Anyone venturing to Race Street Pier for the next several months will encounter a quintet of bronze songbirds atop very tall poles. They will be silent, unlike the living birds around their aerie.
The poles and birds constitute A Moment Without You, an elegiac public artwork by well-known British artist Tracey Emin, and their installation marks the beginning of “Water Marks,” a public-art series featuring rotating works sited in proximity to the Delaware River waterfront by Philadelphia Contemporary, the arts organization.
A Moment Without You, which was first shown in 2017 in Hong Kong, is “fundamentally about grief,” said Kerry Bickford, Philadelphia Contemporary’s director of programs. The piece was conceived following the death of a close friend of the artist, Bickford said.
“She talks about the birds as sort of symbols of hope and angels of the earth,” Bickford said. “In the wake of everything we all have lived through in COVID, it felt appropriate to start with a comment on that ... a work about grief and contemplation.
“And in terms of the history of the Delaware, there is plenty to be mourned and plenty that has been lost. It’s also a work that really invites a kind of meditative and close looking, which sort of frames the way in which we want to really kind of breathe and take a lot of time with the Delaware.”
In the fall, sometime after Labor Day, a quite different work will be installed, although exactly where has not been nailed down, Bickford said. That piece, Doors for Dorris by sculptor Sam Moyer, is currently on view in Central Park in New York City.
Doors for Dorris consists of three large stone portals that will be “monumental and very visible and prominent” when sited in Philadelphia, said Bickford. Resembling revolving doors made of chunks of rock, they can be viewed as a “portal between the quote unquote natural world of Central Park and the urban landscape of midtown Manhattan.”
Bickford believes a related dichotomy will be evoked in Philadelphia, “especially considering how close industrial Philadelphia is to the river,” she said.
“I think that placement drawing attention to the tension between the kind of natural green space of some of the riverside spaces and industrial Philadelphia — it brings out those same kinds of tensions and calls attention to the permeability of the boundary that sometimes we draw between the river and the rest of the city of Philadelphia.”
“Water Marks,” which is open-ended in duration, will feature some new commissions during its life span. And some installations will overlap — the Emin and Moyer pieces, for instance, will both be up simultaneously, at least for a while.
“For the moment we’re focusing on the Delaware River running from Penn Treaty Park to the north and Pier 68 to the south,” said Bickford. “We’re also thinking about the river as a whole, conceptually, but that’s where we’re going to contain the installations for the moment.”
There is no exact timeline, she said. At some point different programs and performances may be added to the mix. Philadelphia Contemporary is working with the Delaware River Waterfront Corp. on the project.