Tag Archives: Walter De Maria

Between a Rock and a Car Place

Arslocii – this blog, the eponymous website, the concept itself – is, as we point out often, about pairings and duality, conjoined opposites combined in mutual impact, yin and yang, this and not this. Last installment, in writing about two quite different gardens, we discussed dominance over vs. partnership with the land, and light/dark, or sun/shadows.

With a little more time for reflection, we realize that we overlooked one important duo of elements that, frankly, lie at the heart of nearly every arslocii, not always but often acting as the key to the appreciation of the wedded art and site, not always but often the catalyst for drawing our attention to something special – bringing us into the tent, so to speak.

And that element is – surprise! – surprise, or, rather, the combo of expectation and surprise. This pairing – like the two terminals of a highly charged battery – is what gives us the jolt that causes us to be swept up by, say, a movie or play that we’ve been dragged to see against our better judgment, or by a book that we’ve had recommended to us but which we’ve avoided sinking into, or by a work of fine art that we believe is painfully outside our usual comfort zone … or even by a person who seems so unlikely to be someone we could be even remotely interested in – until we realize, recognize, that this is The One. Low expectations/high surprise, leading to the discovery of something new in the world that speaks to something deep within us –the shock of the new that makes contact with the shock of essential recognition. The assumption shattered by the out-of-left-field revelation, or challenge, or empathetic response. A contribution to placeness, and arslocii.

We think back on some of our intersections with arslocii subjects, and surprise-over-expectation is nearly always an aspect contributing to our receptivity and to its unforgettable nature: climbing the stairs and turning the corner to see Walter De Maria’s Earth Room, expecting to view no more than some artsy, ‘70s, one-note gimmick of a New York City office space filled with dirt – but finding, instead, a shocking space of noble silence, referential beauty and, remarkably, emotion; turning another corner (not a necessary action, this corner-turning, but a frequently surprise-inducing one) and being awed by the power of presence of a hulking Richard Serra piece, indoors, an unlikely captive in an enclosed Dia:Beacon hallway, both squeezed by the space and expanding it, defining the multiple implications of the word “enthralled”; walking through a parking lot of a featureless apartment complex, trying to find, hidden there, what’s left of Andrew Jackson Downing’s and Calvert Vaux’s Springside, expecting nothing but the weak suggestion of a once grand estate shoved now out of sight and left to ruin, like an afterthought forced upon a begrudging community – only to discover a magical, ghostly spot, perhaps the most placeness-redolent place we have come across in our journeys.

What brought up all this thinking about expectation vs. surprise was a visit we made to an auto mechanic new to us. (A note: One of the founding principles of arslocii – stated in what amounts to a manifesto of sorts – is that what we would delve into would be “intentional sites,” made interesting because of the “meaningful placement” of architecture, art and/or designed landscape.” Those were guiding tenets at the start, but if you’ve been paying attention, you’ll have noticed that we’ve deviated from the original goal, and have found “placeness as art” in unintentional, accidental situations – in familiar sounds, for example, or in deceased relatives’ empty apartments – because a) our definition of “art” (if not “placeness”) has mutated over time to include the unintentional and the idea that “art” is something defined by being observed as much or more than by being purposely created, that art is a construct in the beholder and can include the incidental, the random and the unguided; and because b) these unintentional art-placeness places often have the highest level of surprise to them, and pleasure. Ergo, what follows.)

So – this visit to the mechanic. The garage and office reside in a low-slung building just outside the city limits on a twisty road that is home to various auto-service and -rental businesses, and other miscellaneous fringe enterprises. The garage/office “complex” is set to the back of a typically desolate, hard-surface stretch of cars and used-to-be cars, those being saved and those being cannibalized, accompanied by the sounds and smells and measured motion of any auto-repair shop – this one with a face towards the road and its back snuggled up against the high, craggy cliff-wall of a former quarry.

Having left our no-longer-sturdy, ancient van to be “rejuvenated” there some days before, we returned to discuss a few things and to communicate a few fears and desires to the garage’s owners, a middle-age couple, both well versed in the workings of cars but the man the chief mechanic. As we stood with him by the van, which was parked out in the car lot/boneyard, we noticed, in a large-ish nearby plot of land … a huge food garden, blanketed in protective black plastic and sprouting squash and peppers and tomatoes, basil and oregano and other herbs, and more – all this, adjacent to car carcasses and pools of oil and strewn auto parts. 

We expressed our amazement, to the mechanic’s obvious delight, and, in his thick, almost stereotypically theatrical foreign accent, he told us to follow him around behind the garage building – and, there, he gestured above him. On a rocky rise, against the stripped quarry wall, sat a structure, looking, at quick glance, for all the world like a Neutra or Irving Gill in the Hollywood hills, or like James Mason’s fantasy Modernist villa, pendent over Mount Rushmore, in North by Northwest. But this structure we were gazing up at was vague and diaphanous, and momentarily unprocessable, due to an expectation/surprise disconnect. For there, looking down on the greasy ugliness of the shop and the busy byway beyond was, astonishingly, a sprawling, glittering greenhouse.

