Critics have called "WaterFire" Providence "a kind of primal civic rite," "a religious experience ... awash in sparks and strange chanting" and "a compelling and enigmatic ... nighttime spectacle." Visitors describe it as a campfire for the whole city.
The work's creator, artist/sculptor Barnaby Evans, is a 2003-04 artist in residence in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning and is co-teaching a course called "Event Places" which examines the impact of ephemera on the urban environment. On Monday, Oct. 6, he will present a symposium titled "Illuminating the Mirror: Reflections on 'WaterFire.'" The talk, one in a series of symposia held in conjunction with the class, will begin at 5:30 p.m. in Room 10-485.
"WaterFire" began in 1994 as a "fire sculpture installation" to celebrate the 10th anniversary of First Night Providence. Nearly a decade later, the work continues to be praised by Rhode Island residents and visitors from around the world as a moving work of art, an engaging urban event and a symbol of Providence's renewal.
Sited on the three rivers that pass through the middle of downtown Providence, the focal point of the work is a series of 100 bonfires burning in braziers above the surface of the water. Every other Saturday from April to November, thousands of people line the riverfront to take in the flickering firelight, the scent of aromatic wood smoke, the enchanting music and the sense of community ritual.
Evans, whose original training was in biology and environmental science, recalls that the original idea for "WaterFire" came from his fascination with fire and water as universal symbols of life and death which are also mutually self-destructive.
"Water will quench a fire, but fire can boil water away to invisibility," he said. By placing these two powerful elements in close proximity, he hoped to underscore "the ephemeral nature of our lives and emphasize that the moment we live in is in balance between life and death."
With hundreds of volunteers and the broad support of the community, Evans established "WaterFire" as an ongoing installation in 1997, attracting up to 65,000 people on a single night. "Many people weave it into their family reunions, weddings, graduations and even funerals," said Evans, who will stage 19 lightings or partial lightings (on a limited section of the river) this year through Oct. 18.
For Evans, the meaning of his award-winning work is open to interpretation. "It is a ritual and a ceremony that refers to scores of religious festivals, as well as contemporary art," he told Smithsonian Magazine in 2002. "But I didn't want all that symbolism to get in the way of someone enjoying it simply for the beauty of it."
Many of Evans' MIT students went to Providence on Sept. 20 to both see and help feed the flames. "'WaterFire' is more than a bunch of bonfires in the river," said Marissa Cheng, a junior who participated in the field trip. "The combination of the braziers and the music, as well as the crowd creates something that's emotional and intangible."
Evans has also installed "WaterFire" Houston and is currently exploring installations for a number of foreign cities including St. Petersburg, Barcelona and Seoul. In 1997, Evans was presented with Providence's Renaissance Award and he has received many other awards for the project, including the Kevin Lynch Award from MIT.
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A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 1, 2003.