Brass birds flock to Delaware River to launch a series of waterfront sculptures

A tall pole is topped with a bronze bird as part of an art installation by the Ben Franklin Bridge

Tracey Emin's "A Moment Without You," consists of a series of tall poles topped with bronze birds. It was installed on Race Street Pier against the backdrop of the Ben Franklin Bridge. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Last weekend, Philadelphia Contemporary began a two-year project to install contemporary sculptures along the Delaware River waterfront in Philadelphia, not with a bang but a whisper.

“A Moment Without You” is a cluster of five upright poles about 13 feet high on the end of Race Street Pier. Perched on top of each is a tiny brass bird.

“A Moment Without You” is not visible from Columbus Boulevard, nor can it be seen from the Ben Franklin Bridge that soars above it. The effect of the sculpture is so subtle, even pedestrians are not able to see what it is until they are right next to it.

Tracey Emin’s ”A Moment Without You,” rises above the Delaware River from Race Street Pier on 13-foot poles. It is the first in a series of sculptures to be installed along Philadelphia’s waterfront for the Water Marks project, sponsored by Philadelphia Contemporary and the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Artist Tracey Emin initially made the piece in 2017 for a park in Hong Kong as a way to grieve the death of a friend. She wrote that she also made the piece to subvert the norms of public sculpture, which are often displays of political and military power, or otherwise heroic. Instead, she wanted “something with a sense of magic and alchemy, something which would appear and disappear and not dominate.”

Co-curator Kerry Bickford wants people to discover the sculpture on their own, almost accidentally, not to be drawn toward it from a distance. Bickford, the director of programs at Philadelphia Contemporary, is thinking about why people would want to walk to the end of a pier and, if only for a few moments, turn their backs to the city.

Kerry Bickford, director of programs for Philadelphia Contemporary, is one of the curators of Water Marks. She stands beside Tracey Emin’s ”A Moment Without You” on Race Street Pier. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“You’re apart from the city, but still very much connected to it,” she said, as the drone of traffic across the bridge was momentarily drowned out by the roar of a PATCO train. “I think that’s one of the interesting tensions of the Delaware River, in fact, is that you can sometimes feel like you’re outside Philadelphia, but in other ways there’s this constant tug pulling you back towards it.”

“A Moment Without You” is the first of five planned sculptural pieces to be installed along the river, from Pier 69 to the south up to Graffiti Pier to the north. The project, “Water Marks,” is a partnership between Philadelphia Contemporary and the Delaware River Waterfront Corp., intended as a way to draw attention to the waterfront and to use art as a means to invite contemplation of the river’s role in the culture and history of Philadelphia.

“This work is about monuments and also about grief. And, I think for us, thinking about the history of the Delaware River — socially, historically, ecologically, there’s been a lot of loss and a lot of grief to start out with,” said Bickford, thinking about the long history of industrial use of the river that poured pollutants into it for centuries, and labor practices that broke the racially integrated Local 8 union in the 1920s.

Tracey Emin’s ”A Moment Without You,” rises above the Delaware River from Race Street Pier on 13-foot poles. It is the first in a series of sculptures to be installed along Philadelphia’s waterfront for the Water Marks project, sponsored by Philadelphia Contemporary and the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“Water Marks” will last two years with a staggered rotation of five installations. In the fall, Sam Moyer’s “Doors for Doris” — door frames fashioned from large stone slabs originally made for New York’s Central Park — will be installed at a location to be determined.

In spring 2022, the first of three newly commissioned works will go up, followed by others in  fall 2022 and spring 2023 — by artists Jean Shin, Radcliffe Bailey, and Hugh Hayden. Those pieces and their locations are still to be chosen.

If all goes well and partners can be found, Philadelphia Contemporary would like to keep rotating contemporary sculpture on the waterfront, ongoing.

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