Anyone who’s ever lived in cities by the Great Lakes understands the psychological respite provided by their windswept horizons and changing seasonal effects. So when Catherine Opie, the California-based artist who grew up in Sandusky, Ohio, on Lake Erie, was asked to propose a project for the Cleveland Clinic’s Visual Arts Program, perhaps the most ambitious of its kind in the country, her thoughts turned to the meditative aspects of the lake she knows so well.
The result is “Somewhere in the Middle,” a commission of 22 new photographs installed permanently in a corridor at Hillcrest Hospital in Mayfield Heights, not far from Cleveland. Hillcrest is part of the network of Cleveland Clinic institutions (it’s far-flung, and ranges from northern Ohio to Florida, Las Vegas, Toronto and even, imminently, Abu Dhabi), which offers regular exhibitions and commissions. Unveiled June 27, the Opie commission may be visited any time the hospital is open to the public.
Since Joanne Cohen, executive director and curator of the visual arts program (a division of the Cleveland Clinic’s Arts & Medicine Institute), came on board in 2006, it has flourished; the Clinic as a whole now possesses some 4,500 objects, including ten site-specific commissions. Among the latter are installations by Jaume Plensa, Sarah Morris and Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle; there are also individual works by Vik Muniz, Hung Liu, Antony Gormley, Willie Cole, Jennifer Steinkamp and many other well-known and local artists.
“The mission of the program is to enrich, inspire and enliven, for the patients, the staff and the community-and to see things they might not otherwise get to see,” Cohen told A.i.A. “We want to change what it means to be in a hospital. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a miserable experience.” For those who don’t want to be there, however, “we really try to distract them, to create something unexpected.”
Opie’s commission is different, “in that she really wanted to capture the inherent natural beauty around Ohio,” says Cohen. “Cleveland often gets a bum rap. Cathy is saying, Look what’s in your back yard.”
A.i.A. caught up with Opie by phone just after the opening of her installation.
HIRSCH: You’re from Ohio. Was that one reason you were given the commission?
OPIE: Joanne Cohen was going through a number of ideas about who could best deal with a corridor at Hillcrest Hospital in Mayfield Heights, and thought of me. I was interested in the space, and because I grew up in Ohio, I said, “sure.” I felt I could do something really compelling, and especially given my ongoing interest in a continuous water/horizon line.
HIRSCH: You’ve photographed this type of landscape before, and even Lake Erie, correct?
OPIE: No, I never photographed Lake Erie before.
HIRSCH: Where was the “Icehouses” series (2001) shot?
OPIE: The “Icehouses” were in Minnesota. I had a residency at the Walker. My work has always concerned the notion of community, and specificity of identity in relationship to place. Those are also reasons Joanne contacted me. She knows I’ve traveled throughout America making images about that.
HIRSCH: Your series is called “Somewhere in the Middle,” and it shows the lake in four seasons. But the number of photos in the series is 22—which is not divisible by four.
OPIE: When you enter, the first photograph you come upon is a 95-by-24-inch image I think of as a sliver of a cornfield. I wanted to create a moment of land before going into lake. It also has a great deal to do with the fact that wherever I lived in Ohio, I always had a cornfield across the street. So it’s a personal vantage point.
Also, the earliest photographs in the sequence are of Edgewater Park in Cleveland, and feature a public beach, park and pier. In the first the lake splashes into the right corner. Architecturally, I wanted that momentum, as if sending you down the long corridor. The next one is the only one in which I allow figures in the lake, and they’re engaging in pretty much every water sport you can imagine, with some surfers just standing there. Living in California, I often hear people laugh and say that no one can “surf” Lake Erie successfully. But people do surf the lake here, when a storm kicks up, and there are waves.
HIRSCH: So that relates to your earlier work about surfers.
OPIE: Exactly—I wanted that.
HIRSCH: Then the seasons begin.
