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At Grace Farms, Encountering Art at Every Bend
New York Times

By Susan Hodara

 

Up close, each of the small silvered glass cubes in Teresita Fernández’s installation “Double Glass River” holds a tiny reflection of the glorious landscape it faces. From farther away, approximately 10,000 of those cubes coalesce into a flowing form stretching 61 feet across a curved wall. Wherever viewers stand, the piece changes with the weather, the season and the time of day.

 

With its many parts arranged to create a powerful whole that presents shifting perspectives of its surroundings, “Double Glass River” mirrors not only its setting but the multipronged mission of that setting, Grace Farms. Grace Farms Foundation opened the 80-acre preserve in New Canaan to the public last month, in one of its initiatives aimed at encouraging visitors to experience nature, foster community, explore faith, pursue justice and encounter the arts.

 

The art that visitors will encounter at Grace Farms begins with architecture: an astonishing, 83,000-square foot, zigzagging structure of five glass-enclosed indoor spaces linked by covered outdoor walkways, called the River. Designed by Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa of the Pritzker Prize-winning architectural firm Sanaa, based in Tokyo, the River houses Grace Farms’s activities while blending into the site’s wetlands and woodlands. It meanders 1,400 feet up a slope, its light-filled components unified by a snaking roof made of aluminum panels that take on the hues of the sky.


 

Each of the River’s volumes serves a unique set of objectives, some active, some meditative, some shared, some solitary. At the base of the hill there’s the Court, a multipurpose gymnasium with an adjoining media lab. Then comes the intimate Pavilion, where visitors can enjoy a tea ceremony. The Commons is a sprawling dining and living room featuring a coffee bar and communal tables made from trees harvested and milled on site. Farther along is the Library, with a firepit to curl up and read beside. The summit and largest section of the River is the Sanctuary, a 700-seat amphitheater where performances take place against a glass-walled backdrop of nature, and where, on Sundays, the nondenominational Christian Grace Community Church holds services. (The church is among several organizations to whom the foundation has donated use of the space.)

 

Enhancing the serenity of the Sanctuary are seven of Olafur Eliasson’s rectangular textiles, each titled “Mat for multidimensional prayers.” The Danish-Icelandic artist, who resides in Berlin and Copenhagen, is renowned for creating immersive environments with natural elements. His chunky mats were woven in a honeycomb motif from the wool of Icelandic gray sheep. He called the wool “robust.”

 

“It has this stunning tone because every hair is a different shade of gray,” he said in a telephone interview. Of the mats, he said, “I don’t think they are spiritual in themselves. It’s what you do with them.”

 

Mr. Eliasson is designing another installation for Grace Farms, to be unveiled along the walkway by the Pavilion in 2016. Titled “Suspended Rain,” it will consist of 15 glass spheres mounted on ground-to-roof steel rods. Like the reflections in Ms. Fernández’s cubes, the fisheye views in Mr. Eliasson’s spheres will change dramatically as visitors wander around them. “The idea is that by moving, we see more,” he said.The presence of such works throughout Grace Farms underscores the foundation’s appreciation of the power of art to stimulate both interaction and contemplation. “There is really nothing in our world that replaces the capacity art has to move people,” Ms. Fernández, who lives and works in Brooklyn, said. “That Grace Farms had the vision to include it as part of the bigger picture shows a huge commitment and understanding on their part of its value.”

 

Ms. Fernández and Mr. Eliasson are two of five artists commissioned to create permanent, site-specific installations for Grace Farms. All internationally recognized, they were selected by Yuko Hasegawa, chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo and Grace Farms’s curatorial adviser. Her choices, Ms. Hasegawa wrote in an email, were based on the artists’ awareness “of the function of art to give inspiration and a resilient new way of thinking.”

 


In the Library, two photographs by Thomas Demand, “Farm 56” and “Farm 88,” evoke the complexities of the creative process. The images follow the German artist’s practice of assembling compositions using cardboard models. While he often fabricates his own models, in these works the models were made by Sanaa while designing the River. In Mr. Demand’s photographs, their swooping white forms, layered one atop another, become animated and abstracted. “What you are seeing,” he said during an artists’ panel at the opening of Grace Farms, “are all the stages they were working on simultaneously.”

 

When it is completed in 2016, a mural painted by the Brazilian artist Beatriz Milhazes will extend along the entire inner length of the West Barn, one of two structures at the southern end of Grace Farms that serve to welcome guests. In an email, Ms. Milhazes said her composition and colors “will be based on the dialogue between nature and the building.” Until the painting’s completion, another work by Ms. Milhazes, a combination screen print, woodblock and woodcut titled “Canela (Cinnamon),” is on view.

 

Visitors strolling northeast on the property may catch strains of a woman singing. Tracking the music, they will find that the song is a three-part harmony, the voices beckoning from three spots around Cattail Pond. This is “New Canaan,” a sound installation that plays every half-hour for about two minutes. The singer is Susan Philipsz, a Glasgow-born artist based in Berlin who created the piece.

 

“New Canaan” was inspired by shape-note singing, a 19th-century choral music tradition that uses a simplified notation of triangles, circles and squares to designate the notes of the scale. “It’s very inclusive, very democratic, because you don’t have to be able to read music to participate in the singing,” Ms. Philipsz said as she stood by the water on Grace Farms’s opening day, waiting for the song’s repetition. “But the way I interpreted it was, yes, you hear all the voices harmonizing together, but they are also separate and apart.”

 

Ms. Philipsz was drawn to the pond as a location “where you can project and where you can reflect,” she said. “Sound can make you aware of the place that you’re in.”

 

As a place, Grace Farms offers many options for visitors to have, as Sharon Prince, the foundation’s president, put it, “a type-B experience in a type-A world.” They can attend a performance, walk the grounds or sit with friends in the Commons over snacks. They can shoot basketball in the Court or browse the resources in the Library. They can explore the River on their own or with a tour. And they can immerse themselves in the art.

 

In her curatorial statement, Ms. Hasegawa described the interaction of nature, architecture, principled ideals and people at Grace Farms as weaving “a single piece of fabric, with art representing one of the ‘threads.’ ” That thread — the artwork that punctuates the site — challenges viewers to pause, look carefully and discover the potential that surrounds them.