For its latest public art project, Albright-Knox Art Gallery wants the shirt off your back.
Or at least the one stashed away in the furthest recesses of your least-used dresser drawer.
Next week, the gallery will launch a regionwide campaign to collect some 3,000 shirts – “preferably long-sleeve, preferably button-up, but we’re not picky,” said Albright-Knox Public Art Curator Aaron Ott – for a new installation by Finnish artist Kaarina Kaikkonen in the entryway to the Buffalo Niagara International Airport.
Starting next week, Western New Yorkers can donate their shirts at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, the Foundry at 298 Northampton St. and the Central Library, with more locations to be announced into the fall.
Once the shirts are collected, the artist will create the piece with the help of local volunteers starting in late September. It will be installed on the concrete walls above the airport’s ticketing counters in early October, where it will remain at least through April.
“She generally uses donated clothing for the material for her work and that’s what she’ll be using for this project as well,” Ott said of the artist, whose work has adorned museums, cultural sites and streets in international cities since the late 1980s. “She’s never really sure what the composition will be before she shows up.”
When Kaikkonen arrives on Sept. 22, if all goes to plan, thousands of donated shirts will be arrayed on the second floor of the Central Library, where the artist and local volunteers will sort them by size and color and gradually arrange them into a new piece of public art.
Kaikkonen’s past public art projects, many of which used donated shirts arranged into pleasing color palettes, include a duo of 2013 installations in which she adorned the outside steps of the Museum of Memory and Human Rights in Santiago, Chile, with innumerable suit jackets in muted colors and the grand interior gallery of the same city’s Museum of Fine Arts with thousands of brightly colored shirts. Another project featured hundreds of suit jackets strung up like drying laundry in perfect symmetry over a street in Helsinki, Finland, suggesting a mass abduction a la HBO’s “The Leftovers” or an invasion of invisible businessmen.
“She wants to speak to notions of traveling, notions of shared experience and finding a way to present that in the work,” Ott said of Kaikkonen’s larger goal. “The public can look at the work and begin to tell themselves their own stories about wearing those clothes or who the people might have been who once wore them, and how those things are physically connected, forming new stories. That’s really interesting to us, and it allows the work to take on levels and depth that we don’t control, which I find really exciting.”
Asked about potential concerns from those who would rather see the donated items go to citizens in need than a public art project, Ott said he does not see the project in any way detracting from the goals of public service organizations like Goodwill.
“We don’t believe that we’re sort of taking out of the hands of Goodwill and in fact, hopefully there will be some excess that we will be able to in fact donate ourselves to those kinds of organizations,” he said. “I’m sure that every one of us has taken a T-shirt that we know that we’re never going to wear again and yet don’t give it to Goodwill because there’s some sort of inherent value to that object because of what it represents, because of the stories that it tells.”
The Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority’s board unanimously approved the project earlier this year, according to C. Douglas Hartmayer, the agency’s director of public affairs.
“I think the visitor’s experience at the airport is a very good one and this will even enhance this experience when they fly in and out,” Hartmeyer said. “It’s very picturesque, I think very eye-catching, and I think people will simply come out to the terminal, because it’ll be pre-security, simply to look at it.”
Public participation and awareness has been the driving force behind the gallery’s ambitious public art program, which was launched in late 2013 and is partially funded by Erie County and the City of Buffalo. From the selfie-ready “Shark Girl” to a participatory painting produced last year by artists working under the instruction of Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center co-founder Charles Clough, the program’s overall aim is to build a path to contemporary art by inviting the public’s direct involvement.
Kaikkonen, in a 2013 artist talk in the United Kingdom, said that the desire for more public participation in art was what prompted her to abandon painting and take on more broadly accessible art projects.
“I find it’s too easy,” she said of painting. “I felt that not so many people go to art galleries or art museums, and I felt in a way I wanted to give my art to everybody.”