Installation view of Melissa McGill's Constellation, Bannerman Island, N.Y. Photo John Huba.

For several hours each evening just after sunset, a unique light installation by New York artist Melissa McGill fills the night sky above a small island in the Hudson River. McGill's Constellation, which debuted earlier this summer, will remain on view for two years. Located close to the river port of Beacon, in upstate New York, the tiny, vine-covered Bannerman Island, formerly called Pollepel Island, is an eerie and desolate place. Accessible solely by boat, the island has no permanent human inhabitants. Only water fowl, rabbits and river vermin call the place home.

The Lenape, the Delaware Valley tribe that once roamed this area, are long gone. The only trace of human presence today is the creaky ruins of a once-grand architectural folly of brick and concrete called Bannerman Castle. Built in the style of a medieval Scottish fortress by a military supplies dealer in 1901, the structure was used to store arms and ammunition. The site was abandoned by the late 1950s and almost destroyed by fire in 1969. McGill found it the ideal location for Constellation, her most ambitious art project to date.

The work features an arrangement of 17 solar-powered LED lights mounted atop flagpoles of varying heights, up to 75 feet tall, and scattered throughout the island. Visible from the Metro North commuter trains that run along the eastern bank of the Hudson, Constellation is best seen from a river boat.     

A native of Port Washington, N.Y., the 46-year-old McGill studied at the Rhode Island School of Design, where she was attracted to the work of Robert Irwin, Robert Smithson and other Land art practitioners and Conceptualists. Today, she cites Irwin and performance artist Tino Sehgal as major influences on her work. After residing in New York City for a time, McGill relocated to Beacon eight years ago, and for the past three years has focused her artistic efforts almost exclusively on Constellation.

To create the work, McGill sought advice from Anne Pasternak, outgoing Creative Time director and soon to be Brooklyn Museum director; MoMA director Glenn D. Lowry; and Frederick H. Osborn III, a commissioner of the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. McGill spearheaded every phase of development of the $650,000 project, including fundraising—$500,000 has so far been donated by individuals and institutions, including the National Endowment for the Arts. She plans to offset the remaining sum by sales of related artworks, Constellation T-shirts and weekend boat tours of the installation, which have been extremely popular.

Recently, McGill invited Art in America on one of the boat tours and discussed this extraordinary project, from its conception to its realization.


DAVID EBONY  How did you come up with the idea for Constellation?    

MELISSA McGILL  A lot of my work has to do with the theme of absence and presence. When I first saw Bannerman Island—when I would ride the train back and forth to New York City—I didn't know what it was. I was drawn to the idea that it was a fragment, a partial structure. So I started to wonder about what was missing. A large part of the castle is gone, obviously, but what else is absent? I started to do research, and the mysteries surrounding this place piled up. Even the name is uncertain. It's commonly known as Bannerman Island, but it's also called Pollepel Island, and you'll find many other names for it.  

I started to do drawings of the place, comparing them to early photos of the site that you can see online. The project evolved from the idea of a constellation of stars that would mark parts of the castle's architecture that have now disappeared. Other stars in Constellation correspond to the geography of the island; some are situated on a hill adjacent to the castle.   

In doing research for the work, I discovered that the Lenape, the Native Americans who once lived in the area, believed in a celestial "White Road," like the Milky Way, that connected earth with the spirit world. I started to work with the Lenape Center, based in New York City, which eventually collaborated with me on the project.

EBONY  Was it always titled Constellation?

McGILL  Yes. I was thinking of the word in a number of different ways. There have been many constellations that developed within the project, such as, for instance, the way it has brought so many people, communities and many diverse concepts together.

EBONY  What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in organizing an art project on this scale? It reminds me of certain works by Christo and Jeanne-Claude.

McGILL  Well, it's not quite on the scale of their projects. I did see The Gates [2005] in Central Park. And I am interested the way they worked. I'm also attracted to the idea of an art experience that you need to travel to, which literally requires you to be transported to another place.

With Constellation, my naïveté worked to my advantage in some respects. If three years ago I had known what I was going to be in for, I might have reconsidered! But I started to listen more to the people who told me that it was possible, rather than the many who said to forget it. I started by showing renderings of the concept to architects and lighting engineers, and I kept meeting all these fantastic people. Eventually, there were enough people who encouraged me to follow through.  

EBONY  How did your original conception of the project differ from its realization?  

McGILL  It's actually quite close. One fluctuation was the number of "stars," which kept changing to more, or fewer, until we finally settled on 17. I felt that was the right number to be seen from various angles, on and off the island. All along, I tried to keep the approach very simple. The poles are made of tapered aluminum, like flagpoles. We painted them to blend more with the building and the surrounding landscape.  

EBONY  What were the major difficulties with the installation?  

McGILL  One of the hardest things was to mount the poles in a way that would not disturb the fragile architecture. I worked a lot with the architects in charge of stabilizing the castle and the other structures on the island. We could not use heavy cranes or lots of power equipment. Basically, engineers from Polich Tallix, a foundry near Beacon, installed them mostly by hand.

EBONY  Will you have an exhibition of your drawings and studies for Constellation, or a related show in a gallery context? What plans do you have to offset the remaining costs of the project? 

McGILL  I'll reapply for some of the grants that I applied for in the beginning. Sometimes, people are more willing to donate when a project is actually up and running. I would love to have an exhibition related to the project, but there's nothing scheduled right now. We do have a Constellation book, though. It's a collaboration with writers Sam Anderson and Tracy Smith, to be published by Princeton Architectural Press later in September.