The 4 Elements at the Forest Hills Cemetery

Although a friend warned that going to a cemetery to see art sounded more like a haunted hayride than a cultural affair, I soon discovered there is nothing garish or ghoulish about The 4 Elements—the sprawling and inspiring collection of installation artworks dotting the Victorian landscape of the Forest Hills Cemetery, located in Roxbury. Having never been to Forest Hills, I was stunned by the ground’s remedying effects on my altogether too-cosmopolitan self, feeling suddenly displaced to a Jane Austen novel…or at least somewhere between the English countryside and Alice in Wonderland. I thought to myself, “What a perfect place for truly weird art.”

If you’ve ever wondered why people build immense and laborious works of art only to break them down shortly after, you wouldn’t be alone. Installation art has had its share of overly discerning and disappointed crowds. The 4 Elements, however, suggests an influence of environmental artists like Andy Goldsworthy and Richard Long—a kind of keyed-up collection of natural wonders and environments tampered with just enough to be, well, incredibly cool. Although it usually takes Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty or Walter De Maria’s The Lightning Field to draw appreciable aplomb, there is definitely something to be said for a twilight stroll through a cemetery spotted with spiraling branches and man-made “islands” drifting autonomously across sun-flecked water. I was thrilled just to find such beautiful landscape within walking distance of the Orange Line. The interspersed installations, both highly conceptual and highly produced, are subtle reminders of man’s relationship to naturally wonderful places.

Hanging cement mementos dangle from trees in Danielle Krcmar’s Favorite Things: An Indirect Portrait. Elsewhere, Amy Stacey Curtis uses mirrors to reflect and refract the surroundings, concurrently casting metaphoric associations concerning the soul and identity. A large pine-needle “nest” takes on the great archetypal form of a spiral. Its tremendous coil is suggestive of something living and breathing, and it is wonderfully gross. The artist, Jeanne Drevas, brought her own pine needles with her from Virginia—and there is something artistically perfect about that.

Lethe, the river of forgetfulness in Greek mythology, is represented by artist Frank Vasello with sticks of varying sizes flowing out of a wedge between stones and descending in a meticulous wiggle until manifesting in a perfect centripetal spiral. Taking three days to gather his materials and almost three more to construct the work, Vasello assured that his sticks (and Styx) were not actually secured in any way. Lethe thus has a mathematical majesty to it, clinging onto itself and the earth by virtue of its thoughtful construction.

Director Cecily Miller and her trusty staff have amassed and commissioned site-specific works from twenty artists who use a variety of strategies to impose their own visions on the landscape, taking the “four elements challenge” to heart. This is the second year that Forest Hills has sponsored such an exhibit and its ancillary programs. There are a couple more weeks to enjoy The 4 Elements—the event concludes August 31st. In the meantime, Forest Hills is fast becoming the most unexpected Dia Center of Boston.