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Friday, May 21, 2004 - Page updated at 01:34 A.M.

Art installations at Seattle's new library intrigue and inspire

By Sheila Farr
Seattle Times art critic

Video projections by Tony Oursler haunt the interior of the escalator wall between the third and fifth levels of the new downtown library.
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Who'd have thought an escalator would end up being one of the coolest places to hang out in our new Rem Koolhaas library building?

That's where artist Tony Oursler installed his ensemble of virtual talking heads in a broken-out section of wall covered in glass. The video projections put library guests nose-to-nose with several strange, murmuring apparitions for the few seconds it takes to ride between the fifth and third floors. The moving stairs glide by so fast and the vision is so tantalizing, I kept riding up and down, trying to take it all in.

I visited the library last week to preview three new site-specific pieces commissioned from stellar artists Oursler, Ann Hamilton and Gary Hill. All have strong international reputations for trendsetting work, and what they've produced here adds meaning, pleasure and prestige to our new library. (Another series of works, "Library Unbound," is planned for later this year and 2005.)

It's rare for Seattle to commission public artworks of this caliber. But I have to tell you the building itself is so captivating it's impossible to separate the architecture from the art. From its shiny, welcoming lobby to its blood-red heart to its airy, exuberant peaks, our new library is a thrilling place to be.

Seattle Central Library

Seattle Art Museum hosts a panel discussion with public library artists Ann Hamilton, Gary Hill and Tony Oursler, 5:30 p.m. Sunday, 100 University St., Plestcheeff Auditorium, free, reservations required; (206-654-3121).

Hamilton's "LEW Floor" routed text is in the 7,200 square-foot floor on the Fourth Avenue level.

Oursler's "Commu" video sculptures are in the walls of the escalator between levels five and three.

Hill's "Astronomy by Day (and other oxymorons)" 40-foot square video projection is in the library atrium.

After a string of big-name architects delivered lackluster buildings to Seattle, it took Koolhaas to remind us of the emotional, even spiritual, purpose of architecture. With its transcendent reach and light-struck spaces, our new library is a cathedral to human knowledge that will quickly become a destination for out-of-town visitors. With its fabulous views, intimate interior rooms and cozy, quirky places to snuggle down and read, it also looks to be an endearingly useable community gathering place.

During a brief, rush-through of the 11-story building, the details stood out: The cool functionality of cement, glass and steel joins with ecstatic rushes of ardent color; vast expanses of wide-open space intersect with the rhyming grids of pattern in floor, ceiling and railing panels. Everywhere you look, there is something wonderful to see, and the artists responded to the distinctions of the building design. They made artworks that reflect their own sensibilities as well as the character of the place — a testament to the power of site-specific art.

Sadly, two sculptural works that have been re-sited from the old library to the new don't fare so well in the transition. The graceful George Tsutakawa fountain that lived in its own spacious plaza at the former Fifth Avenue library entrance got squeezed into a little oblong pond against a landscape mound on the Fourth Avenue side. It looks crowded and tacked on. There should have been room to accommodate the fountain properly, but the landscaping competes with the fountain instead of framing it. Inside, on the eighth floor in the art and music section, a three-panel Glen Alps metal screen, also commissioned for the 1960 opening of the old library, got respectful treatment. But its material and style isn't a natural fit in the space.

Ann Hamilton's 7,200 square- foot floor, with words in 10 languages routed backward on maple boards like blocks of type, located in the ESL/world languages section.
Both Oursler (of New York) and Hill (based in Seattle) are known for their high-tech approach to art, suitable to a digitally advanced library with an army of computers for online research. Oursler aimed to startle with his escalator tableau, its odd disembodied faces muttering away like the building's resident ghosts. Besides the tantalizing view of them from the escalator, there is a porthole on the other side of the wall, so you can look through the artwork to observe the observers. The whole thing is witty and visceral and totally eccentric in its peculiar location — pure Tony Oursler.

Hill's video is more elegant and intellectual. He calls it "Astronomy by Day (and other oxymorons)." The rush of computer-generated video images plays on a 40-foot square wall above the library atrium, visible from multiple floors and vantage points. Watching it is like moving through space, passing the skeletons of three-dimensional objects. Hill puns on the open grid of the building's steel and glass exterior by reducing everyday objects — a toilet, a lamp, a shopping cart, a stool — to wire-mesh forms. The building doesn't have the thick, opaque surface we expect from such a structure, and Hill lets us see what life would look like if other objects shed their dense pelts, too. In daylight, especially if the sun is shining, the play of imagery fades to an ashen whisper. At night, presumably, Hill's "Astronomy" will animate the vast atrium in a "Space Odyssey" kind of way, as if we were rocketing through the galaxy of ordinary life.

The first artwork you'll see coming in the Fourth Avenue entrance is Ann Hamilton's 7,200 square-foot floor design in the Literacy, ESL and World Languages (LEW) section at the south side of the main floor. Hamilton had maple floorboards routed with lines of text in 10 languages, using the first sentences of books found in that part of the library.

A pleasingly mysterious pattern of familiar and foreign alphabets and phrases, the words appear backward, as if you were looking down at a line of wooden type on a printing press.

I like to think of the library as the printing press and us as the paper. As we walk over Hamilton's "LEW Floor" the words from 10 languages imprint on our soles, so that gradually and effortlessly we assimilate a little bit of those cultures by moving through such a grand repository of learning.

Hamilton's artwork is subtle and may not get the oooohs and ahhhs that Oursler's gets, but it's a thoughtful addition to the space and a pretty metaphor for our new public library.

Sheila Farr:

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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