The Annotated Artwork: ‘Maelstrom’

Photo: Sheila Griffin/Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Roxy Paine’s explosive, undulating stainless-steel forest echoes earlier works that examined the relationship between the man-made and the natural, such as the 2007 Three Sculptures in Madison Square Park and his cheeky SCUMAK machines, which make their own sculptures. But Maelstrom, which opens April 28 (weather permitting) on the Met’s Cantor Roof Garden, takes the concept to a gnarly new level. “I wanted to illuminate the complex, constant collisions among dendritic structures, man-made circulatory systems, buildings and factories,” says Paine, who gets into the nitty-gritty below.

1. The Concept
Paine says that Maelstrom tries to convey five ideas at once: “a forest downed by an enormous destructive force, both natural and man-made; the force itself, churning and violent; the trees in the process of becoming abstract; a factory pipeline run amok; and a mental storm, like the electric pulses that run through the brain during epileptic seizures.”

2. The Location
The artist suggests that his work resonates especially well in an urban setting because viewers are reminded of the vanished natural world around them. As for the Met’s roof garden itself, “I feel that the previous installations haven’t really worked with the scale of the whole space or the shape of the roof itself. I wanted it large enough so that it wouldn’t feel dwarfed.”

3. The Influence
Paine is obsessed with the transformation of natural spaces into man-made ones. “Northern Virginia, where I grew up, was transforming rapidly in the seventies: First there were farms, which were then eaten up by huge machines and replaced with industrial housing and strip malls. I felt a loss, but this new, warped sense of nature influenced my thinking.”

4. The Material
In keeping with the work’s theme of transformation, Paine repurposed off-the-rack stainless-steel pipe instead of custom-making a mold. “Also, I wanted to connect the pipelines to the fire extinguisher, the plumbing—the building’s vascular system. They connect through a valve that we installed that looks like it’s part of the roof.”

5. The Overgrowth
“The network frames the park and the buildings in the background, crescendoing as the forest reaches its apex, then continues until it busts out of the controlled space. I wanted a forceful effect; it pushes against all the edges, dives into the hedge, and juts out over the side. If it were to keep growing, it would continue over the sides.”

The Annotated Artwork: ‘Maelstrom’