1998 Alice Aycock's Star Sifter has occupied a prominent place within the Terminal One rotunda of New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport. A stellar complement to the terminal's critically acclaimed architecture, Aycock's installation was an ingenious response to the one-of-a-kind culture, form, and purpose of this site. After a decade, Star Sifter is as it always was: a sculptural commentary upon all that the airport has become and all it was once hoped to be.

Star Sifter (1998; Fig. 1 and Pl. 1) remains an invitation to the public to become aware of the power and possibilities inherent in their surroundings, to experience the airport as both an architectural space and a point of origin for travels to far off places--be they immediate and real or in the private recesses of the mind. Much has changed at the airport since Star Sifter's initial unveiling. Today, in a transportation venue where the public is still dealing with the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks; still grappling with unprecedented regulations, fees, delays, and ever-changing travel advisories; and still trying to establish a new normal, Aycock's invitation seems more relevant than ever. Star Sifter is not just a work of public sculpture; it is a personal legacy that can aid in our understanding of the later projects of its prolific maker.


A successful artist whose sculpture and drawings are in numerous collections, Alice Aycock (b.1946) values the creation of art for public places. She understands the strange polemics of the public art genre and thrives on the dialogue which concurrently challenges and justifies its necessity. Despite her work as a public artist (beginning in the 1970s) and her no-holds-barred candor in being a true voice in the field, her public artworks have not garnered much scholarly attention.

My interest in this curious deficiency began after reading Brooke Kamin Rapaport's 2003 Sculpture Magazine interview, entitled "Alice Aycock: Public Artist." After rhetorically questioning the critical silence regarding the artist's recent works, Rapaport wisely suggested that "the role of public art itself at the present time" might be to blame. (1) Elaborating, Aycock's interviewer cites several handicaps with which public art--as a genre--often has to contend, including an amorphous definition, a stereotypical susceptibility to "disneyfication," a constant questioning of its artistic and social value, a secondary relationship to architecture, and a penchant for controversial receptions. Together, these strikes seem to have contributed to a moratorium on serious discussions of public art, Aycock's included.

In 2005, the silence was perhaps unintentionally perpetuated by Robert Hobbs, whose brilliant analysis of Aycock's oeuvre acknowledged her public projects as a crucial part of her artistic contribution, but went on to explain his reasoning for leaving these works for a subsequent study. Hobbs passed on the opportunity to address these commissions at length, saying they "open a new and different chapter deserving its own publication" and understandably so. (2) Today, in the spirit of opening this chapter, this celebration of Star Sifter and three later works can provide an interpretive framework for understanding and fully appreciating Aycock's endeavors in the world of public art.

Unlike most public art commissions, which often begin with an open call for artists and the promise of a juried competition, the story of Star Sifter was distinctive from the start. The sculpture owes its existence to the vision of public art consultant Joyce Pomeroy Schwartz, who was hired by the terminal's tenant airlines to commission artworks for their new building. (3) Schwartz's plan called for a series of visually stunning, site-specific installations to be scattered throughout the terminal. Unfortunately, as construction progressed, the priorities of both the architect and the airlines shifted, and the budget and initial enthusiasm for a series of high profile art commissions began to wane. The only project realized, Star Sifter endured not only because it is, to quote Rapaport, "an optimistic vision of what air travel might lead to," but also because it doubled as a security barrier and could compensate for an intrinsic flaw in the mezzanine's design. (4)

Original plans for the mezzanine called for a large opening in the center of the atrium so that people on the second floor could look down upon passengers making their way through the security checkpoint directly below. However, soon after construction began, the architect saw that a person on the mezzanine could easily slip an unscreened item down to a previously screened passenger. Aycock's added challenge then was to find a way to prevent such security breaches. The end result is nothing short of a visionary sculptural machine.

