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Ken Smith in conversation with Charles Waldheim

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum June 11, 2015

Since 1053 the Amida Buddha serenely looks out over a segment of the Uji River in Japan. Fifty-two bodhisattvas accompany the Buddha, floating at varying heights around the enclosure of the Byodoin Temple. Ken Smith, the landscape architect who created Fenway Deity, cites this icon of Japanese architecture and its sacred inhabitants as the inspiration for his summer installation on the façade of the Gardner Museum.

In his recent talk, Smith allied his travels to see the gardens, palaces, and temples of the world with Mrs. Gardner’s mission to collect art and bring it home to her museum overlooking the Emerald Necklace’s Muddy River. From the Gardner’s eclectic mix of Eastern and Western influence, Smith found inspiration and pulled from his own interest in the objectified deity — an Eastern idea given Western form. Fenway Deity, a 20-foot inflated talisman slung between the twin chimneys on the museum’s façade by a semi-inflated plastic chain, is the latest — and largest — in a series of “deity” works by Smith. As in its Japanese precedent, this deity also is intended to play a protective role, overseeing the environmental health and beauty of the Fenway.

In placing the deity on the façade, Smith’s stated intention is to redirect attention — pulled to the rear of the building by Renzo Piano’s addition and new entrance — to the front. However, the power of the Gardner never lies in the anonymous, mud-colored façades, but rather in the unexpected verticality and light of the tropical landscape that lies within its geode-like shell. “I’m a crow by nature,” Smith, a Midwesterner by birth, told Waldheim. “I’m attracted to shiny things.” The vulgarity or flashiness that Smith perceives in Buddhist temples is reassigned in the psychedelic spiral of color on the talisman, which is in keeping with the Pop-art inspiration of his oeuvre in public landscapes. Meant to evoke conversation and elicit questions, Smith’s work meets its goal and temporarily allows one to read the façade as encapsulating the whole of the building — a perfectly mundane shell with a fantastically temporal, otherworldly center.


Photo: George Bouret