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The big mural on Boston's Rose Kennedy Greenway has switched over.
For the past three years, we’ve seen three different murals on the South Station-facing exterior wall of a Department of Transportation building in Dewey Square. Now the Greenway and MIT’s List Visual Arts Center have introduced to the city a conceptual piece -- and it's not subtle.
Seven large, bright orange words — all in caps and taller than people — pop against a bright, aqua blue background. They read:
A translation from one language to another
Looking at it from a distance, Paul Ha, the director of the List center, said he’ll never forget seeing the new commission for the first time.
"The blue caught my eye right away, and then my heart started pounding. I was really excited to see it," Ha said. "And it just made me so happy that there were a hoard of people in front of it, having a conversation, pointing to it — and that’s exactly the kind of reaction we wanted from the piece."
The new piece is by conceptual art pioneer and former Guggenheim fellow Lawrence Weiner, a provocative contemporary of creative visual thinkers like Sol LeWitt.
The mural that came before this new one -- by Shinique Smith and commissioned by the Museum of Fine Arts and the Greenway — featured a swirling tapestry of colors and visual textures. Weiner's piece is very different.
For some his giant words could seem more like a billboard than a piece of art. But the creator has been working with language in his art for 50 years and told me he embraces words as a medium.
"Language is just another material -- like oil paint, or spray paint, or stone, or chiseling into the building itself," Weiner said.
The artist doesn’t want to impose meaning on the new mural, but he does have hopes for people who engage with it. "That they’ll realize that every time they put something into their own context they’re translating it — from a bus coming down the road, to a text, to somebody saying 'good morning' in another language," he said. "And that becomes an object, it’s another thing that’s added to the world."
This isn’t Weiner’s first addition to the Boston area. In 2008, MIT commissioned the artist to create a piece for outside a dormitory.
Ha hopes the new Greenway mural will inspire people to visit his relatively under-the-radar museum. The MFA and the Institute for Contemporary Art partnered with the Greenway on the previous murals, so in a lot of ways this is a coup for the List.
"We might be small, but we’re mighty," Ha said proudly. "I mean, one of the fun things about the List center is that we’re better known in Basel, Switzerland, than we are here in Boston, so we are loving the opportunity of having a presence here."
Lucas Cowan, the Greenway’s curator for public art, told me that collaborating with area art institutions on the Dewey Square public murals gives each museum a chance to present its point of view.
"And with the ICA doing the Os Gemeos and Matthew Ritchie, and MFA doing Shinique, and [now] with MIT being so risky in the artworks which they commission and produce and the shows they do — this is a risk," Cowan said, "and I love that that risk is coming through."
Geoff Hargadon, who advises the List and the Greenway, appreciates the fact that the new mural’s meaning isn’t obvious.
"I think a lot of people will walk by and not get it," he said. "They'll wonder if it’s done or, what does it mean?"
Hargadon says the new piece is already sparking dialogue.
"I’ve noticed on social media that a lot of people are saying, ‘Well the Os Gemeos was my favorite,’ or the Matthew Ritchie or whatever," he said. "For me the four murals that we’ve had here over the last four years I think together are a pretty fantastic body of work."
But it’s hard not to make comparisons.
Asha Srikantiah has seen all four murals. She works up the street at Fidelity Investments and is still forming an opinion about the new one.
"On its surface it doesn’t move me as much as some of the past ones [did]," she said. "I think my favorite one was the first that they put up, the Os Gemeos. And this one feels a little more like a riddle than like something that’s clearly making me feel. So, I don’t know."
Other people are translating the new mural in their own ways.
"[T]o me what that says is to all these people who are coming out of South Station and looking across the street is, ‘We’re glad that you’re here and we want you to be part of our community and part of our experience,' " said Dave Baker, from Des Moines, Iowa.
Joshua Earnest, a graphic designer and vendor at the farmer’s market here, was less enthused.
"I just moved here from New Orleans, and honestly in my opinion as an artist it’s a little boring," Earnest said.
That review probably wouldn’t faze Lawrence Weiner. He believes viewers' experiences of any artwork are always their own.
"You can’t tell them what to think or how to think ... or you’re not supposed to," he said.
Now Bostonians and visitors have a year to figure out what they think about this latest mural.
And if they don’t like it, well, there’s always next September.
Artist Weiner will be at the unveiling of the new mural Thursday night in Dewey Square on the Rose Kennedy Greenway.
This article was originally published on September 24, 2015.
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