For the next two years, a constellation built by human hands over the ruins of a Hudson River castle is mingling with the stars. Constellation by Melissa McGill launched last month and continues through 2017. Each night after sunset, 17 lights illuminate Bannerman Island for two hours before fading back to dark.
As McGill explained on a recent visit to the island by boat from Beacon, New York, she’s interested in exploring “fragments and presence” and “thinking about what’s missing.” With Bannerman Island, also known as Pollepel Island, there are gaps throughout the structures which appear like a collapsed medieval fortress — something impossible for a place just 50 miles north of New York City.
Like this terrestrial constellation of LED lights, held aloft by aluminum poles between 40 and 80 feet tall, Bannerman Castle is an illusion. It dates to 1901 when a Scottish-born New Yorker named Francis Bannerman relocated his armories out of Brooklyn, where residents weren’t too thrilled about living by live ammunition, to a tiny island on the Hudson. Proud of his heritage, he constructed an old world castle, an impulse not dissimilar from the Gilded Age mansions all around New York, where residents were styling their homes after French estates and Irish castles. However, Bannerman’s creation was an extravagance built on a shoestring budget, where a lack of right angles and tiny windows made his castle appear larger than it is, and bedsprings and bayonets filled in the shabby brick and concrete that now a century later is crumbling. A 1920 explosion, a 1969 fire, and weather-related collapses in 2009 and 2012 further encouraged the disappearance of parts of the structures.
Enough remains of Bannerman Castle to give it an air of mystery, mostly glanced at from Metro-North trains as they move alongside the river. “A lot of our relationship to the island is from the train,” McGill said. She added that Constellation is “a way for people to have some connection with the site. As a public artwork they see it from the train and the shore and it opens to more people.” By keeping it to two brief hours, the experience also encourages it to be a community gathering event.
Bannerman Castle Trust, Inc. is holding evening boat viewing tours on Friday and Saturday nights through October, which include a short island exploration. Kayaking visits are also available. Like Bannerman Castle itself, the illusion is evident from the island, where supports holding up the decaying castle mingle with McGill’s aluminum lights. Yet this doesn’t make viewing the sunset and subsequent human-made stars any less transformative. As with a magician who reveals how a trick works, if you let yourself fall into the experience there are moments when the aluminum poles disappear and the lights hover like fallen stars.
“It’s always an evolving experience as you see it,” McGill stated, adding that Constellation is always different depending on the clouds or a clear sky where stars join the artificial lights, and the installation was designed to sustain all weather — during summers when the surrounding hills contrast their greenery, and winters when snow will fall over the skeletal ruins. She worked closely with preservation and conservation groups, including Bannerman Castle Trust Inc. and the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation, to assure that the ruins weren’t damaged and the ecology wasn’t impacted, with the scaffolding poles installed by hand and the lights’ glass orbs colored blue to prevent bird collisions.
“Constellations are different in different cultures,” she explained, noting that a major inspiration was the tradition of the indigenous Lenape who viewed the Milky Way as a “White Road,” a pathway between the land of the living and the great beyond. She added that the experience requires a viewer to complete the image of the lights “in your mind’s eye,” engaging in the magic of a night’s moment when the stars come out, and a glimpse of the heavens comes down to Earth.
Melissa McGill: Constellation is on view through 2017 on Bannerman Island on the Hudson River.