Like a shuttle poised to reenter the earth's atmosphere, Star Sifter hovers between the first and second levels of the rotunda, inspiring fanciful connections between earth and cosmic travel (Fig. 2). Within the central opening, Aycock wove a transparent web of metal that affords entertaining views between floors but is tight enough to prevent the passing of objects. Mirrors, curlicues, a painted disk, an open book, a fuselage, and various curved trellis-like floating forms suspended above this sunken web are just a few of the abstract metallic objects caught in the sifter's vortex. Some viewers might recognize A-frames and architectural scaffolding; others might see the makings of airplane parts or various fabrications of an aviation engineer.

On the surface, the installation may appear to pay tribute to more traditional themes of air and space flight. But Aycock, a self-proclaimed "sucker for the stars," imbues this focus on the essence of flight, physics, astronomy, and celestial discovery with a conceptual profundity absent in most artworks of this genre. (5) Such theoretical saturation and attention to site specificity solidifies her place among those artists creating innovative, strikingly relevant sculptural commissions for public spaces.

To stand before an Aycock sculpture is to surround oneself with the product of an encyclopedic artistic mind, a mind that is unafraid to tap centuries of thought, faith, science, and mystery or to relish the inevitable layers of interpretation each can provide. Aycock's fascination with space, flight, time, and the ability of the past to affect the present takes many forms. They range from the literal to the imaginary, the metaphorical to the prophetic. They are often autobiographical, revealing an acute sensitivity to dreams, ghosts, subconscious musings, or childhood fears. They also demonstrate a desire to read across disparate texts and images in pursuit of new ways to reconcile scientific fact and miraculous fiction.


Over the course of her career, Aycock has talked about her fascination with flight, calling it a "natural obsession." (6) Even though twentieth-century aeronautical advancements enabled humans to realize the dream of flight, to Aycock "flying and airplanes are still magic," a bewitching notion at the core of much of her artistic philosophy. (7) For her, flight is bound with desire; it is not a strictly physical or technological phenomenon. Because her version of flight encompasses the mind and spirit, it is neither a straightforward progression from point A to point B, nor an evolution from past to present or present to future. Her idea of flight is simultaneously backward and forward; it is undirected and knows no bounds.

Expanding upon notions of flight, the artist uses the slipping memory of her grandmother as an initial metaphor for viewing traversals of time and space less literally. Likewise, the plight of schizophrenics, whose scopic associations with speed, time travel, and free fall--all facets of a mind grappling with the pervasive nature of real life and hallucination--fit well into Aycock's own interests in "flights of the imagination." (8) Such notions also solidify her wish to create works that derive from unconventional schools of science and philosophy and may prompt viewers to embrace, in the words of Hobbs, "new ways of thinking about themselves and the world around them." (9) Star Sifter perfectly encapsulates all of these desires, bringing them to life at this airport site--where a traveler's experience of flight is as wonderfully confused, jumbled, and broadly defined as the artist's.


Star Sifter is exactly what its title suggests: a giant steel sieve that captures and attempts to siphon everything in its stratosphere (Pl. 2). Taking the sculpture at face value, one might picture viewers on the mezzanine peering down through its mesh, imagining they are the next to be lured in, to be sifted (Fig. 3). Indeed, for many, that sorting is exactly what lay in store. While the mezzanine and ticketing areas are accessible to the general public, the area directly below the sculpture is restricted to ticketed passengers--those who have been scanned and "sifted" by airport security.


As with most of her sculptures, Aycock purposefully stacked Star Sifter with details. Though the objects caught in the sifter's snare may be abstractions, there are several whose unique derivations are discernable, or debatable. Examining these abstract forms compounds the ways in which Star Sifter can be interpreted as both extrapolating from and solidifying its place within the structure and psychology of this singular public space.

First, there is the shape which is equally reminiscent of an open book, passport, or laptop (Fig 4). While this form may reference this triad of essential travel and time-killing tools, it also can be interpreted as reflecting the artist's love of reading, a habit instilled by her father at a young age. Recalling her childhood enthusiasm and naivete, Aycock confesses, "I thought that if I read enough books, I could know everything without having to experience it all for real. I could do everything in my imagination and stay safe. For me, even now, my safety net is books." (10) With Star Sifter, that theoretical safety net seems to have found a sculptural form, also becoming a metaphorical parachute for the traveler. The sifter becomes a subtle, almost prophetic protector, literally catching anyone or anything security deems unfit for travel, or anyone not imaginative enough to give in to the hidden power of fantasy, faith, or mysterious, improbable connections. Extending the metaphor, Star Sifter may suggest that inquiry and the pursuit of knowledge itself are perhaps the most important safety nets. The sculpture's location in a building whose purpose is to facilitate one of the twentieth century's most influential dreams-turned-reality-via-technology certainly strengthens this claim.

