• Poly Prep

Living Art with “The Living Room"

By Linda Busetti

As one of our graduation speakers, Chloe Sun ’19, remarked last Friday, the space we gathered upon looked very different just a short time ago when the structure called The Living Room rose up on the Poly Oval. Built of detritus from our campus, it was an evocative installation created during Poly's first artist residency by alumna Jill Sigman ’85 on the site where her own Commencement had also taken place.

The Class of 2019's concerns about the aesthetics of their graduation ceremony grew as the structure gained height. The installation was both a source of many conversations, and a space to hold them. "I'm reminded that one of the goals of contemporary art is to elicit responses from viewers and to challenge the assumptions of what art is, to ask each of us to question our assumptions as we encounter something new or unknown,” said Michael Robinson, Head of Arts. "From its start in early May, when Sigman and our students scoured campus for materials, to the piece’s deconstruction, just days before the annual end-of-school events, this project sparked questions of belonging, shared spaces, and community engagement.”

On one afternoon, Sigman served tea to students and faculty at The Living Room before a discussion on immigration. The next day, Spanish, French, and Creative Writing students had class inside The Living Room. During her six-week artist residency, Sigman had foraged around campus for discarded wood pallets, athletic uniforms, tomato cans from Commons, book covers, and art easels to build the unique structure, incorporating plants native to the Dyker Heights grounds, to create a space where everyone would feel welcome.

Sigman is a contemporary artist, who repurposes found objects, what others might consider trash. She is also a choreographer and dancer and the author of Ten Huts, which describes this work, which has taken her all over the world. Last year, Sigman connected with our Director of Sustainability, Brian Filiatraut, and spoke at a school forum during Earth Week about the ability of art to engage us to re-envision our environment. She also led students on a “weed walk” on the Dyker Heights campus. “Directly after that event, we began speaking about an artist residency, which developed into The Living Room,” Filiatraut said. During our Earth Week celebrations this year, Poly welcomed back Sigman, who shared her plans to build the structure.

During the first week in May, Sigman had collected materials and placed them on the Oval. Passersby had questions for her about what was happening. Soon we saw a structure take shape with wooden pallets bound together with strips of old basketball jerseys. Tall wooden art easels gave height to The Living Room and it was interesting to note that art and athletics—two important aspects of Poly life—were bound together to create something unique to Poly. Plants found homes in nooks and crannies and even in a lacrosse stick pocket.

By mid-May, the community began to actually live in The Living Room. As students stepped over a tree branch, entering through a space between two easels, they read a welcome sign: “This structure was built for you out of waste and weedy plants. Feel free to hang out. Rethink what you throw away and what you value.” Sigman has asked visitors to acknowledge “the Canarsee people who first inhabited this place” and the “enslaved Africans whose work profited the early settlement of Dyker Heights.”

While The Living Room stood on the Oval, it served as a sculpture, mini-stage for performances, temporary classroom, social space, Free Book Store, and garden for weedy edibles. The Living Room was part of Sigman’s ongoing work with temporary structures, spontaneous urban plants, and relationship as performance, and helped Poly to build community through art and engage in thoughtful discussions about our impact on the natural world, as well as about immigration, belonging, notions of home, and what we consider "waste."

“This kind of art doesn’t fully become what it is until it is activated by people,” said Sigman. “That’s why I have been encouraging students to use the space— for conversations, meetings, relaxation, study time. Even though I make very careful aesthetic choices about how I build it and which found objects I use, I’m more interested in how it becomes a living space and takes on its own culture when people start to inhabit it. It’s been very interesting to see how students' perceptions of the work have begun to change as they have begun to use it, and how their understanding of how the work functions has begun to shift as well. They realize that it’s not just about being a ‘pretty object.’”

Students sat cross-legged on mats and read their original stories when Christy Hutchcraft’s Creative Writing class met in The Living Room. Maite Iracheta’s Spanish IV class used the space several times. Sigman joined the class and spoke to the students about the project in Spanish, Iracheta said.
Laura Coppola’s AP Art History and Art and Social Change classes both met in the structure. “The Living Room was filled with sophomores and juniors today for a discussion,” Coppola reported. “Topics included the current state of affairs regarding abortion and Democratic candidates for president.”

Jared Brandman ’20 said afterward, “It was a really nice space to freely talk about current events and our current political climate while also being outside. Because we were outside, there wasn’t the feeling of being cooped up in a classroom just wanting to leave. Overall, I felt like it was a great break in my day to sit and debrief about whatever we wanted to talk about.”

“Poly is really lucky to be able to host Jill Sigman as she builds The Living Room,” added Katie Futterman ’20. “The space is creative, unique, and likely not like anything Poly students have experienced before. It is a fantastic space to gather for everyday activities and appreciate them in a new way. Additionally, it provides a safe haven for serious, meaningful conversation.”

“Jill is a social practice artist, and what that basically means is that she incorporates social issues and social engagement into her work,” Coppola said. “If people were confused about her artwork before they got to participate in it, that makes a lot of sense. The artwork isn't complete until a community engages with it. Having classes, discussions, performances, and debates are social actions that are an integral part of The Living Room.” She observed that students “came to appreciate and value the space once they were inside of it and heard more from the artist about it. Once impressions that the hut was simply made of garbage were dispelled with more nuanced symbolism and context, members of the community could engage in a more meaningful conversation about it.”

The new Director of Arts Outreach Robert Aberlin ’62, P’00, ’03 added, “The opportunity to see the creative process and to get into the artist’s mind offers a unique educational experience. While each individual may see something different in an artistic work—and that is totally appropriate—seeing even a part of it through the lens of the creator gives us all additional insights. That is when the ‘aha!’ moment can occur.”

Click here to see a mini slideshow of The Living Room.
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