Strengthening urban memory through Socially Conscious Sculpture in the work of RE:site

April 5th 2023

Strengthening urban memory through Socially Conscious Sculpture in the work of RE:site

Stepping into the public dialogue through experiential sculpture, studio RE:site channels community need and collective history through the lens of contemporary art. Offering audiences a space of curious attention, their work shows nuanced considerations of identity, history, material, space and form, strengthening urban memory, connecting present with past and future. Time turns, and communities grow and change, re-defining “place” and adding new layers of meaning and healing.

Specializing in public art, memorial, and commemorative spaces, RE:site acts as a conduit for voices of the community. With over 60 large-scale projects completed since incorporation in 2012, their virtuosic artwork paints the spectrum from contemplative to whimsical, from haunting portraits of slavery to colorful play-spaces for nature discovery. Founders Shane Allbritton and Norman Lee were drawn to public art from the design and museum worlds, in large part because of access – wanting to create impactful projects for audiences beyond museum and gallery walls. Many of the projects they explore tackle heavy subject matter, revealing delicate truths that require deep research and commitment to complexity, communal process, and collaboration. Their artworks often challenge viewers to engage with a part of culture or history that’s been overlooked, forgotten, or revised.

In perhaps their best known work to date, “From Absence to Presence” (2020), a ghostly representation of a former slave quarter emerges from an open field where structural artifacts were discovered on the grounds of a Maryland college. At night, from a distance, light radiates from its sealed-off walls, ensouling the closed sanctuary with the lives of those who lived there. Its starburst pattern suggests an orientation toward healing and freedom. Surfaces alternate between wood clapboard and mirror-polished stainless-steel inscribed with redaction or “blackout” poetry created from former slave ads by the Seattle poet Quenton Baker. The site has the feel of a vigil. Day or night, viewers catch themselves in the mirrored reflection of its walls, composed within the poetic and tragic history of the site. The sculpture reveals a dramatic tension between eras, as a former plantation and a current, thriving sports arena holds space for echoes of the past and a reminder that humanity and freedom are not to be taken for granted.

With a parallel sense of social responsibility and an emphasis on environment and play, RE:site’s “Nested Hive” creates space for seating, gathering, and outdoor education with a larger-than-life, boldly-colored sculptural hive. Grounded, tilted, and opened, as if fallen from a tree, the Hive exists so that we might nest under shade while contemplating its function and inhabitants. Contours of painted steel and wood suggest the layered structure of natural hives and nests that allow for light, shade, and shadow, a sense of shelter within the outdoors. Its colors are chosen based on the floral hues most attractive to insects, drawing them to the larger pollinator garden nested within a minority recreation center in North Carolina. The site provides valuable outdoor gathering space and broad lessons for its community on pressing ecological issues and tools to help influence them. One of those tools is empathy, and by symbolically inhabiting the home of an insect, we might revise our culture’s negative attitude toward them, learning to respect their role in the ecosystem and to go further, to work towards

It has only been recent history that we have moved beyond expectations of classical bronze sculpture into what site, memorial, and commemoration is today: expanding and evolving through emergent processes, and growing to include more diversity and communal perspective. Contemporary narratives long to be less didactic and more open to interpretation. RE:site draws inspiration from artists who work with spectacle, installation, architecture, politics, and the environment, from Olafur Eliasson to Ai Weiwei. Spectacle demands our attention, affects us bodily, reaching us beyond invasive social media and urban busyness. To cut through the noise, RE:site creates contrast between the piece and its environment, using amplification and visual drama to engage the viewer, to take them out of time. Hand-made materials are combined with modern processes to invite a tangible sense of the hand and spirit, often referencing material processes as a metaphor for connection, skill, and creative potential.

In “Lyrical Journeys”, for example, loom-like bridges and strings of light evoke the musical, geographic, and cultural identities of Nashville, as folks greet the city passing through the International Airport. “The bridge” serves as a metaphor for place, with the city’s many bridges providing access across the Cumberland River. In a stringed instrument, the bridge supports the transmission of sound through the instrument body, as connection and attention amplify the voices of a community. As viewers pass beneath the sculpture, lights flicker, following their journey and appearing as if strings are plucked or vibrating. In this situation, a quiet and subtly complex metaphor inspires contemplation and physical discovery, and a sense of local identity, creating tangible memory.

Over thousands of years, people have shaped the environment to meet foundational and social needs: needs for shelter, education, and commerce. Sites that are valued for their beauty, religious, or symbolic function. In RE:site’s public artwork, cultural knowledge is passed through sophisticated and accessible art experience, re-defining our social roles and challenging us to become more creative.

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