A wavy metal frame is rising along the river in West Sacramento. What is it?

Workers install a 20-ton steel art piece titled “Subtile” south of the Tower Bridge along the River Walk in West Sacramento on Monday, October 30, 2017 in West Sacramento, Calif.
Workers install a 20-ton steel art piece titled “Subtile” south of the Tower Bridge along the River Walk in West Sacramento on Monday, October 30, 2017 in West Sacramento, Calif. rpench@sacbee.com

For the next two weeks, Czech visual artist Federico Díaz has the tough job of watching – but not touching – as his shimmering 20-ton public art piece “Subtile” is installed along West Sacramento’s river walk near Raley Field.

“Subtile” was built and assembled by Díaz and his team in Prague before being dismantled and shipped to West Sacramento. Now, he and his team are reduced to coaching as West Sacramento workers retrace their steps.

He’s not allowed to reassemble his own art because he doesn’t have American contractors insurance to cover any damage that could occur while erecting the complicated structure along a popular running trail.

Monday was Díaz’s first day on-site along the Sacramento River levee. By early afternoon, workers were ready to use a boom lift to raise and painstakingly lower the third of dozens of undulating side segments into place.

Each piece requires the precision of a moon landing to line up each bolt just right. Workers in hard hats and orange safety vests then hand-tighten nuts. Díaz and two other team members pointed, instructed and consulted as the $500,000 piece slowly took shape.

Díaz’s works have appeared in museums in Tokyo, London, Miami and Shanghai, but this will be his first outdoor public art piece.

Fully assembled, “Subtile” will be 26 feet long, 14 feet high and 6 feet wide. Its complex, wavy structure, formed by steel panels, will be covered by 34,000 stainless steel disks making the object, evocative of a cloud, appear to disappear into the environment at the right distance, Díaz said.

“It will be the most significant public art project we’ve done as a city,” said West Sacramento Mayor Christopher Cabaldon.

The art installation is the latest in the decades-long effort to turn a former industrial zone along the Sacramento River into a hip housing, retail and entertainment district. Cabaldon said the new public art will build on what’s already happening with The Barn outdoor gathering space farther south along West Sacramento’s river walk.

“Subtile” was funded with $394,850 from a state grant aimed at bringing art to areas with low-income housing – the Bridge District includes 70 units of affordable housing at the Rivermark building – and $200,000 in developer fees. Besides paying for the artwork, funds cover installation, landscaping and city overhead.

West Sacramento officials worked with Shelly Willis, former director of Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission, to create the public art selection process. “Subtile” was the unanimous pick, beating out works by San Francisco sound artist Bill Fontana, Brooklyn artist Janet Zweig and Maine sculptor John Bisbee.

The 2016 selection and installation of an $8 million sculpture by artist Jeff Koons outside of Sacramento’s Golden 1 Center faced criticism from residents who said more of that funding should have gone to local artists. Cabaldon said he’s not expecting similar pushback.

The piece is already turning heads as runners, cyclists and residents wonder, “What is that thing?”

Díaz frequently tries to use his work to probe the human understanding of the environment.

“Federico Díaz uses new media – or work made with technology – to make invisible aspects of the natural environment visible,” states the 2015 staff report asking the City Council to approve the selection.

The first week of the build involves connecting the wavy frame core of the structure. The second week involves attaching the 34,000 stainless steel disks to the undulating structure. Each piece will shimmer in the wind.

“The Sacramento River with its originally flourishing ecosystem is a place for hope. Moreover, it’s a place for change; this is the place to show our awareness of the environment we inhabit,” Diaz said in his artist’s statement. “We can’t take back what has already been done, but we can try to make things better for the future.”

Ed Fletcher: 916-321-1269, @NewsFletch

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