Sunday, February 21, 2010

A Unique Perspective

by Drew Martin

I might as well designate February as Walter De Maria Month since his name has been in the past two posts. The shortest month for this artist with some of the longest projects, in length and installment. Although De Maria's work has been used in previous postings as an excuse to mention a couple made in art heaven and to introduce the Nazca (Nasca) Lines of Peru, I would be negligent to reduce him to that. Hands down, De Maria is "deepest" artist...ever...pun intended. His Vertical Earth Kilometer (1977) in front of the Kunsthalle Fridericianum in Friedrichsplatz Park, Kassel, Germany is arguably the boldest, no-nonsense conceptual artwork yet to be created.

The Vertical Earth Kilometer is a one-kilometer-long solid brass rod, which was slipped into a drilled hole, one kilometer into earth and layers of rock. The two-inch-in-diameter rod ends flush to the surface of a red square sandstone plate so all that you can actually see is something that resembles a large brass coin. De Maria's Nazca-like earth lines are more than simply a nod to geoglyphs from the past. They are more about exploring what art could be; defining space in a radically different way.

Perhaps Protagoras summed up the future of Western philosophy and art with his man is the measure comment and later by Vitruvius with his actual measures of man, illustrated a millennium and a half later in Leonardo da Vinci's Vitruvian Man. Space and distance were a big concern for artists in the Renaissance but their conceptual challenge was met at the surface of paintings with foreshortening and other issues of atmospheric and linear perspective. De Maria may seem to copy the pre-Columbian Peruvians but his Vertical Earth Kilometer challenges the "viewer" to "see" his work in an unprecedented way. In the New York companion piece, the Broken Kilometer, De Maria turns perspective on its head by distancing brass rods farther and farther apart so it appears that the rods are evenly spaced from the roped-off vantage point.

What is interesting about the Nazca lines is the conceptual leap of scale and distance and the idea of a far-off viewer. The Western idea of a god observing us moved from the Greek concept of gods that would walk among us to one god up above us, looking down, and yet Western art never questions the scale of the art that was produced: that everything produced might be too small for "him" to see. If the early Peruvians were that considerate, it may have been simply a logical result from observing nature and the markings of smaller creatures at their feet, or for that matter, their own footprints. What this means is that they could have possibly entertained the idea that humans and Earth are simply someone else's microcosm.

I am not aware of Western art (or Eastern art) that reflects this. Islamic miniatures as well as paintings of little Europeans frolicking about as we see in Hieronymus Bosch's triptych, The Garden of Earthly Delights, simply fit the characters in at scale to tell a story on a plank of wood or a stretch of canvas. I have never heard of an artist's intent to scale a subject down in order to show us how a god might view us. Did Michelangelo scale up David to give us the proportions of a Goliath or was he simply working with a big block of marble and using size for the sake of creating a monumental work?

The idea of worlds within worlds is not foreign to the sciences as well as science fiction. I remember, as a young teenager, standing in our laundry room with my father, a nuclear physicist. He pointed to a drop at the slop sink faucet and said that not only might our universe be contained in the droplet of water about to drip from the faucet in someone else's reality but that the total time of the existence of our universe might be the time of the droplet to fall from the faucet until it reached the basin.

If sculpture is partly about defining space, then De Maria should be the threshold to new work "to go where no man has gone before". In a cartoon book I made in 1991 called Infinous Space (infinous is not a word) I played with defining the limits of the universe. I described the universe as an infinite field of points which are the borders of microcosms and ever expanding space. Though whimsically drawn and followed by fantasy, the idea is no joke. The problem with how most humans view space is that our default, for practical reasons, is that man is the measure of all things and as long as we hold to this we will never understand distance beyond the perspective of our bodies. Our bodies are a false standard and force us into a linear perspective because of the way our eyes focus and read depth and the way our bodies move towards other objects. Microscopy is the best tangible thing we have, after that it is left to the abstract language of mathematics and conceptualizing. If I have lost the reader here...consider the camel through the eye of a needle scenario. The problem with fitting a camel through the eye of a needle is that the camel does not scale down to something smaller than the opening as it approaches the needle, the way our eye does with the aid of microscopy.

However the achievements of the indigenous Peruvians are explained as art or religion/belief...the greatest achievement is not in the physical construction, engineering or planning, but in the conceptualizing of scale relations.