The lone figure sits, head bowed over his briefcase, shoulders sagging. A thick powdering of silvery dust disguises his features. All around lie branches, bricks and building debris but still he sits, unmoving.
A grey ghost in a forever-changed landscape.
This is The Survivor, a sculpture by John Seward Johnson II, a tribute to those who lost their lives when the World Trade Center twin towers collapsed on 11 September 2001.
The original inspiration is Seward’s own Double Check Businessman, a bronze figure that used to sit in New York’s Zucotti Park, permanently checking the oversized calculator and tape recorder stacked in his open briefcase. So realistic was this model that in the aftermath of the blast, rescue teams mistook him for a real person. In the days that followed the statue, dented and scratched by the falling masonry, became a memorial for the many business people who died in the terror attacks.
Johnson reworked the sculpture, now renamed The Survivor, and returned it to the city but also created a new piece for his collection of contemporary artworks at Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton, New Jersey. Today the sombre grey figure sits amongst the catastrophic carnage of 9/11, still checking his briefcase.
Built on part of the old New Jersey State Fairgound the 42 acre site is designed to be, in the founder’s words, “a public space where the broadest cross section of the public is invited to relate to sculptural arts and nature in an emotional way and encouraged to overcome any natural, habitual, or learned resistance or fear of art.”
The grounds themselves are glorious; long broad paths, secret glades, hidden corners and beautiful trees. But unlike most public gardens it’s populated by some very strange figures. Life-size and more they recreate famous artworks, real-life experiences, folklore and fairy-tales.
And, again unlike most art spaces, visitors are actively encouraged to touch the works and even get in amongst them. Johnson’s idea is that art should generate a visceral response, anything from an “oh” of surprise to a feeling of revulsion.
After a while of wandering it seems perfectly natural to sit down on a bench alongside a young woman reading a book or join the queue of ragged, dejected men in the breadline.
Amongst the tall grass near the entrance Van Gogh sits at his easel, painting in the glow of the green fairy. Nearby is a gigantic version of Renoir’s whirling, dancing couple.
Edvard Munch’s Scream is presented in 3D on the side of a building, inviting you to scream along.
You can join the picnickers of Manet’s famous Dejeuner sur l’Herbe, complete with food hamper and rowing boat, or sit at the luncheon table amongst the jolly members of Renoir’s Boating Party.
There’s a truly terrifying witches tableau complete with bones bubbling in a stinky cauldron or you can take a scary stroll through the nightmarish Forest of Consciousness.
Too much to absorb all at once? Then settle down to meditate in the Chamber of Internal Dialogue, cross Monet’s famous bridge or relax by the mini-waterfall.
It’s called a sculpture garden but it’s more like an outdoor art adventure. Glance down this alley and you’ll see a couple embracing. Over here an abstract piece catches the light while on the lake shore a fisherman’s having a good day.
We loved the place and spent several hours strolling through the grounds. Even then we never got to see it all.
If you have the chance to make return visits you will get the most out of the place, but if you have just one opportunity then arm yourself with a map, a clear plan of action, comfy walking shoes and determination.
Or just wander free and be surprised. You never know what might be waiting for you around the next corner.
More information about Grounds for Sculpture
Situated just off the I-295 Grounds for Sculpture is about an hour and half’s drive from New York City, 45 minutes from Philadelphia and 15 minutes from Princeton. The nearest train station is in Hamilton and you’ll need a taxi to get you to the grounds themselves which are in an industrial suburb.
It’s open all year round and the cycle of nature provides a unique setting for the pieces. Wear comfortable shoes as you will walk for miles.
Most of the artwork is outdoors but there are several halls hosting different exhibitions throughout the year so there’s always something new to see.
Best to book tickets in advance online as it can get very busy in high season.
Don’t bypass the exhibition about Seward Johnson and his family, it provides a fascinating insight into the mind of a creative and unusual person.
See their website for prices and opening hours