OPIE: Yes. The next four images are all of fall, in different light. Very atmospheric, with clouds in the sky, moving from pinks to purples, blues and whites. These are all consistent with the palette of the series as a whole. You go through those four images of fall, and then you have a break in the wall, followed by five images of winter-one extra, because people always think of the winter as so long, and want it to end. You come into this twilit image, very blue-an abstraction that reminds some people of Rothko. It was this incredible evening, right before dark. I was standing on the edge, watching the light change, just waiting for this moment. If you get in close, you’ll see that there are these animal footprints in the snow. There’s a sense of disbelief, but then the footprints let you know this is a real place, and that the lake is frozen. Then on to a photograph that is slightly white, with a pinkish sky, then shards forming and a very abstract white-on-white. The last one was taken out in a town called Port Clinton, and you see the nuclear power plant in the distance.
HIRSCH: You must have had to travel a lot to Ohio to get so many seasonal effects.
OPIE: There were six visits, about a week each. And each time, I couldn’t believe I was able to get the exact weather and exact conditions I preconceived. It was kismet in that way. In spring I came in, the ice was just starting to melt, and by the fifth day the ice had completely melted. So in those four images you have the sequence of the lake going back to water.
There are four pieces for summer-with real summer conditions-then you come to a picture of a girl who just happened to be sitting on a pier and smiling for a picture being taken by a friend, while I was photographing the Cleveland cityscape. She’s in a red jacket with a hood, and she’s got this wisp of blond hair. The light is unbelievably beautiful on her, and she’s got this big smile. She’s facing back in towards the row of photographs. So when you get to the end of the seasons, which can be very subtle, very abstract, you have this figure looking back onto the line of images you just passed. And at the end of the corridor, you come upon this perfectly lit cloudy-sky cityscape of Cleveland with four people walking along the shore in the distance, with children in red jackets, and there are four seagulls floating in the air. It’s just that crazy-perfect evening light hitting the city, with the Key Bank building going into a dark cloud: a sublime cityscape, with waves crashing to the wet stones. It ends there, with people literally being able to look at their own city’s skyline.
HIRSCH: You’ve used the architecture of the corridor, with its series of shallow bays.
OPIE: The photographs are arranged along the corridor in one continuous line. I’ve used the horizon line in the middle in multiple bodies of work. But what’s interesting is that when you look down at the end of the corridor, there’s this roof that literally cuts the window in half. So the line continues and keeps you centered, so to speak. And the line you see through the window, the architectural view, also segments the view outside. I was really conscious of that in relation to designing the piece.
HIRSCH: Have you had reactions yet from viewers?
OPIE: Immediately when we were installing, patients in the hospital were stopping to say, “this is really soothing”; “this is really calming”; or, “huh, this is complicated.” There was a guy who cleans the floor regularly. He came after me on his vehicle and said, “Are you the one who made these? It’s going to be really wonderful working with them.” And then a trauma surgeon was on his cell phone with his wife, saying, “You’ve got to come and see what was just installed here in the corridor.” So I feel like it served a purpose for the hospital in a way that not only moved me, but will be sustained over a long period of time.
HIRSCH: So the photos are rather abstract, but then there are small indications of place. You have to look at them a while in order to notice all that.
OPIE: I wanted to bring the outside in, allow a place for calm, a place for meditation. You don’t necessarily have to go to the chapel; now there’s another spot in the hospital that can serve the same purpose. That’s one of the main objectives of the Cleveland Clinic, as well: they really want their environment to be filled with art, both for the patients and the people who work at the various institutes. One day there will be an article on what Joanne has accomplished here.
Hillcrest is a community hospital, part of the huge Cleveland Clinic system. I wanted the piece itself to serve as a memory of place. Just as a cornfield can evoke feelings for me, I love the notion that someone who is five can walk through this permanent installation, and then return at age 20 and find the piece again.
I’ve never done a site-specific installation before. It’s so different from designing exhibitions for museums and galleries. Now I have my head twirling. They’re going to be building a high-speed rail line out in California: what can I do for that?