Get Knotted: Israeli-American Artist Explains Why She Covered a Manhattan Park in 1.4m Feet of Rope

Orly Genger's "Red, Yellow and Blue," three woolly walls erected in the middle of Madison Square Park, functions as a kind of breakwater amid the city's tides.

Avital Burg
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Avital Burg

It’s noon on a lovely spring day in Madison Square Park, one of the busiest places in New York City. As the lunchtime crowds come down from their offices to throng the park, salad containers in hand, they quickly forget the commotion around them. The reason: Orly Genger’s latest installation, "Red, Yellow and Blue," three walls made of 1.4 million feet of knotted rope that create intimate, quiet spaces inside one of Manhattan’s most crowded parks.

The interview takes place at the foot of the blue segment. The stunning visuals here simply beg for description: the artist, a petite woman in an orange dress with matching earrings, standing in front of the gleaming blue of the sculpture, the green lawn and the most beautiful sunlight one could ask for.

Genger, 34, is the daughter of Israeli parents. In a career of slightly more than a decade she has compiled an impressive professional resumé that includes a solo show at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, an installation at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art and permanent exhibits at the Larissa Goldston Gallery in New York, which represents her, and other U.S. galleries.

In 2003, Genger participated in the Haifa Second International Installation Triennale, at the Haifa Museum of Art.

"Red, Yellow and Blue" was conceived two and a half years ago, after the president of the Madison Square Park Conservancy, Debbie Landau, asked Genger to create a work for the park. The first thing Genger did was to spend time looking around the park, in order to come up with a site-specific idea for it.

"There were a few things I noticed about the park. One was I felt that the ground was very flat, and I wanted to give the park a vertical element. Another thing that I noticed was that because the park is situated between east and west portions, people used the park a lot to commute. They seemed to have their usual routes that they stick to, and I wanted to break that up."

Grenger decided to break that pattern by giving people a reason to linger in the park, to walk around in the spaces she created and to spend time there. Since this was a work of sculpture in the public space that invited touching — and where touching was allowed — it quickly became an integral part of the park for the people who frequented it.

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Part of Orly Genger's 'Red, Yellow and Blue.'Credit: Natan Dvir
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Part of Orly Genger's "Red, Yellow and Blue."Credit: Reuters
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Orly Genger, on her installation in New York's Madison Square Park.Credit: Natan Dvir

As Genger planned, each of the three walls functions as a kind of breakwater amid the city’s tides, and each wall, with its own color and shape, has its own specific character, and visitors interact with it in a unique way.

The yellow part is the waviest and most inviting segment for families with children. Many people sit on its lower portions. They are lower than the parts of the red section that are closes to the ground. The blue area, which is of uniform height, is the quietest part, and the most conducive to lying down on the grass below or using the ropes as a backrest, and reading.

While building the rope walls took up most of the past two and a half years, the first challenge was finding the 430 kilometers of rope that the project required (which, as the promotional materials noted repeatedly, is around 20 times the length of Manhattan).

Genger used to use climbing rope for her sculptures, but it became too costly. She found an alternative when she contacted the Gulf of Maine Lobster Foundation, which collects used lobster rope from fishermen.

"The initial reason I started using lobster rope was purely economical ... there was a beautiful bonus in that we were recycling material that otherwise would have just been thrown to the bottom of the ocean," she says.

The process of collecting the rope from lobstermen along the Eastern Seaboard took a very long time, Genger recalls. The real work began only when it arrived.

"The rope was delivered to me in large boxes, on pallets. It came fresh from the ocean, wet, with the smell of the ocean and with fish bones and fish scales and lobster claws tangled inside of it. When I got shipments in winter, the rope would arrive frozen, with snow on top of it. There was a lot of earth, too in the ropes, and it was all tangled. So it was a major process just untangling the rope so we could use it. I worked on unknotting the ropes all day long, with a team of assistants."

The hard work of tying knots in the ropes by hand is very important to Genger. She describes the process at length, recalling that she worked at unraveling tangles of rope and knotting them every single day. It seems that if she had been able to, she would have done it all herself.

