Almost 35 million vehicles use the Holland Tunnel each year to pass between New Jersey and Manhattan under the Hudson River. Probably very few of these drivers think twice about the inner workings of the piece of infrastructure that makes their commute not only easier, but possible.
Lucky for us, Heather L. Johnson let curiosity get the best of her. The result is Air and Blood at Soho’s Glowlab, a tiny gallery on Grand St. “exploring the convergence of art, technology and the urban environment.” In thread on linen, Johnson recreates historical plans, sections, and perspectives of the tunnel, then adds color-coded arrows to illustrate the principles that govern its suprisingly complex engineering. Also included are diagrammatic representations of Johnson’s Vespa – her preferred mode of travel through the tunnel. The representation style is consistent and vaguely biological, and suggests that complex networks govern our lives at multiple scales.
Certainly the subject matter is timely: the High Line and Second Avenue Subway (among many others) have infrastructure on many people’s minds. But equally compelling is the painstaking production process evident in the works. The more intricate threadwork pieces took Johnson several months to complete, and even the tiny textual pieces scattered on the walls took several hours a piece. Like the slow-this-and-that movements leaving organic greens on every dinner plate in New York, Johnson’s work betrays a hint of nostalgia for a time when laborious infrastructure projects (and their pre-CAD documentation) were an indication of civic pride.
If the Holland Tunnel is, as Johnson suggests, a “communal urban lung,” it serves as a fitting point of departure for a body of work that “fixates on the circulatory nature of urban movement, [on] the connection that urban inhabitants, either transient or permanent, have with overarching public transportation systems.” The greatest power of Air and Blood might be that it prompts us to reconsider the paradigm that has left so many city parcels hostage to cheap (and yes, fast) development. Case in point: the banal hotel going up across from the gallery, which also happens to be one of the first buildings commuters see after exiting the Holland Tunnel.
Air and Blood at Glowlab (30 Grand St., Manhattan) is on view until November 8.
As with all review and opinion pieces posted on Urban Omnibus, the views expressed are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or the Architectural League of New York.
Travis Eby is a recent graduate of the Yale School of Architecture. He loves his stoop in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn.