"Smart Treet" Q&A with Nari Ward
High Line Art
Nari Ward, an artist originally from Jamaica, makes sculptural installations from materials he collects in his own neighborhoods. Throughout his work, Ward juxtaposes surprising materials and themes. Ward takes up daunting societal topics ranging from healing and health care, to justice and the police, to immigrant identity struggles. For the High Line, Ward presents Smart Tree, an installation of a Smart car refinished with strips of tire treads and propped up on cinder blocks with an apple tree growing out of its roof. Our Donald R. Mullen, Jr Director & Curator Cecilia Alemani sat down with the artist to discuss his project.
Cecilia Alemani: Can you tell us about Smart Tree, your project for the High Line?
Nari Ward: When I first went for a site visit on the High Line, I had no idea what I wanted to do, but wanted to investigate the place. There was one moment in particular that struck me: I saw a tenement building next to the park, and looking inside it, where you would normally see furniture, curtains, etc.—people’s lives—someone had turned it into a parking garage. And seeing these license plates and cars, it triggered a memory from when I was growing up: My dad worked for a university in Jamaica, and he would drive their van most of the time, but he always wanted a car for himself. So he bought two cars that he was going to fix up, and he parked them in front of the yard—but never got around to fixing them. They sat there for years, and fifteen years later when I went back, they were still there—and one of them had a lime tree growing out of it! That strange juxtaposition of the displaced cars, with the displaced tree, gave me the idea of trying to reconfigure that memory for the High Line.
I chose a smart car because I didn’t want a large-scale vehicle; I wanted something really discrete, that didn’t feel overwhelming, and that referenced the body in a certain way. I wanted it to be about place-ness, or maybe even stasis, which led me to propose that the car wouldn’t have wheels, but would be fixed, like a building. Because I also wanted to acknowledge the development that’s happening around the High Line—there’s a great deal of construction going on.
The cinderblocks are also a memory element, because on a lot of islands, in so-called Third World countries, and even in some parts of the U.S., you’ll see people building with cinder blocks, where the rebar is left sticking out of the top of the building, with the assumption that the next generation will build on top. It’s a suggestion of possibility. The tire treads that cover the car are also really important in this regard, because they reference movement, which consumes the piece. I like the absurdity of the car being a giant wheel, and that wheel being somehow fixed in place. I always feel like when I make something, the more absurd it is, the more potential for symbolism and meaning it gains.
CA: Do you think there is also a reference to the High Line itself, being a former railroad, and a park mainly experienced in motion?
NW: Right. There are so many elements of movement, all around the park—the history of the place, the highway underneath, the sense of action that’s all around. But at the same time, it wasn’t about being of a specific place, but the question of place-ness. I think the tension between the tire treads and the cinder blocks is about this question of place-ness.
CA: And can you talk a little bit about the tree that is planted in the Smart car? How do you think people will react?
NW: I think it will be strange, you know? Because even now, without the tree, people are excited about the tire treads, because it’s really cool to see something so familiar taking over the entire car. I think the function is what stays with people—they ascribe the resilience of the tires to the car, and imagine that it would make the car last much longer.
CA: Have you used tires before in other artworks?
NW: A lot. In Jamaica they have this folk tradition—because it’s a so-called “Third World country”—of making tires from ball bearings. So it was something that I always wanted to work with. I like the material, the sense that it’s almost indestructible.
CA: Can talk a bit about your previous work in the public sphere?
NW: Most of my previous public projects have been in some response to a community. In this context, normally you’re a guest, and you work with an organization that already has a relationship with folks, with the community there. The High Line project was different, because there wasn’t this community to connect to, but instead it was this site, this place, so maybe that’s why it became about memory, and about the question of place-ness, how different visual bleeds of information can exist in the space, like the idea of the road, nature, and transportation, and movement being all in a really intense dialogue. You become aware of it there.
I noticed when I was on the High Line that you actually become more aware of your body, even at rest. It’s not like Central Park, whose rhythm is that nature is just there. The High Line’s rhythm is that you’re aware of your dialogue with nature because of the surrounding flux. The High Line becomes even more special and strange because of that—you can choose to be there, with nature, but you can’t ignore the intensity of energy of the city in such close proximity. That’s really what I wanted the piece to elaborate on.
CA: Have you done other public sculpture projects in New York?
NW: I have one piece that is a public, permanent work that’s little known. It’s on 125th Street, on the West Side in a little park called the Harlem Waterfront Park, right across from Fairway. It’s a series of stainless steel sculptures, and it’s interesting, because it’s the same kind of thing: when they asked me to make a proposal for the site, there was nothing there. This must’ve been ten years ago now. I visited the site when it was just piers, and the only folks who would go there were community fisherman who got to know each other as friends. And it was kind of cool, because when the Percent for Art people came to me, they asked, “What do you think about what’s there?” and I said, “Who’s using it now?” and they responded, “Nobody is really using it, just the fishermen are there.” So I went, and the fishermen were there, and I was like this is really cool, they are all there, and they all know each other.
