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Artist aims to float homemade ark in Duluth harbor

Artist Sean Connaughty’s “Ark of the Anthropocene” is installed for display at the University of Minnesota’s Weisman Art Museum in Minneapolis. The 3,500-pound ark will be placed in the Duluth harbor Sept. 2. (Photo courtesy of Sean Connaughty)1 / 2
Ryan Seibold (from left), Sean Connaughty and Alec MacDougal work on building Connaughty’s “Ark of the Anthropocene” in his backyard in Minneapolis. The ark will be placed in the Duluth harbor on Sept. 2. (Photo courtesy of Sean Connaughty)2 / 2

When a crane hoists the 3,500-pound “Ark of the Anthropocene” into the Duluth harbor on Sept. 2, even the artist behind it isn’t entirely sure what will happen.

“I’ll have done everything I could to make it work,” Sean Connaughty mused. “If it doesn’t, then” — a rueful chuckle — “that would suck.”

Connaughty, who teaches art at the University of Minnesota, has put hundreds of hours since April into his spherically shaped sculpture, 7 feet in diameter, in the backyard of his south Minneapolis home.

“Anthropocene,” some environmentalists say, is the era in which we live today. It refers to a planet altered — in plant and animal extinctions, polluted water and changed atmosphere — by human activity.

The term “ark” might call to mind the biblical Noah’s Ark, in which the book of Genesis says a family of humans and representatives of every species of animal took refuge during a globalflood.

But Connaughty’s purpose is more botanical than zoological.

“I guess it just kind of popped into my head that I wanted to make an ark,” Connaughty said. “Not for animals, but more for plants.”

Connaughty created what he calls a living ecosystem inside his ark, consisting of enriched soil and a variety of plants. Suspended in the ark is a sort of time capsule containing, among other things, carefully selected seeds chosen with the help of his neighbor Ryan Seibold, a landscape architect.

The ark is made of concrete and steel. Its entrance is in the bottom; glass will cover an opening at the top. Connaughty plans to place it in the water near the Great Lakes Aquarium. Kayakers and canoe paddlers might come close enough to peer inside. For everyone else, a camera inside the sphere will relay images via the Internet.

Andy Citerella, the aquarium’s computer electronic technician, agreed to set up a wireless camera on the window facing the bay to give anyone with access to the Internet the ability to see the strange sight of a concrete sphere bobbing in Superior Bay.

The Coast Guard approved his plans, Connaughty said. Although he hopes eventually to install his sculpture in Lake Hiawatha in Minneapolis, the artist wanted to come to Duluth and Lake Superior first.

“Well, it’s the world’s largest freshwater lake, right?” he asked rhetorically. “And I love the lake. I love Duluth. … I just think it’s a beautiful spot.”

The planned Sept. 2 installation will precede an exhibit of Connaughty’s work at the Duluth Art Institute, opening Sept. 11. The exhibit will display earlier, smaller models of the artist’s biosphere concept. The next night, Connaughty will curate a group show at Duluth’s Prove Gallery featuring works by ecologically minded artists, he said.

Anne Dugan, executive and artistic director of the Art Institute, said Connaughty’s art touches on issues such as climate change.

“I think there’s something really childlike and wondrous about his work,” she said.

Connaughty wants people to think about what the ecological future holds, he said.

“With climate change approaching, we’re going to have a lot more water and less land, and we need to start thinking about different ways of protecting what we have,” Connaughty said.

The ark debuted at the University of Minnesota’s Weisman Art Museum in Minneapolis during this year’s all-night Northern Spark art festival.

But it’s meant to be on water, Connaughty said, so the Duluth installation will be the ark’s first real test. He has worked with smaller prototypes and carefully researched his plan.

Still, there’s an element of doubt.

“It’s such a risky, unknown venture to do this,” said Seibold, his neighbor. “Hopefully all the physics play out.”

“Hopefully it’s seaworthy, or at least bay-worthy,” said the Art Institute’s Dugan.

The aquarium’s Citerella said that after studying Connaughty’s website, he was impressed by the artist’s preparation.

“He’s never done it on such a large scale,” Citerella added. “But it seems like it will work.”