Viewers should not forget, however, that Aycock is a quick-witted artist with a sharp sense of humor. On the other side of the sifter, across from the book, a mirror and a blue disk painted with a circle of white monkeys "jumping through hoops through a constellation" offer a unique splash of color within an otherwise industrial web of steel (Fig. 5, and Pl. 3). (11) Inspired by nineteenth-century zoetropes (about which Aycock was then reading), the disk is a play on motion, animation and optical illusion. It also references the unfortunate, but inevitable, monotony of our airport experiences. Were the zoetrope activated--spun, and viewed from the correct angle--its monkey would appear to move forward, hurdling his hoop again and again. This allusion is particularly befitting the airport: a non-place between departure and destination where travelers can feel they have been robbed of the excitement of the journey, finding themselves on a conveyor belt of sorts, jumping through the hoops of airline regulations and airport security, inevitably feeling as though they are "traveling but going nowhere." (12)

Aycock's artistic allusions to some of the more unflattering characteristics of contemporary commercial flight find their complement in the observations of author and New York Times contributor Walter Kirn, who writes:
   For thousands of years human beings dreamed of flying, but it took
   us less than a century to get sick of it. The crowds. The delays.
   The seatmates. Something went wrong. How did the miracle become a
   hassle? How did a form of transportation that seemed to promise
   unprecedented freedom end up delivering, in such short order, a
   sense of debilitating entrapment? (13)

Kirn's point is well taken. Today, flying is far busier, more quotidian, more cramped, more stressful and certainly less elegant than it once was. Similarly, the spaces which make contemporary flight possible are contested zones fraught with strange tensions, ersatz experiences, and complicated comings and goings. For Aycock, too, the airport is an uninhabitable "cyberspace made real," where conceptions of public-ness and community are evasive, if not indeterminable. (14)

Aycock's impressions of the airport also echo those of travel writer Pico Iyer, who similarly observes:
   What makes the airport special ... is that it is a gift store with
   culture shock: the product, in its video arcades, its hotels, and
   its cocktail lounges, of a mixed marriage between a border crossing
   and a shopping mall. And the confusions of any shop where people
   are surrounded by signs they can't read and people they can't
   follow are amplified in this place where so many customers are from
   somewhere far away, and so many of the shopkeepers are recent
   arrivals with a shaky hold on English. (15)

As though picking up where Iyer leaves off, Aycock believes the airport is a place where "the sense of being local is left to the postcards and souvenirs, but it is a nowhere zone," replete with neon signage and kitschy decor. "If anything is 1984 ... it's [the airport]!" (16)

When tapped to create a work of art for these vast "nowhere zones," Aycock confesses that the traveler or audience she has in mind is herself. Because for her the entire airport experience is such an ordeal, she likes to create installations which can be appreciated by a traveler who is constantly on the move, someone who wants to get in and get out without lingering unnecessarily. Thus, the sculpture must hold up to a "walk by experience," for travelers who "just happen to turn around for a quick second" as they grab a hot dog or a coffee. In that moment, the viewer can experience what Aycock calls a "quick hit" or "a little spectacle," a glimpse of a magic element that in her words is "a little scary and a little delicious." (17) In the case of Star Sifter, the entire piece is full of rich elements, all both scary and delicious, conducive to quick hits and contemplation alike.

