A public garden & cultural center

Buster Simpson


Remediate/Re-vision: Public Artists Engaging the Environment
Glyndor Gallery | August 1 – November 28, 2010

The Monolith transforms an abandoned concrete plant to tell the multilayered story of the building of the Shasta Dam. Built from 1938 to 1945, the dam was a remarkable engineering feat, employing an extremely innovative method of continuous pour concrete. As a crucial part of the northern California water system, the dam facilitated the control of the Sacramento River, which was essential to the development of central valley farming and flood control.

A cubic yard of concrete is physically represented to help visitors visualize the 6 million cubic yards produced during construction. It is polished to show the many types of stone used. 

While many of the projects in the exhibition deal with a specific environmental issue, The Monolith directs attention to the site’s social and environment history by weaving a narrative in a tangible way as a form of preservation. It also celebrates labor and locates the site ecologically. In creating this narrative, Simpson addresses the environmental and human impact of the project. Sustainable features foster wildlife, principally bats and swallows that inhabited the abandoned structure and continue to do so today through the Swallow Mud Bowl. Gravel infusion, pictured in the door panels, is the replacement of gravel necessary for spawning fish, which the dam prevents from occurring naturally.

Buster Simpson on The Monolith
Awareness of the environment is an accumulative process. I grew up in a small town where the river naturally flooded, where there was a distinct edge between village and surrounding woodlands and farmlands, only to later witness a sprawl of land use that blurred the boundary. I saw the kill of fish caused by the “accidental” release of chemicals and disappearance of songbirds along the hedgerows between farm fields due to the growing reliance on insecticides. I was 20 years old when Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was published which reinforced my observations. I am concerned about the disconnect between us and the systems of our environment and my work attempts to address the reconnect.

The Monolith presents social, historical and ecological concerns; it talks about energy and geology, about what was gained and what was lost when Shasta Dam was built. These concerns bring substance to the art making. Art making that distills issues into a distinct concept. For the viewer, I wanted the journey through this historic gravel pit to be experiential and provocative rather than didactic and one-dimensional. The Monolith was, in itself, an engineering accomplishment as was Shasta Dam, the recipient of its aggregate. Placing a solar array in the shape of Shasta Dam atop The Monolith, creates a metaphorical connection between the two structures with their shared history, and creates power both through ecological technology and iconic sculpture.

I need to be the toughest critic, and I feel this project works aesthetically. I also watch how this project, being a public venue, is received by the visitor, and there seems to be enough clues for most people to gain access at a variety of levels to the intent of the project. The project has a second phase, as yet unfunded due to protracted timelines, which allows the concept to marinate.

The Arts at Wave Hill are supported by the Lily Auchincloss Foundation, Inc.; Michael J. Shannon; Milton and Sally Avery Arts Foundation; the National Endowment for the Arts; New York City Department of Cultural Affairs; New York Community Trust Edward and Sally Van Lier Fund; New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and the New York State Legislature; The Pollock-Krasner Foundation; The Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation; and by the Cathy and Stephen Weinroth Commissioning Fund for the Arts.