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).