While Aycock's cliched airport is a place of annoyance, inconvenience, and eerie ennui, her sculpture initiates another way to think about what happens in this space: to take a step back from the tedium and recognize that the ability to fly is still amazing. This sentiment is shared by Iyer, who, in his contribution to the New York Times December 2007 blog, "Jet Lagged: Navigating the Unfriendly Skies," analogously acknowledges the negative characteristics of commercial flight, but sees past them to something more romantic. Iyer's diplomatic insights about the contemporary travel-by-air experience serve to re-affirm the continued relevancy of Star Sifter. "I wonder if it isn't really the democracy of travel that many of us are objecting to these days when we speak of more crowded planes and long lines at the airport.... What is it, exactly, that makes us think that we should complain about sitting in a seat and being taken around the world?" he muses. (18) Indeed, in ways both "slightly humorous and a little cynical" (Aycock's language), Star Sifter ironically hints at the banalities inherent in the contemporary flight experience but does so while offering a more imaginative alternative to the monotony. (19)

When the overall curvature of Star Sifter is considered, the work's optimism truly begins to reveal itself. Aycock has confirmed that "metaphorically speaking, the curved elements are a celestial deconstruction ... loosely taken ... from the computer diagrams of outer space." (20) Even without such clues from Aycock (or the title), science fiction aficionados and space history enthusiasts might well associate the form of Aycock's sculpture, as I do, with the "cosmic shortcut" known as a wormhole. (21) The astronomer David Darling has described a wormhole, a phenomenon of physics, as "a hypothetical 'tunnel' connecting two different points in spacetime." (22) Hovering as it does between the mezzanine rotunda and the floor below, Star Sifter could be mistaken for just such a space age conduit. Its shape, silhouette, and physical relation to its site all further this association. This corollary is profound, for it suggests the extent to which Star Sifter is in tune with its site. Not only is it in synch with the literal happenings that occur in this space, it is prescient in the possibilities and consequences it suggests the viewer contemplate.

Unproven vehicles of time travel, wormholes successfully connect with Aycock's interest in schizophrenia, her grandmother's failing mind, and her fascination with the writings of Jorge Luis Borges. While wormholes may be "one of the most menacing and mysterious things in space," their potential existence keeps the hope of time travel alive. (23) "Popping through a wormhole could bring distant galaxies to your doorstep" and allow those who pass through and safely return "to travel into the future," assuming they live to tell the tale." (24) Like the imaginary travels of those who dreamed of flying long before it was possible, wormholes offer a back door into the mysteries of flight, time travel, and heretofore inexplicable universal forces. They also relate to Borges's "tear in the universe," a concept with which Aycock is particularly enraptured.

Among the authors and philosophers whose literary works Aycock often conjures, Borges is a favorite. In a 1990 interview, Aycock told Grace Glueck, "I keep remembering the Borges story 'The Aleph,' in which the narrator finds a tear in the universe that allowed him to see everything that was and is and will be. He is thus able to pull himself away from the 'now' by understanding what came before him, living in the world that is, and envisioning another one." (25) Aycock then added, "I'd be happy if I could just find a tiny rip." (26) After reading this statement, one can easily equate the way Star Sifter collapses the first and second floors of the rotunda with Aycock's attempt at finding (or creating) "a tiny rip." Like a wormhole or universal tear, Star Sifter simultaneously predicts and provides the journey--whatever that may be. Whether seen as an odyssey through the creative mind of an artist, through the airport, or through all the imaginings of flight this unique site affords, Star Sifter is at once a work of yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

Associating Star Sifter with the look and practicability of a wormhole or a "tear in the universe" builds on questions inherent in the air travel experience and the unpredictable journeys that begin and end at the airport. Such routine queries as: Will my flight get in on time? Will my luggage get lost? Will the person in front of me keep her seatback in the upright position? All find their counterpart in Aycock's construction and the more profound what ifs it prompts.

Star Sifter is a seductive work by a calculating artist and intellect, an exceptionally inquisitive scholar on a never-ending quest to discover new ways to stimulate herself and her audience. The myriad associations nurtured by Star Sifter (only a few of which are touched upon here) is a testament to the complexities she continues to court. Star Sifter, which may be Aycock's safety net, wormhole, tear in the universe, and optimistic receptacle of inquiry is a call for viewers to value asking intelligent, probing questions and to understand how everything in our lives may be more connected than we realize. Through this sculptural spectacle, Aycock jolts the traveling public out of their humdrum daze, gives them a challenging dose of reality, and invites them to see the world around them, including their immediate spaces, both for what they are and what they could be.


