"Barnaby Evans’ WaterFire® is an artwork involving movement, participation and surprise. When visitors encounter WaterFire, they cannot absorb the sculpture from just their sense of sight or even from a single vantage point -- they must walk through the installation and they must use all five of their senses. WaterFire is full of motion -- throughout the night the firetenders stoke the fires, the boats move past the flames, the rivers flow quietly beneath the braziers, and the flickering flames reflect off the dark surface of the water animating the architectural fabric of the city."
A few weeks ago, I went to Providence at last to experience WaterFire. Neat, I thought: bonfires on canals. Should be cool. So imlad
and I piled into the car and endured the annoyingly trafficy drive to Providence and met up with my old friend C. and her friend, K.
I'd only been in Providence a few times, and, being there mainly to see shows, I wasn't so much gazing at the architecture. This time I saw everything by daylight, and had the opportunity to walk around downtown. The preservation and neatness of the old buildings here puts Boston's counterpart to shame. And besides, there are all of these canals running through the city, along the edges of parks, with bridges over them, with statues and stone libraries and brick and cobblestone everywhere...this is a place where you really feel
After having dinner we strolled down and saw where they were still lighting the fires. In the middle of the canals, at regular intervals, stood braziers filled with wood. Long black boats with names like Prometheus passed them with torches, setting them instantly ablaze. This was a fairly impressive sight. The lighters wore all black as well, giving the boats the solemnity of funeral vessels. And we strolled along the banks as it grew darker, and watched the fire flicker on the surface of the water. At the end of the line, we looked down the canal to see them all lit in a line, like an endless string of holiday lights.
And for a while, that was it. Okay: pretty. Fire and water. Yay! There was music floating from speakers installed beneath the bridges, creating maximum resonance in this outdoor setting. Haunting things, sounding like Eastern European composers (I later found out that what sounded like Arvo Part probably was), arias from Italian operas, snippets from especially moving film scores. We kept on walking. At some point I became aware of the woodsmoke smell, and the scent of the fuel they were using to light the braziers so efficiently. My head became heavy and light at the same time, and with muffled senses I strolled along, entranced by the flames. At a beautiful stone railing we stopped again and stared out. Some unspeakably gorgeous piece of music was echoing through the space: a mournful alto singing in some unknown language, over some intense instrumentation I cannot recall. I only know I felt I wanted to close my eyes and listen, but I have a voice in my head that tells me how I am supposed to experience art, and a conflicting desire made me want to keep them open and watch the flames. But at last I felt a moment of calm assurance that a few moments of isolated listening was what I wanted, and so, I gave in and my eyelids dropped soundlessly. The voice washed over me, the smell of the wood still reaching me, the fires still flickering behind my eyelids, the sound of their crackling a counterpoint to the music, and I entered a mystical realm of experience: the feeling of being nowhere and in no time, being within a bubble of sound, that sound at once the only thing existing, and the irony striking only afterwards that music, entirely dependent on the passage of time for human perception, is one of the few things that can transfix me in utter timelessness.
We continued to walk, and I was quiet, observing. Fires. Smells. More haunting music. Passing beneath the stone bridges, where there were hanging chandeliers and sconces alive with candles, creating the feeling of a medieval castle. What had seemed like a simple arrangement of elements had become spellbinding.
A bit later, we moved away from the water and checked out some of the exhibits nearby: a collection of large sculptures, one of which threatened to eat us (but which we frightened out of it by banging with our feet simultaneously on its metal hull); a mile of sidewalk chalk drawings in different levels of skill; a combination magician/mime, who actually did neither but wore a top hat over his adorable red head and created small origami creatures as we watched, then soundlessly handed them to children (including our C.); and the gargoyles.
The gargoyles might be getting a short story of their own. They were two men, dressed in horned workboots, tight jeans and pieced-together padded armor painted the same shade of stone grey. Their facial masks were in pieces to allow them expression, and their fingers were extended into spindly points. Left alone, they sat at the base of a huge statue, unmoving. Given a little money, they would animate and interact: scritching your head with a quizzical look, kissing your hand, even grabbing you a bit. One engaged in a staring contest with a child who eventually shrugged and walked away, leaving the gargoyle to put his head in his hands, distraught. One woman stood with him for a while, exploring touch and engaging in a kind of slow contact improv. Interactive spontaneous street performance. I yearned to explore their inner lives.
At last we walked up the hill to beautiful Benefit St., where C. had parked her car, which was full of Camus and apples. We ate luscious Cortlands and parted ways.
WaterFire does a full lighting for the last time this year on October 9. If you can make it, do. But remember to spend a few hours and be patient. This is an experience that washes over you.