Beili Liu’s Sculpture Cloud Pavilion Shimmers at Seaholm: How this glistening steel sculpture by the Austin-based artist became a permanent fixture of an evolving Downtown – Arts
Cloud pavilion seen from below (Photo by Jana Birchum)
This summer, Austin will unveil an ethereal steel sculpture that will grace its streets for the next 50 to 100 years. Austin-based artist Beili Liu’s work offers a rare moment of silence in a bustling center of city life.
Located on a street called Electric Drive in the walkable Seaholm EcoDistrict, the 11-foot-tall Cloud Pavilion is made up of a group of amorphous, puddle-shaped rings supported by long, sloping poles that draw your attention to the sky as the angled rainfall increases the distance . The work shimmers in the urban landscape, so that even when a freight train rumbles over it, cars speed along the nearby Cesar Chavez and Lady Bird Lake trickles in the distance, the illusion of people, nature and infrastructure in peaceful coexistence arises.
Public works of art are often designed in such a way that they symbolize the values of the surrounding community and induce passers-by to consider the history and civic identity of a place. Although abstract, the Cloud Pavilion addresses many of the considerations that came to the fore in 2021. The sculpture is made of a highly polished stainless steel, which not only gives it a physical resilience, but also allows it to visually adapt to the weather conditions. The artist notes: “On different days the work changes and reacts differently. So when it’s blue sky it’s a look, and when it’s cloudy it’s completely different.” It seems appropriate that this Protean sculpture should be installed in a time of profound changes, adjustments and innovations in public life. As people return to a more immersive, personal experience of the city, the work moves us to think about how we can remodel Austin to better reflect our newfound needs and interests.
While the sculpture may be tipped with glowing metaphors, its location offers a glimpse into the real possibilities of creating a quieter and more sustainable future. The Cloud Pavilion is located on the property of Austin Energy’s No. 3 District Cooling System, a highly innovative, environmentally friendly technology that is significantly relieving the state’s electricity resources. The facility will produce chilled water to lower the temperature of several downtown buildings and increase the overall efficiency of Austin’s energy infrastructure. After nearly a decade of planning, the equipment is scheduled to go live this summer.
An additional 10,000 tons of cooling capacity is a badly needed commodity, especially after a historic winter storm that nearly collapsed the Texas power grid. And as dazzling as “District Cooling Plant No. 3” sounds in itself, the Cloud Pavilion installation adds an element of je ne sais quoi to an otherwise overlooked but essential feature of a developing inner city.
As meaningful as the cloud pavilion may be for Liu as an individual, she sees this sculpture primarily as an act of community service. “One thing I really love about a public art project is that it’s about the people, their commitment and their experience, and it doesn’t matter who did the work.”
The sculpture was made possible by a city of Austin ordinance called Art in Public Places (AIPP) that requires certain city-funded improvement projects to dedicate 2% of their total budget to the purchase or commissioning of a public work of art. To the delight of art lovers in the United States, many cities, including Dallas and Houston, have similar percent-for-art programs, although they are increasingly a target for pinchpenny developers, who view the programs as an added expense. However, Austin requires a higher percentage of funding for public works of art than other comparable urban centers (including the two Texas cities mentioned above), significantly increasing the resources available to enrich Austin’s art landscape.
Liu was commissioned by AIPP to produce the Cloud Pavilion. Her participation in the program gave her access to around 2% of the refrigeration equipment budget – a whopping $ 202,500 – to carry out the project. The program provided additional support with budget management, made recommendations for processors, and matched Liu with a paid artist mentee from the AIPP LaunchPAD program, Teruko Nimura, who watched and supported the project from start to finish.
What sets AIPP apart from a purely generous funding operation is its commitment to educating both the community and the hired artists about the production of public art. Marjorie Flanagan, senior project manager at AIPP, said the program involves “over 30 urban departments” and a wide range of stakeholders across Austin – “from neighborhood associations to arts organizations to small businesses” – as well as public artist lectures and events take place with their current commissions.