Because of the wonderful mess of order and chaos it embodies, Star Sifter is a brilliant example of art for the airport and the twenty-first-century culture that has emerged around it. "As airspace is more and more controlled," writes historian Robert Wohl, "as airports become increasingly congested, as security concerns constrict the air traveler and undermine the equation of airplanes with speed, the idea of flight as liberation seems remote, the utopia of a distant past." (27) Aycock has tried to carry this notion into our present and future. Despite the inconveniences and fears built into the contemporary air travel experience, we can fly. Aycock revels in this ability, and through Star Sifter reinforces that it is still a miraculous event. As though tapping into the very utopian fervor that historian Joseph Corn asserts was a pivotal part of the culture of aviation in pre-World War II America, this work is the sculptural equivalent of the transitions that happen in this airport space and the promise that can still exist in the minds of all who dare to reassess how far we have come and where future flight might lead us. (28)

Star Sifter remains relevant not only for its appropriation of the architecture or the psychology of its airport site, but for its lasting power. Its spirit and significance hold strong because its meaning is multifaceted, malleable, anticipatory, and therefore enduring. Because it relates uniquely to its site and to flight-related phenomena, and is an honest, exciting, inventive sculptural expression of "what air travel might lead to," Star Sifter will continue to elicit new meaning as an integral part of Terminal One.

Like Star Sifter several of the artist's subsequent public projects are similarly site-responsive. Strange Attractor for Kansas City (Pl. 4 ), Ghost Ballet for the East Bank Machineworks (Nashville, Tennessee) (front cover, Pl. 5), and The Uncertainty of Ground State Fluctuations (for Clayton, Missouri) (Pl. 6)--three very different commissions from 2007--evidence the recycling and renewal of the themes that preoccupy Aycock, her keen ability to extrapolate from a specific site, and the pragmatics and pitfalls of working in the world of public art. Any public art commission is a gamble, as the works often are met with a mix of popular acclaim and contentious debate. But like Star Sifter, these works, too, will likely become indelible parts of the public places for which they were created.

Aycock's installation for Kansas City International Airport, despite its controversial reception and seeming thematic incongruity, evidences a very different approach to the unique happenings of an airport site (Fig. 6). Located outside the terminal walls, Strange Attractor for Kansas City is sited in a roundabout adjacent to the highway connector and several parking lots. (29) Fabricated from aluminum, the sculpture takes the form of two gigantic trumpet bells which have been severed from their instruments and fused together at their narrowest points. Best viewed at night, each bell is illuminated from the inside by "metal halide lights" that give off a bright white beam "surrounded by a ring of blue or neon." (30) An odd, otherworldly glow envelops the entire piece, which is only enhanced by the phosphorescence of 35-foot tall, bright orange zigzags standing like antennae on the earth around it. Those driving by no doubt fight the urge to stare, or possibly to stop to investigate the light source, or wonder what strange object or creature might crawl out.

For Aycock, the work "has a little bit of the quality of 'the alien has landed.'" (31) As revealed in a 2005 Pratt Institute lecture, this sculpture fits with Aycock's attraction to "the idea of flying saucers, aliens, and space travel, 'or, rather, people's fantasies about these things.'" (32) It is abstract, visually loud, and seemingly out of place.

Judging from the opinions expressed in the Kansas City local press, the City Council members there felt an alien presence, too. Their comments ranged from "This looks like something a kid put together," and "I don't know why we have to have art that everybody has to guess what it means," to "Art is in the eye of the beholder," and "When I first saw this, I didn't quite get it, but it grew on me." (33) Perhaps the Council members' confusion over Strange Attractor was because its site specificity was not as obvious, innocuous, or innocent as they were expecting.

