New public art brings waterfront’s history to the surface

New public art brings waterfront’s history to the surface
Artist Mark Reigelman designed “Groundswell,” the latest piece of public art at Waterfront Park. The installation is inspired by the city's riverfront history. (Photo/ Laura Hatcher for Visit Alexandria)

By Allison Hageman |

Deep at the bottom of the Potomac River, the shoes, boats, wooden toys, fossilized sea biscuits, pottery and pilings submerged just off the shore of Alexandria are all pieces of the city’s history.

The latest piece of public art at Waterfront Park dredges up those discarded pieces of Alexandria’s past and brings them into the sunlight – literally.

The wood pilings that make up artist Mark Reigelman’s “Groundswell” installation symbolize the shoreline’s steady encroachment on the Potomac River. Starting in the 18th century, the city’s waterfront began to expand and change dramatically, driving hundreds of wood pilings further into the Potomac. “Groundswell” captures that process in the form of 100 wood pilings topped with cobalt blue mirrors that reflect light or even a face and depict the rings of an aging tree. The installation casts shadows like a sundial as the day goes by – the passing of time is instrumental in the installation’s impact.

Artist Mark Reigelman (Courtesy photo)

Reigelman was doing research about Alexandria, the image of wood pilings standing tall amid the waters of the Potomac inspired him. They revealed not only the waterfront’s hidden history but the vitality of the shoreline.

“During this research, I was really excited by a lot of the archeological finds and discoveries on the waterfront,” Reigelman said. “I thought that they reinforced the waterfront as the main engagement hub.”

“Groundswell” is the third temporary art installation in the Office of the Arts’ “Site See: New Views in Old Town” series. The office launched the program in 2019 with the ringed reflective installation “Mirror Mirror” and followed it up with 2020’s “Wrought, Knit, Labors, Legacies,” which brought the city’s history of slavery to light.

Each artist has been asked to explore an aspect of the historic waterfront and the surrounding community.

For Reigelman, a Brooklyn-based artist who is interested in site-specific work, the opportunity was a perfect fit, he said. He studied sculpture and industrial design at the Cleveland Institute of Art and product design at Central Saint Martins College of The Arts in London. He is known for his past work “Sweetwater Playground,” another waterfront piece inspired by a sugar factory.

“Waterfront spaces are just really fun. They’re super active and dynamic,” Reigelman said. “In terms of the environment and landscape that was certainly something that I was drawn to.”

“Groundswell” features 100 wood pilings of various sizes layered on top of a mural depicting the Potomac River. (Photo/ Laura Hatcher for Visit Alexandria)

There are a few components of the installation, Reigelman said. The piece is as layered as the river itself. There is the floor mural which is the “subtle monochromatic graphic” that shows the submerged topography of the Potomac. The pilings sit on top of the mural and their heights are dictated by the mural. Mirrored inlays depicting the rings of a tree then sit on top of the pilings.

The tallest pilings reach 42 inches and represent the middle of the Potomac, while the smallest pilings represent the shallowest parts of the river, Reigelman said.

“If you have a chance to see it in person, you will feel they have a very strong presence, and I wanted to enhance that presence by having varying heights,” Reigelman said. “The varying heights, of course, do other visual things like create really dramatic and beautiful shadows.”

The entirety of the project was created during COVID-19, Reigelman said. Unlike the other two artists in the series, he was not able to do any site visits and instead depended on city staff to send pictures of Waterfront Park. The first time he was able to come to the site was two weeks before it was unveiled this month, though he had been to Alexandria to see “Mirror Mirror” in 2019.

In keeping with COVID-19 safety guidelines, the wood pilings are spaced six feet apart. (Photo/ Laura Hatcher for Visit Alexandria)

The piece is representative of the time in which it was made. Reigelman took COVID-19 safety guidelines into account when designing the installation, and the pilings are spaced six feet apart.

“This project was completely researched, fabricated, designed and implemented during this COVID season, which is really unique,” Reigelman said.

For the creation of the project, Reigelman said the city connected him to archaeologists and a riverkeeper. On his own, Reigelman connected with boaters, small businesses, local fabricators and other locals who gave him feedback. He said he does this because he generally comes to projects as an outsider.

Like his other projects, Reigelman said he tries to create and design installations that are

The reflective surface on top of the wood pilings depict the rings of a tree.(Photo/ Laura Hatcher for Visit Alexandria)

engaging for both a general audience and for people like his undergraduate professor, who are “ultra art speak folk.”

Whether people walk by the piece or spend a long time contemplating it, Reigelman said he hopes when people see their reflection in the pilings’ mirrored inlays that they think about their relationship to the waterfront’s history.

“I would love for people to just kind of leave feeling excited about this weird thing that they saw on their journey down the waterfront,” Reigelman said.

“Groundswell” will be displayed from March to November 2021, and the city has put out a call to local artists to create performances based on the installation.