AIPP staff advise their selected artists – who may or may not have experience producing such large or high budget projects – through logistical challenges such as planning insurance costs and working with materials with a lifespan of 20 years. Says Flanagan, “One of the things we strive for is to make sure our local artists can advance their art careers and compete for projects outside of Austin. We want them to be economically self-sufficient artists beyond their mandate.” with us.”
The artist of the cloud pavilion, Beili Liu, poses under her work (Photo by Jana Birchum)
Liu’s proposal caught the eye of the independent AIPP jury not only because it is based in Austin, but also because its design made direct reference to the function of the cooling system. Liu was inspired by the way the site uses the natural functions of the water cycle to serve another useful, life-sustaining purpose. Says the artist, “I think this cooling technology is a really wonderful metaphor for thinking about what the city of Austin is committed to and how we can look at the future of city life, urban planning and how we treat our environment.” “
Environmental protection is not a new aspect in Liu’s work. In one of her previous public art projects, Thirst (2013), she installed a 38 foot tall lifeless tree, a victim of the recent drought, over Lady Bird Lake. The piercing image of a tree impossible to float above water was not only characterized by its mysterious beauty, but also by the way it highlighted the effects of climate change. Located less than a mile from this earlier feat, the Cloud Pavilion also testifies to Liu’s uncanny ability to visualize opposing forces. Their ambitious design integrates the tensions between strength and vulnerability, conservation and consumption, and durability and decay.
When Liu started the Cloud Pavilion project, she wondered how she would infuse this enduring piece with her signature sense of delicacy and temporality. She struggled with the challenge of visualizing a short-lived subject like the water cycle with a rigid, manufactured substance like steel. She asked herself, “How do you talk about something that is fleeting? Or something that is so fragile with something permanent? And how can you make this material, which is industrial and extremely robust, feel vulnerable?”
Liu started answering these questions with the help of a large team. She worked with a local manufacturer, John Christensen, and the Blue Way plumber (who also happens to be her life partner) to create the towering steel structure. After making art alone in her studio for many years, Liu was thrilled to have the experience of working with others. “Being a solo artist is wonderful. And in many ways, it’s less challenging because I make decisions. I ask myself questions and answer them.” But Liu also emphasizes how giving up total artistic control has broadened her thoughts on the space, process, and scope of the work. She insists, “It’s almost like, in some ways, we gain more if we let go.”
Liu’s artwork usually appears and disappears according to the changing exhibition schedules of galleries and museums, which makes her especially proud to have contributed a permanent work of art in Austin, the city she calls home. Liu immigrated to the United States from China when she was 21, but as the city she has lived in for the longest in America, she affectionately calls Austin “a very special place”. “I’ve spent more than half of my life here in this country,” she says. “For me, home is always this duality of the place, where I have the feeling of being here all the time, of getting to know one another and of belonging here. And then I lose the feeling of belonging at home [in China] because when I come to visit again, I feel like a guest. “The process of creating a long-lasting job satisfied Liu’s desire to be rooted, which led her to consider the Cloud Pavilion a defining moment in both her career and personal life.
As significant as this project may be for Liu as an individual, she sees this sculpture primarily as an act of community service. “One thing I really love about a public art project is that it’s about the people, their commitment and their experience, and it doesn’t matter who did the work.” Although the Cloud Pavilion demonstrates their unique thought process, Liu claims that “this is a piece to the city, this is a piece of Austin”. She enjoys her ability to experience the Cloud Pavilion like any other pedestrian, a position that allows her to take in the sculpture as creator and viewer at the same time.
The Cloud Pavilion may embody an artist’s vision, but it also reflects the voices and contributions of a diverse and engaged community. Like a city itself, the sculpture is a symbol of a collective apparatus at work; It is a summary of the efforts of many people to maintain a common infrastructure in which life and art can flourish. The cloud pavilion, like the water it emulates, provides hopeful and satisfying nourishment. Its silver rays indicate bright possibilities, and luckily, it’s here to stay.
A version of this article appeared in print on May 28, 2021 with the headline: A Piece for the City, a Piece of Austin