Aycock chose to exploit the automobile- and highway-restricted monotony of life--equating the banality of strip malls, parking lots, and style-less suburban sprawl with the unfortunate prosaicism of contemporary air travel. This installation supported her declaration that "the more the world becomes just a franchise, the more imperative it is to go against the grain; to be idiosyncratic and independent." (34) She envisioned this work for the vacation set: a family that has been off on holiday and is returning to their regular lives and routines. The plane has landed; the adventure has ended; and they must trade their wings for wheels. Aycock imagined what would jolt tired, bleary-eyed travelers as they made their way in the darkness from the airport to the long term parking lot to collect their car. For the artist, this site presented an opportunity to give them "the alien." This strange, ugly stretch of land between the terminals, tarmac, and economy parking "needs the alien. It needs a flying saucer that is not trying to prettify it," says Aycock, because so much of America is about bad design. (35) Given the opportunity, Aycock wants "to provoke you to think about your American landscape," not just from above in an airplane, disconnectedly viewing the land, but when you are in the midst of it, a part of it. (36) Reiterating ideas she expressed to Rapaport, Aycock told Alice Thorson of the Kansas City Star: "I'm an artist. I'm not in business to tell you what you already know. I'm in business to shake you up, make you think about something you haven't thought about, to look at the world differently than you normally do. That's my job." (37)


Aycock accomplishes these goals in Kansas City. But the shakeups she inspires are not limited to sites in and around an airport landscape. Other works for other sites similarly connect to one another while individually intensifying the spirit of the space for which they are conceived.

Ghost Ballet for the East Bank Machineworks again blends the best of Aycock's longtime creative urges and the characteristics that define an existing location (Fig. 7). Tapping into features of a site that are both objective and imagined, Aycock has given the citizens of Nashville a historically minded, percent-for-art sculpture that--in ways not so different from Star Sifter or Strange Attractor--is firmly rooted in the present and yet open to impending possibilities.

Ghost Ballet strikes a bold silhouette on the eastern edge of the Cumberland River, on the greenway just across from the city. With its swooping, spinning, shiny red-painted aluminum and stainless steel components, the sculpture engages in parallel conversations with the architecture and skyline of downtown Nashville as well as with the neighboring bridges and athletic stadium. Aycock's Ghost Ballet is in animated dialogue with much more than just its physical surroundings; it is in dialogue with time, and conscious of that which has come before it. This area was the site of Nashville's industrial past, with large manufacturing machines, relics of which still remain.

The siting of the work, a decision that involved suggestions from the public, was determined before Aycock was selected for the commission. So too were other parameters: utilizing "existing salvaged industrial objects," creating a civic "gateway," highlighting the uniqueness of the east bank, generating a point of visual interest for both sides of the river, and enticing passersby on foot and by car to appreciate the piece by both sun- and moonlight--no small order for a single work of public art. (38) Aycock has proven herself to be a particularly site sensitive public artist, and her proposal was selected to be realized.


Rising to the challenges set for her, Aycock fixed her attention on creating a work that, in her own words, could serve to "emphasize the historical significance of this place as well as to operate as a memory trace of the past industrial activities there." (39) The entire installation became a "new metaphorical construction;" one that not only symbolizes the past "activity and energy...generated on the site," but "also refers to the energy and excitement that still exists" in Nashville today. (40) While the references to actual and fanciful turbines, ladders, overhead cranes, trusses, and dynamos celebrate an industrial past and a dynamic future, as with all Aycock works, there is another layer of meaning--one that injects a bit of cynicism into the wonder.

A sculpture that borrows from various familiar architectural forms and was designed to withstand, "hurricane strength winds, snow and human loads," might also be seen as a reverse symbol of our nation's decaying infrastructure. (41) Aycock's frustration with homogenous design and rampant urban sprawl seen across America may have found another outlet here with Ghost Ballet. With so many of our roads, bridges, and tunnels in desperate need of repair, projects like this put the wonder and excitement back in physics and engineering and inject a bit of good, imaginative structure back into our environment.

