Renowned Artist Janet Zweig Returns to Boston to Create Interactive Public Sculpture on Common

In celebration of the Friends of the Public Garden’s 50th  anniversary, famed public artist Janet Zweig will unveil a large, participatory public sculpture – a hand-crafted, double-sided, wooden cabinet with removable illuminated markers that invite discussion about ownership for an installation called “What Do We Have In Common?” beginning Sept. 22 on the Boston Common until Oct. 22.

The Boston Common is a powerful backdrop for this experience. Prior to the arrival of Europeans, the land that became the Common was occupied by the Massachusett tribe that considered all land to be held in common. As America’s first public park, it has 387 years of history. It has witnessed executions, sermons, protests, and celebrations. It has hosted famous visitors and everyday gatherings of friends and family. The earliest townspeople grazed their cows and beat their rugs on the Common. The arrival of Boston’s public water system in 1848 was heralded by a Water Celebration at the Common’s Frog Pond attended by thousands. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke from Parkman Bandstand on April 23, 1965, after a mile-long freedom march through the streets of Boston. On Oct. 1, 1979, Pope John Paul II celebrated the first papal mass in North America to 400,000 people.

“What Do We Have In Common?” is curated by Now + There, a non-profit public art organization bringing temporary, site-specific artworks to all neighborhoods of Boston, and the installation will also be part performance. Boston-based Guides will pull out blue illuminated markers from the cabinet each day and engage passersby in conversation around questions printed on the markers such as: “Who Owns the Moon?” “Who Owns the Shadows?” and “Who Owns Happiness?” “Who Owns the Trees?” At night, the cabinet and markers will glow, lighting up the park as a reminder of the care needed to protect the beauty and dynamism of public spaces that we own in common. “What Do We Have In Common?” will be on view for 30 days.

“What Janet Zweig has so poetically brought to light is the crux of this work of being stewards of common resources: bringing people together to take care of something we all deeply value. Our partnership over these past 50 years has made us stronger and it makes our parks better for future generations,” said Liz Vizza, Friends of the Public Garden President.

The cabinet will also serve as a Giving Library for the public to take texts on the theme of shared resources. There will be fiction, poetry, children’s books, and histories of Boston Common, available for all to take and book plates will be signed by Zweig. Reflective of the Common’s rich cultural diversity, 34 of the 200 markers in the cabinet will be in Spanish, Haitian Creole, Mandarin, Cantonese, Vietnamese, and Cape Verdean Creole. Many of the Guides, who will be prompting conversations with the public, will self-identify as Black, Indigenous, and People of Color.

Now + There’s Executive Director Kate Gilbert adds: “Participatory public art enlivens spaces and galvanizes people. With Janet Zweig’s decades-long history of sparking contemplation through subtly whimsical approaches, plus the 10 Boston area citizens acting as the pulse of “What Do We Have In Common?,” we’re posing provocative questions that invite reflection and discussion about commonality in a way that encourages everyone to be part of crafting alternative solutions. This is the power of public art.”

For Zweig, who lived in Boston and Cambridge in the 1980s and now resides in New York, this is her first public art commission in Boston. She has worked in the public art realm since the 1990s, consistently creating work that speaks to environmental issues.

Her major projects include a kinetic installation on a pier along the Sacramento River, a performance space in a prairie on a Kansas City downtown green roof, a generative sentence wall in downtown Columbus, a light installation and memorial in Pittsburgh, a system-wide interactive project for eleven Light Rail train stations in Minneapolis, and a 1200’ frieze at the Prince Street subway in New York. While she has created public sculpture, interactive works, and performance, “What Do We Have in Common?” seamlessly brings all three elements together for the first time.

“After much research, I had more questions than answers about the idea of commons,” Zweig said. “The markers ask a lot of those questions. I am hoping the Guides, who spread the markers to the wider public around the park over the month, will facilitate many questions including an important one for us all: What do we have in common?”

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