Between the Battlements

Jeremy Wolin
→ BIA 2019

William Simmons, Fortress. All photographs by the author, unless otherwise noted.

Stefan Sehringer, Failed Building (detail).
The sky is vividly blue, the air is crisp. High stone walls sink into the ground, capped by rows of scraggly bushes. Fort Adams, state park, monumental fortress, is eerily silent. At other times of the year, these fields fill with swelling crowds that encamp in front of a bandstand facing the bay, folk music drifting over the fortifications and seeping into the cracks in the stones. But today, in the dead of winter, a few staff members, artists, and I are alone with the imposing edifice.

Fort Adams is a former coastal fortification constructed first in 1799 and expanded between 1824 and 1857, as a young nation focused on its coastal defenses following the War of 1812. The structure is remarkably complex, with sharply angled outer walls that chop up the landscape into a maze of winding corridors, ensuring the confusion and defeat of any approaching force entangled in its web. Despite the strength of these defenses, Fort Adams has never seen combat. The fort weathered the Mexican-American War, Civil War, and both World Wars out of the line of fire, and was transferred from the Army to the Navy, then to the State of Rhode Island in the mid-20th century. In the first two decades of this new ownership, the fort fell into neglect, abused by both the elements and human forces.

The last few decades have seen renewed interest in the fort’s preservation, with the introduction of the Newport Jazz and Folk Festivals into its fields each summer and the establishment of the Fort Adams Trust, a non-profit dedicated to the preservation and promotion of the site.

It is at this point that the fort entered the frame of vision of twelve graduate and undergraduate students from RISD, participants in a studio led by Mary Anne Friel of Textiles and Chris Sancomb of Sculpture. Friel and Sancomb brought students to the fort first in fall 2016, and an Interior Architecture studio used the fort as a studio site in spring 2015. Each student in this past fall’s course faced the task of exploring a structure out of touch with the present moment, overly violent in a time of peace, and battered by decades of use and misuse, and each reinterpreted this landscape through pointed, contextual intervention. The summation of their work, Redefining Monuments, chips away at the edifice, exploring the beauty and terror in its cracks.

William Simmons (MFA CR 2019) and Stefan Sehringer (BFA TX 2019) took to the westernmost points of the fortifications with tower-like installations that bridge the upper reaches of the walls with the sky overhead. Simmons’s work, Fortress, reinterprets the fort’s solidity as an open structure formed out of terracotta elements which, when strung together, appear lacelike. Sehringer’s work, Failed Building, points to more recent events, when in the course of a period of unlawful inhabitation of the fort, fires consumed several structures. Stretching a trompe l’oeil textile printed to mimic charred wood over the remains of the watchtower, Sehringer celebrates this layering of uses, pointing to the fort as refuge and the remnants of this time as critical to its narrative.

Chia Chi Wu, Tension.

Joyce Kutty, Time Lost.

Others found critical fodder in the fort’s twisting bowels. Chia Chi Wu (MFA CR 2019) exposed the potential danger lurking in even the most sheltered spaces, stringing thin bullets from a window set in the side of a tunnel’s end to the opposite wall. Cut from reflective plexiglass, they illuminate the space with faint glints of light both stunning and sinister. Across the fort, Joyce Kutty (MDes IA 2019) takes a more contemplative approach, inserting into the cell-like back rooms of the Trust’s gallery a rumination on incarceration that mixes past and present references to draw larger connections between imprisonment in the fort and the contemporary prison-industrial complex.

Moderating between the fort’s hyper-local context and larger social themes reappeared in the structural installations of Jennifer Thorton (BFA TX 2019), Eunhyung Chung (MFA SC 2020), and Wesley Sanders (MDes IA 2019). Sanders’s installation, Rungs of Freedom, presented an exhaustive list of the history of U.S. military interventions overseas. Inscribed on a series of interconnected, charred wooden ladders, the list starts at ground level and seems to launch upward and out of the fort, inevitably falling short, unable to surpass the battlements. Meanwhile, Thorton and Chung’s textile installation, High Tide, spoke to the site’s greater weakness. Stretching a gauzy, billowing expanse of translucent blue fabric over one edge of the central grounds, Thorton and Chung contextualized this sea-level heritage site within the encroaching danger of rising tides.

Jennifer Thornton and Eunhyung Chung, High Tide.

Wesley Sanders, Rungs of Freedom.

Ida’s Dream, an installation by Smriti Kapoor (MA IA 2019), sought to recognize the life of Ida Lewis, the keeper of the nearby Lime Rock Lighthouse, in a time when a woman doing this work was highly notable. Kapoor monumentalized Lewis not through figuration or other traditional methods, but rather by placing a solid bed frame and dip-dyed textiles within one of the fort’s larger rooms. The furniture lends the piece an ambiguity critical to not only memorializing Lewis but allowing the viewer to project other women and misremembered actors onto the work.

A bit over one hundred miles down the East Coast, Robbins Reef Lighthouse keeper Katharine Walker was recently named one of the five women whom the city of New York will monumentalize in the coming years, one outcome of last summer’s She Built NYC initiative. Critics of the announcement, including several of the historians who guided She Built NYC, saw the decision as a misstep—a repetition of the historical mistake of erecting monuments in mythologizing the lone hero, a masculine historical trope.

Smriti Kapoor, Ida’s Dream. Photograph by William Simmons

Ida’s Dream, and the works in Redefining Monuments as a whole, sidestepped this pitfall of monuments and monumental critique. Starting at the level of localized research, close looking, and deep material understanding, these works, strung together, launched out from the fort to take on larger themes of history, violence, and the natural world. They took a markedly local approach to the question of the contemporary treatment of monuments through eleven highly specific takes on a single monumental structure. The works chose nuance over definitive statements, explored hidden crevices as much as the fort’s most prominent points, and opted for slow approaches to unpeeling the multiple layers of history built into the site. As a group, they were quiet, contemplative, and often surprising. And yet, even perhaps accidentally, they broached the larger cultural conversation.

Redefining Monuments came down at the end of last semester, a fleeting moment in the life of Fort Adams, but a vibrant layer of interpretation vital to rebuilding connections between the monuments of past generations and memory in the present day.

Jeremy Lee Wolin will miss his fellow artists the most.