A review of the sculpture installation "Borders" by Icelandic artist Steinunn Thórarinsdóttir in Seattle's Westlake Park and a companion exhibit at the Nordic Heritage Museum.

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The brooding, life-size sculptures made of aluminum and cast iron that currently inhabit Westlake Park in downtown Seattle can be linked with the long history of figurative art in public places. But the hulking, anonymous figures by Icelandic artist Steinunn Thórarinsdóttir are a far cry from the idealized, heroic portrait-statuary of Ancient Rome.

Rather than inspiring awe or reverence or even a sense of playfulness like other figurative art around Seattle, these solitary forms evoke a feeling of disconnectedness. Placed in this busy, diverse, often politically charged urban park, the figures, with their heads turned away and their arms hanging close to their sides, seem isolated and inward-focused. But this insularity is also engaging. Many passers-by are drawn to these figures, sitting next to them, placing their arms around them, drawing them into a more animated, social existence.

The exhibition is called “Borders,” a title that suggests the boundaries that surround each one of us. But the interaction between audience and art suggests that some borders are meant to be crossed.

These sculptures are well-traveled, having been installed in 2011 in Dag Hammarskjöld Plaza and the United Nations Headquarters in New York City. Thórarinsdóttir has installed similar works in Europe, Japan and Australia. “Borders” was brought to Seattle by the Seattle Office of Arts & Cultural Affairs and Seattle Parks and Recreation, a result of their goal, according to a statement, “to mix art into daily Seattle life and to enliven our downtown public parks.”

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The expressive detachment of the work recalls the commanding, elongated sculptures by the Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti or the anonymous, expressionless figures by George Smith. As Giacometti did, Thórarinsdóttir creates works on a smaller scale that find homes in museums or private collections. In a companion exhibition, six sculptures — about 12 inches high — are on view at the Nordic Heritage Museum, along with arresting photographs, by Murray Head, of people interacting with the life-size works in New York City.

While similar in overall modeling, these small sculptures are strikingly different. Standing or sitting on wildly undulating platforms, the figures’ chests are pierced with rectangular or circular glass windows. It’s as if one more border — the physical, bodily border between inside and out — has now been permeated. They’re eerie little things that, like their larger brethren, explore the limits of, and openings for, human connectivity.

Regardless of scale, I don’t love the way most of her sculptures look — they strike me as clumsy, sulking slabs of clay. And I don’t love the way they make me feel — a reluctant recognition of my own angst or a peculiar sympathy for these solitary figures. But those responses are precisely why Thórarinsdóttir has been a successful artist for more than 30 years. These are powerful pieces that promote self-reflection and connective empathy through their ungainly forms and their quiet intrusion into our everyday lives.

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