In a shameless act of intellectual recycling, I’ve dusted off this essay about the sculpture park Storm King in upstate New York and posted it here, to capitalize on the buzz about large-scale public art Christo’s Gates has generated around here.
Storm King promotes itself as an “unusual museum,” one which turns nature into a kind of enclosing space, that turns landscape into a backdrop, that changes the natural into a design element. This remaking of nature may be more audacious, finally, than the monumental sculptures, which are generally banal. They all seem to strive for the sublimity of size; they seek to cow and awe their spectators, dwarf them, humble them with sculpture whose construction is inconceivable to the average person. The sublime is always about the unknowable, but the mysteries conjured by these giant metal monstrosities are not the spiritual questions that the moody landscapes painted in the 18th century inspired. Those paintings tried to imitate natural wonders, remind the viewer of things he can know first hand; they sought to remind their viewers of God’s creative work, and its inherent beauty. This could be seen in mountain views, in cloud formations, in the play of sunlight across a brook or batch of trees. I was thinking about this lying on the grass beneath a work called “Suspended,” by Menashe Kadishman, which consisted of two large box shapes, each about 30 feet tall, balanced precariously against each other. These were far less compelling than the clouds crossing the sky, which lent themselves more readily to the active shaping of my imagination – I sought to give sense and order to the natural forms, sometimes seeing representations of faces or things, sometimes seeing unlikely symmetries and harmonious formal congruities.
I assume one is supposed to respond similarly to these large abstract sculptures, but they seem more like intellectual exercises to me. They make me consider questions of what constitutes art: what differentiates these piles of metal scraps from something one might see on a construction site, for instance? Is it the artists’ intention alone? Is it the designation of museum space for these things? Should one leave inspired, as I was, to see the sculptural aspects of random man-made piles and of striking natural scenes?
I felt there was something inhuman about the scale of these works, something hubristic and off-putting. They seemed like monuments to evil, sites to conduct rituals intended to make people feel like robots – all of these sculptures testify to modern techniques of industrial design, and these things inevitably call up notions of dehumanization through mechanization. The titles of some of these works tell the story: “Gox #4,” “Parenthetical Zero,” “Five Open Squares Gyratory Gyratory,” “Volton XX,” “Expansive Construction,” “Petaloid,” “Eight Positive Trees.” It can’t be a coincidence that birds refuse to perch on these sculptures. No amount of careful placement can make these objects seem to belong in the natural environment. Their function is to undermine the beauty of the natural environment, make the natural environment appear incomplete, blank, devoid of significance without humankind’s radical intervention. It has the eerie feeling of a golf course, where the flags on the greens have been replaced by these crazy sculptures, and the quiet, white couples walking to and from them are chasing some imaginary idea rather than a golf ball. What are they after? A feeling of being “there” in a transformed space? A reminder of how we can dominate nature? I don’t know – it seemed to me that all the people there were hypnotized; they had all taken part in some awful ceremony at the foot of one of these contraptions where they worshipped the spirit of welding or something. These are engineering feats, and perhaps people want to worship such things that make modern life possible; maybe these abstract functionless engineering feats purify those feats, make them available only as wonders rather than as practical notions that allow tasks to be accomplished. As wonders alone, they can touch us spiritually they way we want them to, so that we can feel some kind of harmony with the world we have created for ourselves – this reminds me of another idea I have about Las Vegas as a modern American shrine (not a new idea, I guess, but I’m not interested in the supposed freedom of Vegas as much as I am interested in the remaking of a desolate, “blank” landscape into an environment only Americans can appreciate as natural, inviting).
This kind of art, as its starting point, rejects organicism, rejects representational realism; perhaps those are qualities that affirm “humanity”, at least affirm a scale of human action that makes it appear meaningful – some art celebrates small, slight gestures, gestures of which we are all capable, and dignifies those acts. These sculptures mock such activity; they intend to stun one into a feeling of sensory futility. One literally cannot see all there is of these pieces; one is constantly approaching them, looking all around them, trying to integrate different views – this links them to cubist art, another art form that rejects an integrative vision. Cubist painting, if I understand it right, presents multiple points of view on a subject simultaneously – the object seen from different angles, and in different conceptual ways (as object, as symbol, as metonym) at the same time. This underscores the impossibility of knowing a thing completely, of placing its relevance in some context with any certainty. This may be the sad truth, but art needn’t necessarily provide unpleasant truths to qualify as art.
The Watts Towers provide a useful contrast to this sort of art. The Watts Towers are in a ghetto in the Los Angeles area, built out of concrete and shiny trash by an immigrant mason with no formal training. Driven apparently by some inner compulsion, the builder let the towers grow organically, spending his spare time collecting bits of colored glass and broken ceramic and porcelain to add to his construction. So this work is in harmony with its environment, made out of found items, and built organically without a master plan. As such, it seems human in scale despite its size – one can see the artistic obsession behind it in its meticulous detail. No patina of formal training, or formally trained ways of seeing impede themselves between an observer and the work. Usually I would never make this kind of anti-intellectual argument, but I love folk art, I love the absence of pretension, and self-centered thinking that consumes the modern avant-garde artist, who is sure of her own relevance and cultural capital as taste-maker for the bourgeoisie. It maybe that Storm King reeks of the art business, of the construction of public-sized works of art with little input from the public they are designed to accommodate. There is something crass about the attempts at taste making at that scale – it is not the scale created by obsession, but instead a scale created by egotism.
Ultimately, I think those large sculptures are about distance and distancing. They appropriate to themselves the space around them, and make it hallowed, daunting, silent. They discourage the kinds of activities one would like to associate with public space: conversation, debate, thoughtfulness. One feels they can never be close enough, or far enough away from these things. They are sculptures for a society that has collectively rejected the notion of public space, and they stand a monumental mockeries of the idea of community.