Although he was born there, Herbert Dreiseitl doesn’t belong to Germany. He doesn’t belong to Norway, Australia or Singapore either. He belongs to the planet.
That’s what Dreiseitl – the artist the Ann Arbor Public Art Commission hired to create a public art installation at the new city municipal center – told the audience at a presentation on Monday morning at city hall.
“As a person, I always feel home where I am,” Dreiseitl said.
The controversy over the municipal center project – especially the fact that AAPAC isn’t using a local artist for the nearly $800,000 project – drove Dreiseitl to make those remarks as he presented his designs for the artwork during his recent visit to Ann Arbor.
He spent most of the day on Monday in public and private meetings about his work, including a morning session with city staff and art commissioners, a public reception and a formal presentation to city council.
The German artist, who has over 20 years of experience integrating art with urban landscapes and stormwater, proposed a water-driven work to draw people into the new city hall entrance with its flow. Dreiseitl used two scale models, sketches and a PowerPoint presentation to express his vision for the installation.
The sculpture would consist of a large, upright piece made of two rectangular metal plates standing close together, facing Huron Street. Water would flow down the front piece, which would be concave at the top and transition to a convex shape at the bottom. The water would flow from the top and drain out the back, continuing on toward the building like a river. Tanks connected to the center’s rain garden would store and filter water so it could be circulated through the sculpture repeatedly.
Dreiseitl’s models showed a bridge over the river-like part of the sculpture, as well as a couple of benches alongside it. He explained that he wanted to integrate his work with the surrounding architecture and landscape.
“This should not be an isolated piece of art,” Dreiseitl said.
The vertical part of the sculpture would be approximately 3 feet wide at the top, 3.3 feet wide at its base and 16.5 to 20 feet tall. It would lean back at an angle toward the building. That element, along with the direction of the water’s flow, would serve to bring people in toward the building’s entrance, Dreiseitl said.
Dreiseitl mentioned that he wanted the flowing water “very shallow,” so it wouldn’t be a danger to children. He indicated the depth by holding his thumb and forefinger about a centimeter apart.
As for material, Dreiseitl said he envisioned “a very big, beautiful piece of rusty steel” for the vertical part of the sculpture (although his designs also listed bronze as an option).
“It’s something which has history,” Dreiseitl said of his ideal material. “Patina.”
As for the ramp the water would travel along from the back of the standing part of the sculpture toward the building, Dreiseitl said he could use either concrete or Cor-Ten steel. He expressed a preference for the steel.
Use of Light
He also explained another element to the sculpture: light. Glass spheres – or “pearls,” as Dreiseitl called them – with cavities for waterproof LED lights would be mounted with screw systems so they peek through holes in the steel. The water would flow over them. As an example, Dreiseitl showed a piece of metal with two “pearls” mounted on it, radiating blue light. He described the possibility of them fading in and out to create their own wave-like pattern. The artist also pointed out that the LED lights wouldn’t require much maintenance, even though his design makes it possible to replace the lights, if needed.
“This lasts, really, almost forever,” Dreiseitl said of the lights.
He said the sculpture should be lit at night, mentioning several options to accomplish this. They could install a floodlight at the back of the sculpture, or use the illumination of nearby street lamps. However, he said he didn’t want to overdo it.
“I would not put too much,” Dreiseitl said. “Water always reflects. So the water doesn’t need light.”
Inside the Building
Dreiseitl’s vision didn’t stop at the building’s entrance – the project includes two pieces on the walls inside the new building. One of his concepts: a relief of the Huron River watershed, featuring the same LED pearls used on the outside sculpture to show the movement of the water.
“The piece of art is celebrating the water of the region,” Dreiseitl said.
His other idea involved engravings of local plants, showing the extensive root systems they’ve developed for survival. The lights would make an appearance here as well, in a pattern demonstrating the water’s journey from sky to soil.
The Design Philosophy
Dreiseitl didn’t just incorporate water for aesthetic appeal or motion; he explained that it possesses a deeper meaning to him, particularly in the context of the municipal center and the region.
“Water is getting more and more critical and more and more important,” Dreiseitl said. He added that it’s especially relevant in this area, with all of the lakes and rivers.
On a personal level, Dreiseitl said water connects to spirituality and humanity. He discussed how tears can convey different emotions – joy or pain – and how water helps people “to relax and be open.”
Since his sculpture would also be near the court and police station, Dreiseitl said it would help people put their individual problems in perspective.
“What happens to this entrance here?” Dreiseitl said. “People come with different expectations. The city hall is something bringing the community together. Also, very personal decisions are done at the court.”
Seeing the sculpture and watching the water will hopefully remind them of something larger than they are, Dreiseitl said. As his PowerPoint stated, “Water and rain are beautiful symbols that connect us to the world outside ourselves.”
Using Local Resources
After expressing his awareness of the fact that his non-local status is a sore point for some Ann Arbor residents, Dreiseitl stressed the fact that he wants to obtain the materials and perform the labor for his work locally. He mentioned collaborating with the University of Michigan and area scientists on creating the designs on the walls inside the building as well as creating the outdoor sculpture. Companies in the region could also provide the materials.
“I want to produce everything here in the U.S., in the region,” Dreiseitl said. “This is a region for steel.”
During one of his presentations, Dreiseitl informed the city council that he was already aware of companies with the capability to shape and curve steel in the way he wanted, though he didn’t want to mention specific companies by name. The next step in the process would be narrowing the selection down to a few companies and investigating them more closely.
