Enjoyment of Nature, Kinji Akagawa’s ensemble of gently carved boulders, square benches and sculptural granite bird baths may be discovered within a grove of native trees at the north end of Nicollet. Originally installed on the Mall in 1992, the carefully restored and re-sited piece is one of four returning artworks.
I was honored to speak with the revered artist, teacher and public art mentor on two occasions at his home and studio on the edge of Afton State Park’s oak savanna.
Regina Flanagan: Tell me about the intention for Enjoyment of Nature. What inspired you to create it? How did it evolve?
Kinji Akagawa: My original proposal had three different scales of work; but they went with the design for a small plaza with seating and boulders. My inspiration was the City of Minneapolis as a City of Water.
This work was not intended to be a bus stop, but a small gathering plaza. The work is constructed of bronze, iron, aluminum, ipe wood and stone. The textures on the seating surfaces refer to river, lakeshore, a log jam, tatami mats, wainscot, bamboo.
The large bread-shaped boulder was a very old stone and I worked on it until it was a totally brand-new surface. Materials know temperature and four seasons. Stone stabilizes our being and our location, like a tombstone or a rock to mark a grave. The trees (in the grove) are life-transcending; always becoming, growing and dying.
The references in the work are meant to embrace and reflect the historic, environmental and multi-cultural/multi-lingual context of downtown. The words “pebble splash” are included in eleven languages: English, German, Norwegian, Swedish, Spanish, Hmong, Laotian, Dakota, Gaelic, Polish and Vietnamese. I wanted to honor the languages of people who were the city-beginners. Now (they are mostly) during-the-day workers; just about every American city is a day experience. But there’s also a night group of workers; listening to their own music, cleaning offices and stores, and outside the buildings, and the streetscape. That’s American history.
I was concerned that the work function both day and night – especially for the night people who make and sustain the City – who work in the buildings and provide safety and maintenance. A moon is etched on the side of a stone for the night workers. The seating elements were intended to have down-lighting underneath, but that was never added.
RF: This was an early piece. What came before and after the Nicollet Mall commission?
KA: Before the Nicollet Mall project (1990-92), I had produced work for Tettegouche State Park (in 1984; the first artwork under the State’s Art in Public Places Program), and a bench in 1987 for the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden through the Walker Art Center. I was originally a print-maker and this early work gave me an opportunity to practice making three-dimensional work.
After Nicollet Mall came public art projects for Anoka Ramsey Community College, Cambridge, MN (1996); Saint Cloud State University (1997); Northland Community and Technical College, Thief River Falls, MN (2002); Itasca Community College, Grand Rapids, MN (2004); and the Department of Transportation, Saint Cloud, MN (2007).
Each project responds to context, but it also has to contain something of my concerns. We are historical, cultural and natural beings in the world – “art” by its definition already is socially-engaged, at the beginning. My work is intended to be site-oriented, but also local/community-specific. My seating projects (including Nicollet Mall and at the Sculpture Garden) are influenced by (philosopher) Martin Heidegger’s (notion of) building, dwelling, thinking. Making something is both cultural and social.
In the 1970s, artists Robert Irwin and Siah Armajani gave me the opportunity to think about distinctions between gallery art and outside-the-gallery art. Not to separate oneself as an artist; but as humans, we are interconnected/inter-subjective beings in everyday life, and not separate. Art is neither subjective nor objective; rather it calls for an engagement in the present. For example, we become interconnected in life when we experience music, dance, events, visual arts and crafts and we become part of living; we realize who we.
Artists Robert Smithson and Joseph Beuys recognized that each site is full of meaning. Sites are not neutral. They are not a void. They have a name, meaning and experience before I start working with them.
RF: Enjoyment of Nature takes a form that humans and our feathered friends can understand and use; benches for seating, and carved boulders, some catching rain, functioning as bird baths.
KA: Public art is democratic art. During adulthood, we transition from the egotistical self to the ecotistical self, (realizing we are) interdependent. It’s a transformation we must make. The ecotistical self is a compounded self; no longer of one identity. I am a part of everybody else. If you do not use language that is shared by the community, no one will understand you. Social expression, self expression, cultural expression; all need to happen (in public art) so that we understand each other.
In 2007, Kinji Akagawa was honored with the McKnight Distinguished Artist Award that recognizes artists who have chosen to make their lives and careers in Minnesota, making our state a more culturally vibrant place. A monograph celebrating Akagawa was published on the occassion of this award; read it here.