"The labor and the physical work are important parts of my process. I knotted a lot of the rope, but not all of it. If I’d knotted all of it, we might see it in 10 years." At first Genger worked with a single assistant. By the end she had seven people working with her, knotting rope all day, every day.

Genger’s studio in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint neighborhood became a kind of production line for knotting rope. A shipment of rope would arrive, and after it was knotted into flat, wide strips, it would be sent to a warehouse to make room for the next batch.

"The two and a half years of work in the studio was mostly about production, about producing enough material of the right size and colors so that when I got to the site to install, I’d have enough material to work with," she says.

Building the installation in the park took two weeks. She created the sculptures by placing one strip of rope on top of another, which she compared to building with bricks — only in her case, no two "bricks" were alike.

For the Madison Square Park installation, Genger chose the three primary colors, one for each part of the work. She says, "Each piece, I think, calls for a different use of color. Here, I wanted each one to have its own character, and I chose the primary colors because they’re so accessible to people, psychologically. The colors were also originally inspired by Barnett Newman's series ‘Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue?’ from the late 1960s."

Getting dirty

Even if Genger’s own body is not part of the sculpture in Madison Square Park, it is still present. "One of the things that happens when people view the work is that they immediately start imagining what it took to make the work. I think that because the process was such an important part of this work in some way it references performance art."

The road that led her to rope knotting began with an enchantment with the motion of tying knots.

"I started crocheting when I was studying in Chicago, and I felt stuck with the kind of sculpture I was making at the time. I saw somebody crocheting with a hook, and I became mesmerized by the movement of the hook. I thought I could do that movement with my finger, and take the hook out of the picture."

Genger's father is Arie Genger, an Israeli-born businessman who immigrated to the United States. Arie Genger, a close friend and adviser of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, is a former owner of Haifa Chemicals.

As reported in Israeli financial newspaper Calcalist in 2008, Arie Genger lost his controlling stake in TR Investors, the company through which he owned Haifa Chemicals, when his son Sagi sold his shares in it, without his knowledge, to South African businessmen Eddie and Jules Trump (no relation to Donald), former partners of Arie Genger. (According to the same report, Orly Genger also owned stock in the company.)

Arie Genger's name has also come up in what has come to be known as the Cyril Kern affair, involving allegations that Sharon received millions of dollars illicitly from foreign sources .

In 2007 Haaretz reported that Dalia Genger, Orly’s mother and Arie’s ex-wife, was suing several people, including her ex-husband as well as Ariel Sharon's son Gilad Sharon, claiming they fraudulently withdrew funds from the couple's community property before the divorce.

Orly Genger flatly refuses to talk about her family or to comment on any affair to which her father’s name has been linked. Even when she is asked, in the context of her art, about her parents’ art collection and how it inspired her, she answers briefly that she has no specific memory of any work from the collection.

What she says she does recalls about her childhood in New York is that she was a "shyer" child who found refuge in drawing as something she could do on her own, and that she used to go to art shows frequently. She began sculpting while studying at Brown University, as part of a growing interest in working with her hands, "getting dirty" and creating large works of art.

"Even when I started making art in high school, I tended to do projects that were more challenging for me physically ... I'd always made art and liked it, but I never knew or thought about doing it for the rest of my life, I think because I didn’t know how that would happen. But when I was in college the passion for making work became so overpowering that it became obvious to me that I needed at least to try because it was what I really wanted to do, and whether it would work for me or not at that point didn't matter, I had to try."

One of the things that led Genger to the insight that art was her profession was seeing Robert Rauschenberg's "Combines" scuptures at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

"When I saw his work, that was the first time it dawned on me that I could do anything, and the thought that I could do anything was amazing for me, because why wouldn’t you want to be in a field where you could do anything?

"Suddenly I realized there were no limitations, I could just make whatever I could think of. It was the most liberating and exciting feeling I could think of."

Orly Genger, on her installation in New York's Madison Square Park.Credit: Natan Dvir