By Olivia Anderson | [email protected]
Come March 2023, Alexandria’s Waterfront Park will trade its elegant cursive letters that spell out “I Love You” for something more archaeologically driven: a steel structure representing a ship’s hull.
The piece, called “Two Boxes of Oranges and Admonia Jackson,” is in commemoration of four 18th century ships, whose remains were found over the past few years at Robinson Terminal South and Hotel Indigo.
As the fifth installation in the city’s Site See: New Views in Old Town annual public art series, the structure will abstract the hull of a ship with steel verticals rising from the ground and bending the same way a hull’s frame does.
There will also be shadows of the spines on the ground beneath the piece, with painted text and information about the ships’ cargo embedded within them. The “Two Boxes of Oranges and Admonia Jackson” title refers to examples of the types of cargo the ships brought in.
According to Diane Ruggiero, deputy director of the city’s Department of Recreation, Parks and Cultural Activities, the goal of the installation is to honor the evolution of Alexandria’s waterfront over time while simultaneously uncovering its rich history.
“You would see a carton of quills or two boxes of oranges, you know, the things that were on the manifest. But you would also see the names of people like Admonia Jackson, because some of the cargo that Alexandria had coming into its port were human beings,” Diane Ruggiero said. “So, [it’s about] understanding how Alexandria’s waterfront has transformed over time … and giving people a sense of how Alexandria grew and how Alexandria came to be.”
Designed by Nina Cooke John, an architect and artist based in New York City, the installation plays with the idea of layers. Like an archeological dig, the site has different portions of information coming through different areas of the structure. The color blue will be painted on the outer surface of the pieces, the inner surface’s orange color will extend to the shadows on the ground and text will be located on the underside of the steel. From the park, visitors stand on the outside of the hull with a view onto one side of history; and once they step inside, a fuller picture is revealed.
The idea, Cooke John said, is for visitors to take in all of the site’s elements, allowing each one to come together bit by bit and ultimately coalesce in a thorough history of the city – similar to the way archaeological excavation works.
Because the ships coming into Alexandria’s port were carrying everything from oranges to gin to molasses to enslaved people as part of the trans-Atlantic and domestic slave trades, the painted text on the ground will include the name of different cargo pulled from the manifest. Jackson, for example, was one of the names listed.
“[It’s about] getting the full understanding of what the history of a waterfront at that time would have been. So, not only would it have been a gritty, seedy place – waterfronts all around the world were – but [there is] also the reality that these ships would have been carrying all kinds of cargo,” Cooke John said. “You can see the names of people juxtaposed with coconuts and rum.”
In 2015, archeologists discovered the first of the hulls at Hotel Indigo, which is currently undergoing restorative treatment at Texas A&M University.
Then, in 2018, three more hulls were discovered at the Robinson Landing site, which have been kept in storage at a city warehouse in tanks of water to prevent the wood from decaying. They were relocated and re-sunk in Ben Brenman Park Pond earlier this year in an effort to preserve the artifacts and ensure their stability for future study.
Cooke John was selected in 2021, at the same time as R&R Studios, the architectural firm behind “I Love You.” A community task force with the Alexandria Commission for the Arts invited approximately 50 artists familiar with large-scale public art to apply for the spot. The 30 that applied submitted a portfolio, CV and written description of artist intent. Of that number, the task force reviewed every application and subsequently conducted interviews.
Though Cooke John was chosen last year, her contract with the city began earlier this year with the intent of releasing art in 2023. After accepting the offer, Cooke John visited Alexandria in spring 2022, during which she stayed at Hotel Indigo. After extensively touring the city, she was inspired by its layered archeological history and recent ship discoveries near her hotel and along the waterfront.
“It’s clear, walking around the waterfront, that the water was really important to Alexandria – how it sees itself now and how it operates now, but also historically. The growth and prosperity of the City of Alexandria was very dependent on the waterfront,” Cooke John said.
Deeply moved by images of the excavated hulls, Cooke John designed the installation to reflect this particular slice of Alexandria’s past.
Although the city is currently in the process of developing curated programming for Cooke John’s work, Ruggiero noted that nothing is solidified yet. Each installation, she said, requires its own customized events.
In fact, she claimed that one of the best aspects of the Site See series is the fact that visitors can interact with each installation in their own way. The “I Love You” exhibit, which went up in March and was taken down earlier this month, was one of the clearest examples of this, Ruggiero explained.
“We saw everything from marriage proposals and wedding photos, but also folks with their kids or folks with their dogs or folks with their loved ones. It was just kind of like selfie central down there, and everyone having a good time,” she said. “ … It’s the only piece of public artwork that I’ve been involved in where I had people asking me if the lights were going to be on because they were going to plan their big proposal.”
Because Cooke John’s piece is much different from “I Love You,” it will require programming that “celebrates her artwork and helps people connect with it in a very intentional way,” Ruggiero said.
“It’s been amazing that every artist that has come through has found something that inspires them and their artwork, but it is truly and uniquely Alexandria and very different. It’s always so different than the one that came before it, so it really makes it a great experience for folks that live here as well as folks that visit,” she added.
Currently, Cooke John is working with the city to select a fabricator and finalize the design and installation details, which could take up to six weeks. The piece will be fabricated off site and installed early next year.
Cooke John hopes the installation will inspire visitors, whether that be locals or tourists, to engage more with the city’s past by exploring this temporary window into another time period.
“I hope they are inspired to learn more. I think many people who visit Alexandria visit it because of its history, but I hope that they take away that any history that’s presented is really deeper layered,” she said.