Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Landscape is Sculpture

Most of us grow up, live, and work in boxes throughout our whole life.   Some of us are lucky enough to have space around or near our boxes, be it private, shared, or public.   We call people who design, arrange, and modify the appearance of the spaces landscaper.   As its focus is on the visual features of a space, landscaping naturally lends itself to visual art and it has incorporated sculptures traditionally. Yet, artists don’t usually work with landscaping for one reason or other and we don't usually think of a landscape as a whole an art.  Further, the mentioning of the word of sculpture usually brings one the traditional image of a three dimensional object such as a statue or a vessel etc.  

An hour north of New York City, there is a less known, small but fabulous museum called DIA: Beacon on the east bank of Hudson River.  The museum was open 10 years ago after private citizens, non-profit organizations, and state and local government came together to make the conversion happen of this 300,000 square foot 1929 former box printing factory of Nabisco's.  In addition to some spectacular collections as one expects with a major museum, what makes this museum special is its garden, its parking lot as well as the all natural lights in most galleries, respecting and preserving much of the original factory layout.  All this was made possible due to the effort of one of the most influence contemporary American artists Robert Irwin, a pioneer of the Light and Space movement of the 1960's. (For a more complete account of the design, see Chap 22 of Lawence Weschler's 2009 book Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing one Sees: expanded edition.)

As one drove down the road and entered the parking lot, one was not greeted by usual rows of boring metal boxes called vehicles in English speaking world.  Rather, one sees a painting.  A painting in a large canvas of crabapples groves interspersed with randomly colored boxes which are floating and waving above ornament grasses at the whispers of wind.   

As one being led by allée of trees towards to the museum entrance, one’s eyes get attracted to this large tall boxy green object at the right.  Looking closer, one would realize it is composed of four quadrants of 3 by 3 neatly trimmed Blue beeches (American hornbeams) that are slightly taller than the building right next to it.  One can enter and wonder around these hornbeams using the slightly elevated dark grey deck.  The trees are spaced dense enough to form a shadowy green box and yet sparse enough to let light leak through onto each other and at times, all the way reaching the ground.  If you stand back a little, with the supporting cor-ten of the deck and sharp edges of the trimmed trees, the whole structure appears to be extending out of the building that claims its permanency like the building itself.

Is it a landscape? a garden? Is it an sculpture however temporal it is?  How does it change its appearance through the hours of day, the season as it is organic? Walking on the deck and wondering around the trees, you touch light, air, and the earth.  You are experiencing a living sculpture and you feel the life.  What an amazing piece of art work. Thank you! Robert Irwin.  You have shown us what a landscape can be and how it can alter the space and our experience beyond its own existence.

Driving a little more than 10 miles south from DIA: Beacon, one arrives at the Storm King Art Center, a magnificent 500 acres sculpture park. At the southern end of the park, one comes to meet Maya Lin’s Wavefield.  It accentuates the hills and mountains in its backdrop, near and far, sprinkled with the fall colors.  It draws you in and takes you up and down the ridges. It seduces you to roll down hills and smell the grass and earth like children.  It has the similar effects as her Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C.: it does not intrude nor divide. It harmonizes us and nature, the living and the immobile.  It makes you introspect and reflect, not conquer.

Circling back north, one sees the eastern part of the dry stone wall by Andy Goldsworthy (entitled Five Men, Seventeen Days, Fifteen Boulders, One Wall).  It rises up from the bottom of a lake and snakes its way uphill through woods.   Size wise, it is dwarfed by the 2000+ years old Great Wall of China which nevertheless couldn’t protect the last emperor of Ming Dynasty from his own dismal performance and the betrayal of his own general.  As one walks across an opening of the wall, one wonders which is inside and which is outside the wall?  Is the wall keeping someone out or keeping someone in?

As one reaches the top of the hill at north of the park museum, Isamu Noguchi’s Momotarō invites you to sit down on its bench like granite to pause and to look around.  If you can’t resist the temptation, you can climb into the halved peach shape boulder to experience the legend of how Momotarō was born.  Noguchi had the following to say about creative process: “You can find out how to do something and then do it or do something and then find out what you did.”   The idea of Momotarō was more than likely born only after he split the granite.   In contrast, Irwin’s DIA: beacon garden and Lin’s wavefield were clearly created deliberately after much meditation and thoughts.   

Regardless the creative process, Noguchi had in fact thought of landscape as sculpture long time ago.  In his 1968 book A Sculptor’s World, Noguchi said " I like to think of gardens as sculpturing of space: a beginning, and a groping to another level of sculptural experience and use: a total sculpture space experience beyond individual sculptures. A man may enter such a space: it is in scale with him; it is real. An empty space has no visual dimension or significance. Scale and meaning enter when some thoughtful object or line is introduced.  This is why sculptures, or rather sculptural objects, create space.”  I saw three sculptures at two places in one day.  Would Noguchi be disappointed?

Talk to you soon!