Seven Days
Close

What's With the Gong in Burlington City Hall Park?

Ken Picard May 23, 2018 10:00 AM
Ken Picard
"Millennium Sculpture and Time Capsule" in City Hall Park

Have you ever strolled through Burlington City Hall Park and wondered about the chiming sounds behind Rí Rá the Irish Local and the Whiskey Room on College Street?

The sounds emanate from the nearby towering, stainless steel pyramid that's supported by four granite posts; inside, a slow-moving pendulum clangs every three seconds, as rhythmically as a metronome. Is it meant to be a re-creation of an ancient Egyptian timepiece? A Foucault pendulum that demonstrates the Earth's rotation? A nontoxic pest-control device for keeping pigeons out of the park? WTF?

If you interpret the human-built environment through the eyes of an artist, you may find the narrow spire suggestive of Burlington's nearby church steeples. The gentle metallic clang may remind you of the sound of sailboats moored at the waterfront as they rock gently in the waves, riggings rattling against masts. If so, you've grasped the imagery that the artist was aiming for. And bonus points to the keen observers who've noticed that the sculpture stands atop a time capsule buried in 1999.

"Millennium Sculpture and Time Capsule," as the installation is titled, was designed and created by Vershire artist Andrea "Andy" Stix Wasserman, with help from her engineer friend, Carl Bielenberg. The commission, awarded in October 1999, was unveiled just two months later on the eve of the new millennium.

On the ground beneath the pyramid, a bronze plaque reads: "This Millennium Sculpture and Time Capsule commemorates the achievements of the last century and the hope that we will meet bravely and wisely the challenges of the next. To be opened on December 31, 2099 and every 100 years thereafter."

Wasserman and her partner, artist Elizabeth Billings, have created many pieces of public art throughout Vermont. They include arboreal-themed works that decorate a passenger terminal at Burlington International Airport; a stone sitting area at Vermont Law School in South Royalton; several sculptures adorning the Emory Hebard State Office Building complex in Newport; and etchings that decorate the interior of the Chandler Center for the Arts in Randolph.

Wasserman's public art projects, which can be found from Rhode Island to New Mexico, usually feature patterns and forms found in nature: leaves, trees, fish, human bodies. Though she's created other kinetic sculptures, none resembles the one in City Hall Park, she said.

"We thought it'd be great to end the century, which had had so much mechanical development, with a beautiful mechanical system," Wasserman explained. "It honored our last 100 years and took us, ominously, into the next century."

Having spent time in Japan, Wasserman likened the Millennium Sculpture to that country's many Shinto shrines, where people stop to make occasional offerings. She wanted the Millennium Sculpture to have a similar calming effect on passersby. "I like pieces that cause you to stop and think and pause in your day," she said.

The Millennium Sculpture has gotten mixed reviews over the years. In July 2002, after vandals damaged the "Leapfroggers" sculpture on Church Street, Seven Days asked readers what they thought of downtown public art generally.

Koi Boynton of Colchester was no fan of the Millennium Sculpture and gave it a thumbs-down.

"Millennium Sculpture? Give me a break — unrefined, misdirected hunk of metal is more like it," she wrote at the time. "We don't question, we don't even think about it ... and then friends stop into town and we stroll through our quaint downtown only to hear them exclaim, 'What the **#! is that?'"

Others, however, seem fascinated by the sculpture and have posted photos, and even an audio postcard, of it on Foursquare and Pinterest.

As for the gong itself, Wasserman said that she worked with Bielenberg, a local inventor and engineer, to get it right. Though it was meant to be a gentle reminder of the inexorable march of time, on this reporter's visit in early May, the pendulum was quiet.

A call to Deryk Roach, parks maintenance and operations superintendent for the city's Parks, Recreation & Waterfront department, revealed that the city has never had to do maintenance on the pendulum. Roach admitted he didn't even know how the mechanism inside is powered.

Bielenberg, who's now cofounder and CTO of Village Industrial Power in Bradford, explained that there's a small electric motor inside, which he'd happily help park staff replace if it's burned out. March of time, indeed.

As for the time capsule, Wasserman wasn't involved in its creation and couldn't say what's inside it. According to a story in the Burlington Free Press at the time, one item inside is a letter to future generations, written by immigrants to Burlington from Vietnam, Thailand, Brazil, Congo, China, Mexico, Albania, India and Ukraine. All were learning English at the time and wrote:

"Sometimes people say mean things to us. They tell us to go back to our own countries or to speak English better. We try very hard, but some people don't understand what it's like for us ... In the future, we hope that people will understand us and our lives better."

Alas, sometimes it feels as though time marches backward. Perhaps conditions will have improved for immigrants, and all Americans, when the time capsule is reopened in 2099.