The same can be said for The Uncertainty of Ground State Fluctuations (for Clayton, Missouri), another commission that allowed Aycock to do what she does best: appear to bend time and plumb her fascination with aliens, ghosts, histories of the universe and technology, and our precarious relationship to the natural world around us (Fig. 8). With Aycock's signature fanciful geometric abstractions, including "a cone and a pinwheel and a frozen flutter of metallic drapery," Uncertainty is more visually contained than the other works. Situated on a grassy rotary in front of a popular Clayton community center, Uncertainty is a pyramid-like volume topped with its own light filled horn. "The horn is trying to listen," says Aycock. "It is also a vessel, waiting to be filled. It seems to have landed, plopped down in place." The artist told Robert Duffy, of St. Louis Magazine, that it can be interpreted as anything: "a large musical instrument. Or a spacecraft straight from a 1950s Saturday movie matinee. Or a flowering bush. It's the viewer's choice." As with any Aycock work, competing interpretive threads generate an exciting tension for any single idea, and here Aycock notes how the sculpture "has to do with feelings of unrest or unease. Yet it is also optimistic, directed outward." (42)

Uncertainty serves to add a little flash to what Duffy calls Clayton's swath "of largely consequence-free buildings." (43) Additionally, because the piece is so open to interpretation and has a largely whimsical feel, it is well placed outside a center devoted to recreation and community activities, even though this location may not be the most prominent, or glamorous, in town. (44) "What you do is take what you're given," Aycock notes. "This is a piece I have always wanted to do, and after all these years I want to see it next." (45) Finally, because Aycock is an artist so in tune with and suited to a contemporary ethos, her works resonate wherever they land.

As this brief examination of a trio of Aycock's 2007 commissions demonstrates, the legacy of Star Sifter extends beyond Terminal One. She is an artist who stays fiercely true to herself and her ever-expanding intellectual and cosmic queries, and does so in a way that empowers the general public--be they parked at the airport, looking across the riverbank from a downtown high rise, or wandering in for some community bonding--to do the same. Understanding the depth and range of interpretation possible in a single sculpture paves the way for more meaningful connections with any Aycock work, and by extension, our experience of public art more generally.

Although Alice Thorson's comments are directed specifically towards Strange Attractor for Kansas City, they get at the essence of Aycock's public works. She observed how, "so much about this piece feels familiar: The flaring tubalike forms hark to old Victrolas, but their welded and riveted aluminum strips reference aircraft construction. The zigzags of red neon have a counterpart in American Indian pictographs, but the cables and poles that support them come from modern-day communications engineering." (46) Thorson goes on to ask, "So is this device meant for broadcasting or inputting, transport or surveillance? Is it malignant or benign? It all makes for a thought-provoking encounter in a place where one might least expect it, with art fulfilling its time-honored role as beacon." (47)

Aycock's sculptural commissions are at once uncannily familiar semaphores and eccentric, otherworldly constructions. It is this tension, combined with their often subtly sensitive relationship to their site that makes them so richly thought-provoking. In its own way, each of these commissions, made over a decade that touches down in two millennia, addresses the importance of curiosity, the power of the imagination, the dangers of intellectual laziness, the connectivity of history, the anxieties bound to feelings of alienation, and the proclivity of suburban sprawl.


(1.) Brooke Kamin Rapaport, "Alice Aycock: Public Artist" Sculpture Magazine 22, no. 10 (December 2003): 33.

(2.) Robert Hobbs, Alice Aycock: Sculpture and Projects. (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2005), 4.

(3.) Completed in 1998, construction on Terminal One evidenced the first new building project at JFK in over twenty years. Improvements to the terminal, which then facilitated air transport for Air France, Japan Airlines, Korean Air and Lufthansa German Airlines, were financed and regulated by the airlines themselves. In the words of the Port Authority's Executive Director, while the governance of JFK had "always been a joint effort" between the New York/New Jersey Port Authority and its "tenant airlines," the refurbishment of Terminal One was a "benchmark product of this kind of public/private partnership." Billed as "A Private Enterprise Project to Enhance New York's Gateway Status" Terminal One was expected to "offer travelers a gateway to the world as well as the coming century." All quotes and information can be found in the Terminal One Promotional Material located in the Air Transport Files of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum Archives.

(4.) See Joyce Pomeroy Schwartz, "Unrealized Public Art" Public Art Review 16, no. 2 (Spring/Summer 2005): 33-35, 37.

