Awakening Asylum was designed around formal elements and conceptual themes emerging from the General Slocum Steamship disaster (June 15, 1904) and the history of Randall’s Island as a place of “Asylum” for inebriates, idiots, and insane urban residents. The location of the sculpture commemorated the ship’s Hell Gate waterway passage where it is thought that the steamship fire likely began. Due to faulty unregulated flotation devices and poor crew response times (for beaching quickly on Wards Island’s Sunken Meadow), over 1,000 people perished in the Northern East River on their way to a Lutheran picnic excursion on the sound in Queens.
The sculptural pavilion was supported by posts that referenced pier pylons of the era and the angle of the smokestacks during the sinking of the General Slocum steamship. New Yorkers relied on travel by boat around the turn of the century, and the disaster called attention to necessary public safety regulations. The body recovery, morgue, and funeral efforts of volunteers were heroic in response to the tragic number of victims in the largest single-event loss of life in the NY area until 9/11/2001. Fewer than 200 survivors returned to the devastated Lower East Side German immigrant community that attended St. Mark’s Church (the outing’s sponsor).
An acrylic “stained glass” collage central to the metal pergola, inspired by the steamer paddle wheel, commemorated the ill-fated ship, the victims’ mass funeral, and crash responders’ efforts with historic and original photos. As a piece, the sculpture provided public opportunity for reflection on loss and remembrance with river eddy views and a backdrop of the RFK/Triboro Bridge. The architecture of the bridge creates a curious sense of scale in the largely manmade landscape, and symbolizes history, progress, and shifts in transportation patterns that have led to Randall’s Island becoming a unique landscape for recreation and rehabilitation as well as cultural events and creative experiences. Under “Awakening Asylum,” viewers had the opportunity to remove themselves from time’s demands, if only for a moment, while experiencing a clear southerly view of the sun (solargraphy experiments were done).
While the sculpture is now down, it will live on in photos and memories. Thanks to my helpers, and the Turfgrass Pros.
These photos are from its final sunset, having stood strong to floodwaters and wind through Superstorm Sandy.
The 108th Anniversary of the General Slocum Steamship disaster is this Friday, June 15, 2012.
The Ladies' Aid Society (Frauenhilfsverein) of St. Mark's Church had chartered a boat for its annual picnic in rural Northern Queens, traveling from the Lower East Side aboard the General Slocum. Almost all the women and children of the parishioners went aboard the steamship for an inspired summer day outing. Around the site of the "Awakening Asylum" sculpture at hell's gate, the boat caught fire and over 1000 parishioners perished during a 25+ minute drama of a quickly spreading fire, failing flotation devices, and terrifying currents (until the final crash upriver on N. Brother Island).
The St. Mark's Evangelical Lutheran community was so devastated by the disaster, that the precious few survivors moved uptown to establish Yorkville. In 1946 then St. Mark's merged with Zion after most of the remaining congregation had left the Lower East Side. Zion St. Mark's church (339 East 84 Street, between First and Second Avenues) continues to deliver services in German (and English). The community so hurt by the extreme loss of the event (echoing for generations) is dwindling. The youngest (miraculous) survivor, Adella Wotherspoon, died in 2004 at age 100-- also becoming the oldest survivor.
For more information, my studio's announcement is online.