The Inside Is Bigger Than the Outside

Some Large-Scale Works at Dia:Beacon

1.

Dia:Beacon is a Narnian space: it’s bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. Nothing in the beautifully designed, box-hedge-bordered parking lot prepares you for the cavernous expanses, on three levels, that unfold behind the museum’s unassuming glass double entry doors. Brobdignagian, my friend and co-conspirator, K. Pangloss, suggested, during a recent visit. And she was, as she so often is, quite correct.

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Now, and for the next two years, the first work you encounter when you enter the museum through those glass doors is Walter De Maria’s expansive 360˚ I Ching/64 Sculptures, all sixty-four of the I Ching’s hexagrams laid out, with meticulous care, on imperial Chinese red carpets. The work takes up two long rooms, mirror images of one another, open at each short end. A large opening in the center of the long wall that separates them allows a sort of energy flow that counters and crosses the assertive linear thrust of the floor-mounted sculptures.

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Dia:Beacon occupies a former Nabisco box printing factory in Hudson, New York, and one of its great pleasures is how the museum’s planners have repurposed various volumes of its total 300,000 square feet as stages for artworks and installations. One especially gratifying aspect of the renovation is the preservation of many of the factory’s original characteristics: distressed wood floors, sliding industrial-scale sliding metal doors, brick and concrete walls, painted or not, ranks of blank Art Deco columns, windows at the tops of walls, rough beams, high ceilings, vaults.

Banks of angled skylights illuminate De Maria’s hexagrams. I appreciate how many of the artworks in the museum are lit by natural light only; artificial light conditions and limits one’s perceptions in ways so fundamental that one is not often aware of them. Pangloss and I visited on an afternoon of heavy cloud and torrential rain, which conferred a uniform, lovely dove-gray light; I imagine that on sunny afternoons, light rays piercing the skylights and windows at various angles, and changing as the day wears on, add another dimension to the experience of the artworks, subjecting them to the random atmospherics of the weather.

Atmospherics turns out to be an important word. I initially resisted the I Ching aspect of De Maria’s work, as a species of facile appropriation and unearned signficance. But Pangloss, who didn’t know from the I Ching, was saddled with fewer conceptual fences, to misquote Alexander Haig. So for her, it was a more purely aesthetic experience, and after spending some time with the work, and seeing it from different vantages, I began to agree.

Pangloss was first taken with the way the light makes bright white highlights on one side of the hexagonal sticks that make up each hexagram. There’s no way to experience this piece except as a complicated, severe, and excessively orderly physical object in space and light. The perfect sheen of the broken and unbroken white sticks, the variations among the recurring patterns of the hexagrams, the careful and mathematical placement of each figure, the blood-red carpet, all contribute to the installation’s formal beauty. By foregrounding these formal elements, De Maria empties the hexagrams of the I Ching of their religious, philosphical, and divinatory properties, and replaces them with purely aesthetic properties.

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Viewed from one end, each carpet violently foreshortens, and the lane between each row of sixteen hexagrams takes on the aspect of a runway. Somehow, the areas of red carpet that peek through the hexagram’s broken lines begin to look like they’re standing up, creating an agreeable trompe l’oeil effect. Seen distantly from another area of the museum (these multiple perspectives, these distant glimpses, are one of the museum’s signal pleasures, and they aren’t accidental), the red of the carpet looks positively pink.

And then you can’t see all of it at once. You have to walk around it, you have to view it in perspective and chiaroscuro. The hexagrams, so regular and precise, suggest the digital; the size and disposition of the whole insists on the analog. It’s a beautiful piece, and I’d see it again, despite my initial misgivings.

 

2.

In the final analysis, 360˚ I Ching/64 Sculptures did not fully convince me. Richard Serra’s Torqued Ellipses, massive curves and spirals forged of two-inch-thick Corten steel, on the other hand, were thoroughly seducing. I include images of the sculptures for form’s sake, but no photograph, not even a good one, can convey even a distant approximation of the experience of standing next to these rusted, twelve-foot-high steel walls. They are unphotographable in part because, like the De Maria, they can’t be seen all at once. You have to walk around them, and into and out of them, to fully apprehend them.