(5.) Alice Aycock, conversation with the author, November 4, 2005.

(6.) Ibid.

(7.) Ibid.

(8.) Hobbs, , Alice Aycock: Sculpture and Projects, 70.

(9.) Ibid.

(10.) As quoted in Hobbs, Alice Aycock: Sculpture and Projects, 32.

(11.) Carol Vogel, "Visions of the Heavens," New York Times, May 22, 1998.

(12.) Alice Aycock, phone conversation with the author, October 17, 2006.

(13.) Walter Kirn, "Flying Alone," New York Times Magazine, July 23, 2006.

(14.) Aycock, conversation with the author, November 4, 2005.

(15.) Pico Iyer, The Global Soul: Jet Lag, Shopping Malls and the Search for Home (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000), 49-50.

(16.) Aycock, conversation with the author, November 4, 2005.

(17.) Ibid.

(18.) more-8.

(19.) Aycock, conversation with the author, November 4, 2005.

(20.) As quoted in Vogel, "Visions of the Heavens."

(21.) Paul Rincon, "Wormhole 'no use' for time travel," BBC NEWS online published on 23 May 2005.

(22.) David Darling, "Wormhole," from The Encyclopedia of Astrobiology, Astronomy and Spaceflight, a resource of The Worlds of David Darling.

(23.) Unauthored link related to Rincon's article entitled "Space--Wormholes" wormholes/index.shtml

(24.) Ibid.

(25.) As quoted in Grace Glueck, "A Sculptor Whose Imagery is Encyclopedic," New York Times, August 15, 1990.

(26.) Ibid.

(27.) Robert Wohl, "Messengers of a Vaster Life" in Huston Paschal and Linda Johnson Dougherty, co-curators, Defying Gravity: Contemporary Art and Flight. (Raleigh: North Carolina Museum of Art, 2003), 28.

(28.) Joseph Corn, The Winged Gospel: America's Romance with Aviation, (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1983).

(29.) The work was financed by funds from the $90 million allocated for the consolidation of the airport's rental car facilities. Rather than site this percent-for-art work directly outside the rental car building, "the selection panel that chose Aycock proposed the economy parking lot ... because more people will use the parking facility" and therefore a broader spectrum of the public would get to view it. Mike Rice, "KC gets a peak at future KCI art." Kansas City Star, April 8, 2005.

(30.) Ibid.

(31.) As quoted in "About the Artist," The Kansas City Star, August 7, 2005.

(32.) "Sculptor Alice Aycock Lectures," Gateway: The Community Newsletter of Pratt Institute 15, no. 16, (April 21, 2005).

(33.) All quotes excerpted from Rice, "KC gets a peek at future KCI art."

(34.) Rapaport, "Alice Aycock: Public Artist," 34.

(35.) Aycock, conversation with the author, November 4, 2005.

(36.) From "About the Artist," Kansas City Star.

(37.) Alice Thorson, "It's Kansas City's next public artwork, and it won't add a penny to your tax bill," Kansas City Star, August 7, 2005.

(38.) From Narrative of the Public Art Process.

(39.) From Artist's Statement: "Ghost Ballet of the East Bank Machineworks."

(40.) Ibid.

(41.) Ibid.

(42.) All quotes in this paragraph come from Robert Duffy, "Outside Art," St. Louis Magazine, September 2007. media/St-Louis-Magazine/September-2007/Outside-Art/

(43.) Ibid.

(44.) Renee Stovsky, "Sculpture adds new Clayton traffic-stopper," St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 2, 2005.

(45.) Duffy, "Outside Art," St. Louis Magazine.

(46.) Alice Thorson, "Alice Aycock artwork lands at KCI," The Kansas City Star, July 1, 2007.

(47.) Ibid.

Mary M. Tinti recently joined the staff of WaterFire, Providence. Her 2008 dissertation focused on the airport installations of the Acconci Studio, Alice Aycock, Keith Sonnier, and Diller + Scofidio.
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Author:Tinti, Mary M.
Publication:Woman's Art Journal
Date:Sep 22, 2008
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