The mechanic led the way, pointing out on our path the kiwi tree, and the persimmon, and the fig. And, climbing up and into the greenhouse, he casually but proudly guided us around his Eden of blooming and ripening fruits and vegetables, and, among them, trees bearing lemons the size of grapefruit. So much vibrant and colorful life a wrench’s throw from a revving engine and the haze of exhaust. He gave us one of the lemons, and back home it was practically sufficient by itself to make a quart of lemonade. And it was delicious.

Expectation – an auto repair shop. Surprise – a crystal cathedral between a garage and a cliff, burgeoning with food and life. And more – somehow, subconsciously, likely unintentionally, the mechanic had, in this alien terrain, collected up then deconstructed his Mediterranean world and recreated it, writ small, here. A work of personal art if we’d ever seen one, creating an arslocii full of biography and psychology, love and longing, and an assertion of placeness that not only defied and denied the distance from his homeland but reified the essence of it. For that moment, he shared with us his place, and wherever it was he wanted to be, we were there, too, full of wonder … and surprise.

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The Light Fantastic

My whole life I have been drawn to light. Not like a moth is, for celestial navigation (although I am a moon-watcher), but I am definitely positively phototactic. Some of my least-favorite fellow creatures are negatively phototactic; so, given the choice between light and dark, I will always go with light.

Drawn as I am to glowing things, I’ve become aware of the varied qualities of light. Natural light is best because of its color range. And there are those special lighting effects that the sun can produce: the translucent backlighting of leaves – both spring and fall foliage have their unique attributes; the glint of light on stone revealing its crystalline or mica structures; reflections and movement on a water’s surface, and sometimes down into its depths; rays breaking through cloud curtains and extending like searchlights onto the earth; glistening silica particles sparkling in sand or grass; a rainbow, a miraculous fracturing of light; the orange fanfare of the sun’s rising and setting; the moon’s shine at night; a stream of light with its thousands of floating particles, like a glimpse into the beginnings of life itself; the Northern Lights, which I must someday see; and even something as mundane as the warm glow cast on a telephone pole.

Not sun-related, but light-significant, too, are: lightning, a powerful emanation of the original electric light; fireflies and their glowing signals, like tiny lighthouses of the sky; candle flames, doing their own peculiar dance of life; the color and warmth of a full-blown fire, and too, the glowing red embers that fight for survival as it fades.

These very qualities of light can create placeness in nature, a symbiotic alteration of site or space that is sometimes momentary. But if you are there to witness it or experience it, a moment may be all that’s required. It must be this sensory phenomenon that induces artists to try to recreate it or capture it in some way. Certain artists work with artificial light, attempting to mimic the effects of natural light. Dan Flavin used industrial fluorescent tubes, which to me are the anti-light, but painted them and clustered them so that the colors bleed and interact much in the same way that the color spectrum does. (See The Dan Flavin Institute entry on our arslocii website.) Or there is Olafur Eliasson, whose theories are made manifest by hugely proportioned installations designed to alter or challenge the viewer’s perceptions. Science aside, I viewed his piece, “Your Color Memory,” at Arcadia University in 2006. Once you entered the large rotunda built inside a cavernous building, you were enveloped in light. Not static light, but rather light in constant flux, changing color, density and brightness. Whereas Flavin’s piece was like entering a rainbow, this one was akin to walking through the Northern Lights (I imagine). There was nothing in this space except light, and it had such presence, such placeness. It was like a full-body treatment for SAD; my cone photoreceptors were in overdrive, and it lifted my mood as if some sort of laughing gas was being pumped in through the heating ducts.

Other artists try to capture natural light. James Turrell comes to mind, having started his career using artificial light inside to create an altered sense of interior space. Then he started opening up holes to the sky to work with sunlight and star-viewing. In his largest project, Roden Crater, which is ongoing for more than thirty years, he is turning a meteor crater into a celestial observatory, pulling the light of both day and night through an elliptical occulus for its effects within the crater’s space and on the viewer, and causing it to have a physicality. And Walter De Maria’s “Lightning Field”: a flat expanse of upright steel rods that attract lightning down to the high desert ground, its effect likened to, once again, the Northern Lights. The regularity and density of the metal receptors create the possibility of the electrical energy bouncing off the rods as in a pinball game as it tilts with each attraction.

Each of these artists is a place-maker, using light, just as our eyes do, to create shape, color, space, sensory experience, a physical presence, out of thin air. It is the ultimate in placeness, turning something immaterial into something “real.” There is a kind of alchemy in this process, and it is totally natural. It is said that water is the source of life itself, but for me, it is light – whether in its natural creations or the human-made ones. Without light, there would be nothingness.


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