Peekskill Herald

Peekskill Herald

Peekskill Herald

Serge Onnen’s sculpture remains alive and well in Peekskill

Dutch artist comes back after 15 years to repair Planetariummonetarium

Whether  you’ve been in Peekskill for ten minutes or for ten years, you are probably familiar with the mysterious, interactive sculpture on the Peekskill Waterfront that looks like that WWII mine that washed up on the shores of Gilligan’s Island. Since moving here in 2015, I’ve taken many pictures next to (and inside) Planetariummonetarium (as it’s officially known), and I’ve always been intrigued by its origins, aesthetic, and seemingly universal appeal. Who was the artist? What inspired the name? How did the piece even get to Peekskill?

I was delighted when the answers to those questions dropped, quite literally, in my inbox last month. 

Serge Onnen, the artist who conceived and created Planetariummonetarium,  happened to find me via my bio in the Peekskill Herald. He had written to let me know he’d be in town in June to fix up his work and invited me to stop by.  Serge had no idea about my minor obsession with his piece. 

Two years ago, I started my local journalism adventure to engage with the community and connect with the people, organizations, and businesses to get a better feel for how things work here on the Hudson. So getting that message from Serge out of the blue was a cool reminder that Peekskill and true local reporting both have extensive reach.

Serge Onnen is a French-born Dutch artist, currently based in Brussels, where he makes his living as an artist. I caught up with him on the Peekskill Waterfront on June 6 as he was restoring Planetariummonetarium, which was installed in 2009. He talked me through his plans for the fix-up and, rather than interrupt his process with my questions, I thought it best to let him do his thing, then email him later to get his takes. Serge is exactly what one hopes for in an artist (and human): he has a jovial manner, a playful curiosity, and a contagious joie de vivre. He’s fun to follow on Instagram and I can’t thank him enough for his generosity in sharing his thoughts on Peekskill, his work, and how they intersect with his only public art piece.  


What is your impression of Peekskill? How many times have you stopped by to see Planetariummonetarium? 

Since the piece has been up, I’ve passed by, each time I get a chance. The last time was 2022 and every time I’m here I see people inside the sculpture enjoying the kaleidoscopes.

The piece was meant to be in place for 2 years as part of a celebration of Dutch history in the Hudson Valley. How did you get involved in the project back in 2009? How do you feel your piece fit into the show? How do you see Planetariummonetarium fitting into the waterfront as you experience it today? 

I’ve been doing exhibitions and projects in New York and the rest of the country for many years, so when the people of Hudson Valley Art Centre who were organizing the exhibition were looking around at Dutch artists they were, of course, also looking at artists that had a relationship with New York.  So, when I was approached , I took a train to Peekskill and was very impressed by the waterfront. The river is very wide at this point, making it a very spacious experience of water, nature and a lot of sky.

When I was asked to come with a proposal, this idea came quite easily. The idea of a planetarium is to recreate endless space inside a dome and show the magnificence of our solar system, the stars and the planets. A kaleidoscope creates a different kind of endlessness and so does our monetary system, that is represented by a selection of coins from around the globe. Some of them are not in circulation anymore, but still visible. Like a dead star.

The artpiece was funded with Dutch taxpayers money, manufactured in Amsterdam, shipped over here, and assembled and painted in Peekskill by me. I’m still the owner of the piece.

You said you were restoring some of the kaleidoscopes and cleaning up the pennies on the inside – what needed the most work and what did you ultimately decide on when it came to the graffiti? Did anything surprise you about the condition of the piece after 15 years? 

Well, the piece was never made to stay here this long. But to my big surprise, it has survived several hurricanes on top of the already quite extreme NY weather. So, in general I would say, the piece, which has 10 moving parts, looks pretty good. The damaged kaleidoscopes we repaired, we still need to lubricate some more, so that everybody can turn them without too much effort. A few coins have been scratched off, we have replaced those and polished them all. I’ve decided to leave the graffiti. Not that I’m such a fan, but I was touched by the fact that there had also been a lot of covering up of graffiti with blue paint. So, a lot is going on there, people from the community use this tiny dome for all kinds of confessions and marks. It’s being used in ways I couldn’t imagine, it’s alive. I just saw some newlyweds having their pictures taken here, they had their first kiss inside my piece! It’s touching. 

Why did you decide to return to Peekskill to bring a little new life and polish to Planetariummonetarium? 

I receive every now and then messages from folks from around this area or that they tag me in their social media posts. A few months ago a local fireman updated me about the poor condition of some of the kaleidoscopes, so that triggered me to come over and do a big check up. So together with my New York friend Ethan Crenson, who likes to come around here to look for mushrooms and check out my piece, we came to clean and fix.

You told me this is your only public work – how do you feel about the experience and seeing your art being enjoyed by so many people with unrestricted access? Do you have a different perception of your public work vs. the rest of your art? 

Well, that’s an interesting question. Doing public art is truly for the whole community, meaning also people who never get in touch with art, for all kinds of reasons, can look at it and experience it. This sculpture invites the viewer to get inside it and then, to close one eye and peek with the other eye inside. This experience brings the viewer suddenly into a totally different world. The micro space of tiny drawings inside a kaleidoscope that he can manipulate endlessly, and creating a little private show while being in the public space. Each and every experience is totally different from one another. This interaction is of course very direct and playful, that aspect of playfulness makes it very accessible for everyone. That’s not the most important aspect of my work, but it works out well here. I’m interested in using these simple pre-cinema devices such as the kaleidoscope, zootrope, etc . Also coins come back quite often in my work. I’ve made a book about and a shadow puppet animation about the cent. The smallest of all currencies. 

Now that it’s been here for 15 years, what do you think the future holds for Planetariummonetarium?

Well, it’s not for me to decide, but I wouldn’t mind if it would stay here. I have the feeling that it belongs here in Peekskill. 

What do you hope people walk away with after spending some time with Planetariummonetarium here on the banks of the Hudson?

That they want to return and check it out again. That’s what good art should do; fascinate and become part of someone’s life.

About the Contributor
Steve Pavlopoulos
Steve Pavlopoulos is a freelance writer, producer and journalist based in Cortlandt. After various stints in music and pop culture-related video programming, he enjoys contributing to local news and covering the people, places and events that make Peekskill a "friendly town" and so much more. A native of Clinton, Connecticut (the Bluefish Capital of the World), Steve graduated from UConn where he definitely did not play basketball (despite attending every home game his freshman year). He is a member of the Board of Trustees at the Hendrick Hudson Free Library and once flew halfway around the world covering a pop superstar's 7 show tour of 7 countries in 7 days.