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Stars Fell on Pollepel


Last Updated: 06/24/2015 3:07 pm
Melissa McGill’s “Constellation” will be installed at Bannerman’s Castle this month.
  • Melissa McGill’s “Constellation” will be installed at Bannerman’s Castle this month.

"I'm looking forward to seeing it from every angle," says Melissa McGill, creator of "Constellation," an installation on Pollepel Island in the Hudson River. The work has its public launch June 28, and remains up until fall of 2017.

After moving to Beacon in 2007, McGill became fascinated by the ruins of Bannerman Castle, which appear in the windows of the Metro-North train like a medieval Flemish fantasy. The shape of "Constellation" is based on the original outline of the castle, but is not a precise rendering. The project has taken almost three years since its inception to complete.

Seventeen tapered aluminum poles, each holding a single LED globe, rise above the ruins to heights ranging from 40 to 80 feet. Every evening the lights will be illumined, one by one, remain lit for two hours, then fade away. This is crepuscular art, tracking the shadowy transition from day to night. "Constellation" is a trick of perspective; in the night sky, a 60-foot-high globe looks as distant as Alpha Centauri. This piece uses up-to-the-minute engineering—including solar panels and a computer program—yet points upward to the stars, which maintain the same technology eon after eon.

"When I met my friend Hadrian Coumans of the Lenape Center, I told him about the project, and he said, 'You're making Opi Temakan!'" McGill reports. "I said, 'What's Opi Temakan?' And he said, 'That's the White Road; the stars are the Milky Way that connects this world to the next.'"

Bannerman Castle was built in 1901 by a wealthy Scotsman who made his fortune buying up Union Army military surplus after the Civil War. Francis Bannerman VI stored his munitions in Manhattan until the city government ordered him to vacate. Finding Pollepel Island on a canoe trip, Bannerman envisaged a Scottish citadel made from concrete and brick—a pre-Disney World Cinderella's Castle. A fire in 1969 reduced the edifice to ruins.

"Originally I was saying that a constellation of people helped develop this project—but now it's a galaxy!" McGill remarks. Many of these collaborators are local. The lighting designer, Deke Hazirjian, lives in Cornwall. Polich Tallix Fine Art Foundry, of Rock Tavern, installed the poles. Niche Modern, who donated the glass globes, is in Beacon. Other partners include Riverkeeper, Scenic Hudson, and the New York State Parks Department.

I suspect this work will succeed where the great Danish installation artist Olafur Eliasson failed in 2012. His four "New York City Waterfalls" in the East River ultimately seemed trivial, because he misjudged the crucial element of scale. Eliasson's mechanisms were huge, but looked like toys next to the Brooklyn Bridge. McGill's work, magnified by the surrounding darkness, will seem larger than it is, and cosmically persuasive.

"I'm very fortunate to have some amazing poets as friends," remarks McGill. The forthcoming book on the project from Princeton Architectural Press will include poems by Edwin Torres and Pulitzer Prize-winner Tracy K. Smith, as well as "One Today," the poem read at President Obama's 2013 inauguration by Richard Blanco.

To see "Constellation" from every angle, you must take a boat. Boat tours will be organized by the Bannerman Castle Trust and kayak trips provided by Storm King Adventure Tours. A free downloadable audio tour will be available on McGill's website.

Distance will profoundly affect one's view of "Constellation." From a kayak next to the island, you'll probably see the globes, whereas from Newburgh they'll look like 17 newly risen stars.

"Constellation," an installation on Pollepel Island near Beacon, will have its public launch June 28, and will be installed until fall of 2017.

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