This isn’t the first time Dreiseitl has spent time in Ann Arbor. In a one-on-one interview with The Chronicle, he explained that the Huron River Watershed Council brought him here to lecture last September. He also spoke at UM during that trip, and to AAPAC, whose members were working on the public art component of the municipal center project.
“They really were impressed with my artwork and my environmental and social context,” Dreiseitl said.
They asked him if he would participate in the project, and he accepted.
“It’s an interesting way to bring some hope and perspective to people,” Dreiseitl said of the installation. “The topic of water is very strong here.”
He described his extensive experience with water-related projects. During his presentation on Monday, he showed examples of some of his work. His portfolio includes pieces in Germany, Norway, Singapore and Switzerland (among other countries). He’s also done work in U.S. cities such as New York and Portland.
His design for the municipal center piece conveys some of the same style as his other projects, but it has unique aspects to it.
“The lines and everything are certainly a Dreiseitl design,” he said. However, he hasn’t previously incorporated the LED lights poking through metal.
“This is an idea that’s new,” he said.
Dreiseitl mentioned that he’s paid attention to the media here and therefore knows that some are less than happy that AAPAC is spending a substantial chunk of funding ($77,000 for preliminary design work and roughly $700,000 for the completed artwork) on a non-local artist.
“I’m a world citizen,” Dreiseitl said, echoing his earlier public statement. “I do things in the U.S. a lot.”
The controversy also led to his “special concept” of using local materials and labor.
“I’m very aware of the sensitivity,” Dreiseitl said.
AAPAC Chair Margaret Parker also addressed the issue in her introduction at a public reception for Dreiseitl Monday afternoon.
“We had also looked at artists from Michigan,” Parker said. “We looked at artists from the Midwest region. We looked at artists from around the country. We looked at artists from around the world.”
Questions and Reactions
Attendees at Dreiseitl’s presentations had no lack of questions and concerns about his proposed work.
AAPAC member Elaine Sims expressed a desire for a more fluid design for the standing part of the sculpture.
“I’d love to see something that just has a little more flow to the shape of it,” Sims said. “There’s a tension there that’s just too tense for me.”
Dreiseitl responded that he wanted the sculpture to be more “organized” than “romantic.”
“All the architecture is straight,” Dreiseitl said of the work’s surroundings. Therefore, he reasoned a more flowing shape wouldn’t mesh with its environment.
Some wanted to know if it would be possible to climb the large vertical piece. The answer seemed to be no, as Dreiseitl explained it would be too steep and the water cascading down it would complicate things (although he joked that a practiced rock climber might be able to scale it).
Another question concerned maintenance. Dreiseitl said he had designed the artwork with the aim of keeping it low-maintenance. For example, there would be no running water in the winter (to prevent problems with frozen pipes) and no standing water at any time. The lights would require a computer system, which Dreiseitl said might take one person in city hall to manage (although it would run itself once installed). Other than that, it should probably be cleaned once a year with a brush or pressure washer.
“In all my projects, I take a lot of care with this issue,” Dreiseitl said. “It’s a question of how to design it very clever and very smart.”
At the public reception, most people seemed in favor of Dreiseitl and his ideas.
Linda Diane Feldt, a holistic health practitioner, said she had understood those who opposed Dreiseitl because he wasn’t a local artist until she saw him and his ideas.
“I was sympathetic until I went and saw who he was and the concepts that he’s creating around the world. This is a world-class installation,” Feldt said.
But the controversy had its advantages in inspiring him to go local with the process of creating the installation, she said.
“The good thing about that conflict…it has changed his approach,” Feldt said.
City intern Adrienne Marino also expressed enthusiasm for Dreiseitl’s work.
“I think he’s a world-renowned artist in this type of art, and it’s really exciting that he’s doing something for the city,” Marino said.
Landlord Nick Contaxes was more cautious in making a judgement; he said he’d come to the presentation “mainly to get some information.”
“I’m still trying to form a picture of what’s going on,” Contaxes said. “I didn’t know [Dreiseitl’s] distinctive motif.”
Contaxes expressed some uncertainty about the financial aspect of the project.
“Is it a good thing to do? I say definitely, yes,” Contaxes said. “Can we afford to do it? That’s a different question.”
Dreiseitl gave his presentation on the project three times. AAPAC commissioners, members of the municipal center task force, city representatives and others involved in the design and building process attended a meeting in the morning. The next presentation took place in the afternoon, for attendees of the public reception. Finally, Dreiseitl explained his plans to the members of the Ann Arbor City Council. All of those presentations were open to the public. The presentation to the city council was also broadcast on Community Television Network and can be viewed on the city’s website.
AAPAC and the task force also met that afternoon to discuss Dreiseitl’s proposal. According to an AAPAC handout describing the day’s events, the task force discussed Dreiseitl’s proposal concentrating on “whether the proposal fulfills the mission, direction, and spirit of the public art envisioned for the Municipal Center.” Similarly, AAPAC met to “concentrate on whether the proposal fits within the larger priorities that AAPAC has set for public art for the whole community.”
The task force will make a recommendation to AAPAC, which will discuss the design at its Aug. 11 regular meeting, unless they decide to schedule a special meeting before then specifically to focus on this project. Then, AAPAC will make a recommendation to city council. If council approves that recommendation and the project, city staff will proceed with negotiations with Dreiseitl.
At the public reception after the meetings, Parker said it was too soon for the commission to hint at a decision.
“This is the day that we are all listening and looking and thinking about it,” Parker said. “We’re working on our decision. But I think that there has been real excitement surrounding it.”
About the author: Helen Nevius, a student at Eastern Michigan University, is an intern with The Ann Arbor Chronicle.