One of the most popular New York City icons is the Coney Island Cyclone, a 1927 landmark wooden roller coaster, whose jack-knife turns and precipitous drops have thrilled hundreds of thousands of visitors since it opened in 1927. It also is the inspiration for Coney Night Maze, a monumental sculptural installation by artist Donna Dennis that will be presented to the public for the first time at the Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase College, from June 7 through October 13, 2013.
Thirteen years in the making, Coney Night Maze draws on the labyrinth of fences, gates, and ramps nestled among the I-beams and columns located beneath the actual Cyclone. Rising to a height of twelve feet, the installation includes an ascending rollercoaster-like track which weaves in and out of the darkness, then descends into the distance, skimming the edge of a rock wall that runs the work’s entire 27-foot length. Set in a darkened space and lit by rows of bare bulbs, the hovering Cyclone structure with its dead ends, locked gates, and abandoned ticket booths, evokes a phantasmal nocturnal composition of compressed architecture in which the sound of a rollercoaster is heard faintly in the distance.
How does one reach the track and its promise of a ride? Says Dennis, “This artwork is experienced from its perimeter. Maze encourages the viewer to encircle the piece. But because there is a deserted, middle-of-the-night quality about it, it’s like going into the realm of the unknown. I’ve created a work that people will want to get into, but they’ll have to use their imaginations to do that.”
Dennis first visited the Cyclone during the mid-1990s while it was closed for the winter. “Peering in, I saw this wooden, rickety structure with all these layers of fencing and beams,” she recalls, “and I was fascinated by the green and red ramps and how everything lined up. Yet, this being winter, none of the rides worked and there was sense of abandonment, which is why the piece I created captures that eerie sense of desertion, with parts that don’t function — almost as if it were on its way out.”
She began Coney Night Maze in 1997, constructing the ramps and boardwalk planks, and incorporating related aspects of urban culture such as a subway turnstile and two small houses resembling subway ticket booths. But it was 9/11 that transformed her thinking. “I began to think seriously about mortality,” she said. “When the Towers went down, my work went down, too. It was then — when there was so much talk about security — that fences began to mean something to me. So, in Maze, I wanted the little houses to be fenced in and protected. I also began to view Maze as a fragile wooden structure to be equated with human life, and that led me to consider what we are doing to the Earth.” So, she incorporated a large rock wall into the piece that was inspired by the steep rock formations of the New Jersey Palisades. “I liked the contrast between the ancient rocks and this rickety temporary structure.”
Dennis is best known for creating large-scale works, such as tourist cabins and subway stations, including Subway with Silver Girders (1981–82), Deep Station (1981–85), and drawbridges as in BLUE BRIDGE/red shift (1991–93). Deconstructing her architectural prototypes in a language that is both evocatively detailed and highly formal, her work is steeped in a well of personal emotion. Dennis views her work as stopping places or points of passage on a metaphorical journey through life.
In the mid-1970s, the artist first came to the attention of both critics and the public with her large architecturally inspired installations from her Subway Stations and Tourist Cabins series. During these years, artists became interested in tackling the psychological dynamics of architectural space and its cultural impact on society through ambitious sculptural installations. Along with sculptures and environmental interventions by such contemporaries as Alice Aycock, Mary Miss, and Siah Armajani, the work of Donna Dennis has brought a distinct, influential voice to this movement that specifically addresses vernacular architecture.
Dennis has exhibited in major museums throughout the world and created public art works. Her work is in many prominent collections including those of the Brooklyn Museum, the Cleveland Art Museum, the Microsoft Collection in Seattle, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the Ludwig Forum fur Internationale Kunst in Aachen, Germany, the Indianapolis Museum, the San Diego Museum of Art and the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington DC. Dennis has exhibited throughout the world in major museums as well as public art installations.
Donna Dennis: Coney Night Maze is curated by Helaine Posner, Senior Curator of Contemporary Art, and Avis Larson, Assistant Curator at the Neuberger Museum of Art. An illustrated brochure accompanies the exhibition, with an essay by Jan Riley, a curator and writer.
Coney Night Maze, 1997-2009 (detail)
12'6" x 27' x 19'4"
Courtesy of the artist
Photo credit: Peter Mauss / Esto Photographics