Artist Melissa McGill brought a glowing installation to Pollepel Island, New York’s, fire-ravaged Bannerman Castle. The effect? Drawing attention to “parts of the castle that aren’t there anymore.”

By Alina Cohen
July 13, 2015
Credit: John Huba

In late June, artist Melissa McGill stood on a dock off the Metro North train in Beacon, New York, to head by boat to the unveiling of her installation, called Constellation, around the ruins of Bannerman Castle on nearby Pollepel Island. The castle, actually a military surplus warehouse built in the style of a castle, was erected in the early 1900s by a Gilded Age businessman Francis Bannerman. After an explosion in 1920, a fire left it in ruins in the 1960s.

“I moved from Brooklyn to Beacon eight years ago,” said McGill, explaining what attracted her to the island and inspired her to construct work among the bricks and trees. “I’d see these ruins, this fragment, from the train when I went into the city.”

She began to wonder about the castle’s folklore, the multiple truths and versions of history that people had created over the years. “I was immediately drawn to the intangible unknowns and the questions raised,” she said. “Even the most basic—what to call this place—is interesting. The ruins lead you to ask what else is missing. What other cultures have been here before?”

Credit: Rob Penner

McGill’s project aims to commemorate what is now missing. Inside the remaining structure and among the surrounding trees, McGill and her team have mounted 17 poles topped with hand-blown glass globes. Every evening for two hours, solar-powered LEDs in the orbs light up one by one, like stars in a constellation. McGill painted the poles so that they disappear as the sky darkens. This creates the illusion that the lights are floating in space like celestial bodies.

She carefully selected the locations for the poles and points of light, referring to the original structure of the castle with their path. The formation also references the idea of the Lenape people, who used to inhabit the region, of “Opi Tamakan”—an equivalent of our concept of the Milky Way that connects our world to the spirit world.

McGill signed a two-year permit for Constellation. “My hope is that it will linger in people’s minds after it’s gone. It’ll exist through memory, in your mind’s eye. People remember parts of the castle that aren’t there anymore. They imagine what was there before, whether they’ve seen old photographs or the castle before it was destroyed.”

Credit: Meredith Heuer