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Movement and time are integral to the experience, such that the very act of viewing the sculptures constructs a sort of narrative—a narrative conditioned by the sculptures, rather than told by them, a narrative that exists in the interplay between the object and its viewer. You’d assume that massive, industrially forged hunks of metal would create a massively impersonal impression, but because every viewer’s experience is by definition unique—because, indeed, every viewing is unique—the sculptures acquire a personal dimension that I found delightfully contradictory and unexpected.

The divide between the impersonal and the personal is one of many such divides that the Torqued Ellipses traverse. The interplay of hidden and revealed is also integral to the experience; the inner spaces, invisible through solid walls and around sharp curves, reveal themselves singly and sequentially, like a series of linked caves or the prayer cells deep inside a monastery. The sinuous walls, slate gray or rust umber, suggest slot canyons, especially with the light coming in from the high windows in the enormous warehouse-like room in which four of the ellipses have been placed, steely cheek by steely jowl. There’s also something inescapably religious about the ellipses’ empty inner spaces, as if walking into them or through them enacted a sort of initiation.

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Pangloss noted that Serra seems to have treated some of the steel surfaces. The black-clad gallery dude she asked about it said that the type of steel that Serra uses is designed to develop a patina of rust, and will do so, outdoors or indoors, without any intervention on the artist’s part. Yet I have to agree with Pangloss: Serra seems to have scored the steel surfaces in places, or distressed them with – acid, perhaps? The effect is subtle in the sense that the colossal volumes of steel tend to drive out all other considerations. But the treatments convey an impression of intimate engagement with the material, manifesting and embracing yet another antithesis.

It’s gratifying enough to be able to touch an artwork; rather than signs and museum guards forbidding so much as a close approach, Serra’s ellipses positively invite the laying on of hands and the knocking on with knuckles, although the latter is somewhat disappointing, as the solid steel emits a dull thud rather than a satisying clangor. Really, there’s not much that a person could do to damage these rugged-as-a-ship’s-hull behemoths. You could probably drive your car into one of them without causing any damage, except to your car. All the more surprising, then, to discover that the surfaces of the steel, treated and untreated, feel smooth and supple, if rather cool. Another pleasing contradiction: these outsized, industrial, inorganic things have a sleekness evocative of human skin. If you think this statement sounds a little batty, I respond: go there, touch them, and see for yourself.

“Thrilling” may be overused to describe exciting experiences of art, but if it applies anywhere, it applies to Serra’s Torqued Ellipses. The size, material, proximity, and flexing of space work together to create a visceral effect. I mean this literally: walking next to and around the ellipses, I experienced a thrilling sensation in my body, independent both of feeling and of intellectual considerations. Which is to say that the ellipses have a commanding presence. What I find remarkable about this presence is that it welcomes and embraces, where it ought to overwhelm and deflect: Serra has managed to make tons of twisted steel seem both elegant and feather-light. Towering over your head, the curvaceous steel walls feel like protective wings, or the arms of an understanding friend—a profoundly human, and humane, experience.

Both the De Maria and Serra pieces do what many recent works do: they foreground the details of the production as a technical exercise. Any large painted canvas does this, suggesting the ladders, scaffolding, ropes and pulleys, or other, invented methods that the artist may have employed. I imagine an entire essay could be written (or has been written) on the significance of insisting on including the means of construction as part of an artwork’s aesthetic presentation. Our age is a highly technical one, after all, one in which technical accomplishment itself can be recognized and appreciated. But there’s more to the subversion of technical means to artistic ends than simple awe or pleasure.

In any case, the De Maria insists on its precision as an aesthetic component. How did he cut and position the broken and unbroken lines of the hexagrams so perfectly? Is there a specific mathematical formula or ratio that he used to space them on their carpets? How were the pieces that he used for the lines cut so perfectly? Were they machined? And what are they made of: highly varnished painted wood? styrofoam? white plastic? The Serra makes you ask different sorts of questions about its prodution. The obvious one is, How the hell did he do that? There’s no doubt that the steel had to have been worked in a large and very specifically outfitted facility. There’s also no doubt that the artist must have managed a fairly large group of steelworkers and other professionals. How did he plan for and achieve the specific curves and angles of the walls? Then there’s the question of how one can transport and place objects of such weight and size.

Whatever theory one could adduce to detail the meaning of technique as aesthetic element, it’s clear that De Maria and Serra emphasize the methods of production to opposite effect: De Maria foregrounds the difficulty of the enterprise, while Serra makes the whole process of fabricating his massive works seem effortless.

Next: Dan Flavin, Robert Irwin