Field Conditions: Domains as Theme at the SFMoMA

por: Ralph Vazquez

There exists an intersection where art as proposed by Sol Lewitt in his famous Sentences on Conceptual Art, the work of scientists like Carl Sagan, and the forms suggested by architects like Santiago Calatrava and the late Oscar Niemeyer converge – a transcendent plane where it all gels together. Charles Eames once said, “Eventually everything connects” during production of Powers of Ten in 1977. In the exhibit Field Conditions, the very concept of the “field” in art is cross-examined to probe artists’ and architects’ awareness on the matter of the “field” as a term that is applied to technology, physics, optics and politics. The exhibit prompts us to see how much the concept has evolved in the arts, which may enable us to see what Eames was talking about.

The exhibit was divided into three adjacent spaces, a central large space and two smaller galleries. Entering the first of the smaller galleries the viewer finds a monumental work by Marsha Cottrell (b. 1964, United States) titled A Black Powder Rains Down Gently On My Sleepless Night (2012), an electrostatic print on mulberry paper. The sheer size of the work envelops the field of view of the spectator, making one lose oneself in the composition as if adrift in the vastness of outer space. The proportion and detail of the work delivers the sensation completely. The limitless is also evoked in a wall drawing by Sol Lewitt (b. 1928-2007), Wall Drawing #132, and in the work of the late Lebbeus Woods (b. 1940–2012, United States). Woods had three of his Conflict Spaces drawings over linen on display, and each one transports the viewer into its visual field – into a vast dynamic environment where one seemingly engages in physical intimations with infinity.

Conflict Space, Lebbeus Woods (b. 1940–2012, United States)

Bringing the viewer back to the plane of the worldly, the spectator encounted in the central space the apparent dance between the meanings of two juxtaposed art installations, one directly above and one below. Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s work (b. 1967, Mexico) Homographies (2006) consists of fluorescent light tubes and custom tracking software that sets off a cause-and-effect reaction as the viewer traverses the space. The lights alternate from being passive fixtures above to being the cue that tells a computer where one is standing. On the floor, Tauba Auerbach (b. 1981, United States) installed one of her 50/50 Floors (2008–2012), which consists of the total area of the space covered by two-inch black and white ceramic tiles in equal numbers. This relatively straightforward concept gains a life of its own as it is perceived, as one inescapably begins to glean an artificial pattern out of the chance operation of the placement of the tiles. These appear as a form of binary code once one is enveloped in the interior landscape created by the installation. The marriage of the content of these two works initiates a domino effect of gazes targeting both what is going on above and below, reiterating that in contemporary art, space and time are components in a new range of expressive gestures. Some of these gestures are organic, like the analysis of the floor by Auerbach, and some are artificial, like Lozano-Hemmer’s lamps that give the sensation of being chased around the room.

Juxtaposed installation view of Homographies (2006), by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, and 50/50 Floors (2008–2012), by Tauba Auerbach (b. 1981, United States).

Also included in the exhibition are drawings by Daniel Libeskind (b. 1946, Poland) from his Micromegas Studies (1978). These works were placed in the final gallery space dedicated to exploring the contemporary nature of “the field.” Libeskind’s work is at the heart of the history of the contemporary interdisciplinary trend of exploring the interface of art and architecture. Architectural drawing and the notion of experimenting with space in drawing has transformed painting, photography and installation art, and paved the way for graphic design and hybrid forms of artists, architects and environmental designers. Designers have embraced the idea of the thought experiment, which was introduced by Einstein in physics, and it has been discovered that the very process itself of experimenting can render compelling and fascinating images like those produced by Libeskind.

The collective Semiconductor (Ruth Jarman and Joe Gerhardt; est. 1997, United Kingdom) showed 20Hz (2011), a single-channel video with sound, which sought to “make the invisible visible.” The video presents what appear to be undulating forms and vibrating patterned surfaces. The vibration and optical interference is generated by visual and aural representations of the Earth’s magnetic activity; Semiconductor created it in collaboration with the Canadian Array for Realtime Investigations of Magnetic Activity. The work seeks to interface with the imperceptible, and their efforts translate into a visualization that is both enthralling and sublime. One can sense the “mood” of the Earth and personify it even further while experiencing a moment with one the largest structures on the planet, its magnetic field.

20Hz (2011), by Semiconductor (Ruth Jarman and Joe Gerhardt; est. 1997, United Kingdom)

Knowing the breadth of the collection of the SFMoMA, one cannot help but feel the exhibit could have had a greater number of artists showcased, and the subject could have been explored beyond the monochromatic. These two observations stem from the desire for the exhibit to have dared to go further in its scope. In spite of these considerations, in a general sense the exhibit achieved its goal, enabling the viewer to understand not just the work of the artists but also a clearer sense of their motives for creating the pieces; the presentation was seamless. Concerning the central subject of “the field,” one can say that the viewer walks away from seemingly zooming out into the void – way out – and then being reeled in slowly to one’s place on the ground. This visceral experience is enough to give one perspective on the different domains of our lives. From the Lewitt to the work by Semiconductor, this survey of contemporary attitudes about “the field” signals a bolder attack on our grasp of the field on the part of artists. Have we grown closer to the point of connection Eames was talking about? One can truly say, after seeing this exhibit that art certainly aspires, and it is most definitely on track.

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