And then I realized with the design of the new park, there was going to be a little area for the fisherman, because they wanted to respect their use of the space. So I decided I wanted to represent the fishermen. If you look at the stainless steel sculptures, they’re the eyelets that are on the fishing rod, but I used the form of the eyelet as a viewing device. When you look through the eyelets, you see the landscape. They’re called Voices—Voice 1, Voice 2, Voice 3. It was all about your position, and your relationship to the landscape, and about placing the viewer.
CA: And it’s still there?
NW: Yes, it’s a permanent piece. The funny thing is, my kids call it my park, “Dad’s Park.”
CA: That’s sweet! Can you also talk about the Sugar Hill Smiles project? Because it’s another kind of public project, but very different.
NW: So that project was really about trying to find the forum that would directly impact and draw from the community.
I went around in my Jamaican cart—this little homemade folk cart—in the Sugar Hill neighborhood in Harlem, and had cans that had mirrors in the bottom, and they were called Sugar Hill Smiles. What I had people do was smile in mirrors that were in the bottom of the can, and on the cart, I had a hand canning machine. Once they looked in the can, their smile was reflected, and I’d close the can in the canning machine, “canning” the smile. I collected 2,000 smiles Sugar Hill, and then we sold the smiles in the Sugar Hill Children’s Museum of Art & Storytelling, that was part of the Sugar Hill Housing. And the cans benefit the early education program that the building has.
I was really pleased that the smiles from the neighborhood could really generate some kind of transformation for the neighborhood and for these kids’ education.
Although I don’t think I’ll do anymore canning. It was great—it was actually one of the projects where I felt like I got younger. At the end of the day, I was invigorated. I wasn’t tired. I was laughing every time that somebody smiled; it was therapeutic, in a way. I’ve never had a project that gave back health, on a bodily level like that.
CA: Any special encounter worth mentioning?
NW: Every day was a new encounter. For most people, first they were like, “Oh, this guy is trying to sell something.” And then New Yorkers are so stoic, they’re just like, “move.” And then when they realized, “Okay, maybe he’s not selling anything, but then what is he doing?” Then somebody would come over, and then I’d say, “Would you mind giving me a smile?”
And then they were like, “What the hell…?” And then I’d explain, and they were like, “Oh, this is great! Okay. Let’s do it.” But then people would think I was selling lemonade and be disappointed that I didn’t have lemonade, because it was hot. Or maybe I’m doing some kind of bamboozling, you know, some hustle, because they’re used to being hustled. So when they realized I didn’t want anything from them, except a smile—that was really special.
CA: Did you explain it as an artwork?
NW: It was funny because there were some people who asked if they could see the smile inside when they got home. And I had to explain that, no, you have to have faith. And then they got it and really liked it. Because they were thinking that there was some kind of digital aspect, some technology that would turn the smile inside into a picture or something. And I explained, “No, it’s you. You have to believe.” And so that was kind of cool.
And then there were some people who wanted to buy their smile.
CA: But is it marked with their names?
NW: No, and that’s what I said: “No, you don’t realize that everybody’s smile is the same. That’s the key to this. So you shouldn’t buy your smile, you should just buy a smile.” And then they got it.
But it was good—every day was a new thing. With public art, you never know what’s going to happen. And I like this chance thing that happens.
CA: Can you tell us about your show in Miami?
NW: It was weird and special and scary and exuberant and exhilarating. It doesn’t happen a lot, so there’s no real way to know what to expect. When it does happen, you’re like, “Oh my god this is really great.” And at the same time you’re like, “This is weird and crazy.” And then people seem to really enjoy the work. And then you’re a little bit like, “Are they just being nice? Because they’re nice folks? Just being polite?”
So you don’t have a normal way to assess what’s going on. For me, just seeing this body of work together was really empowering, because I saw the lines of connection laid out.
CA: Were there works that you hadn’t seen in a long time?
NW: A lot. I started seeing certain works differently next to the other works. I like how that conversation starts to happen. In the end it became about engaging the body, because when you deal with memory and these things that are in your thoughts, it’s really easy to fall into nostalgia. The way I tried to pull back from the nostalgia is by having the materiality at the forefront. I turned up the bodily seduction of the works so that one is very aware of their own relationship to the moment.
CA: Turning back to your piece on the High Line, do you have plans for the apples? If we get a lot of apples, can we eat them? Make apple cobbler?
NW: Yeah, I think we should have some kind of apple ceremony.
CA: An apple festival!
NW: Some kind of cider, or something.
CA: Can you locate the Smart car temporally? Is it something that comes from the past, the future?
NW: It’s about being in the moment. It’s not about nostalgia, it’s not about being futuristic; it’s about you being aware of your presence and of your body’s relationship to it.
That’s why a smart car is really seductive to me. It is something that you feel a connection to. I did this project with the cinquecento in Rome and I fell in love with this car. There was something about it that just felt human; it wasn’t overwhelming, it wasn’t a toy, it was somewhere in between.
CA: It’s like a skin almost…
NW: Yeah, in Rome I made a skin of the cinquecento, which is basically a kind of stencil of it. And then I took it back off so it was basically like flat carpet. Then I got cow skin from an antique, secondhand store and reformed the cow skin after the cinquecento. It was the coolest object I’ve made in my life.
People were like “can you put it back together?” And I was like no, no, you have to enjoy it like a landscape.