Wednesday, August 26th, 2009

Robert Irwin – Light and Space III

WARNING: If you don’t want to read a post from me on art, delete or skip over this one. I don’t do this very often.

People sometimes ask what qualifies me to write about art. I have no training in the field. But I look at it this way. Art museums want me as a patron. If they want my patronage I see no reason why I shouldn’t give my opinion on what I see. I would hope artists and arts professionals would actually relish an engaged populace. In any case, I don’t make any claim that this is anything other than just my personal opinion.

Robert Irwin’s “Light and Space III” is an installation in the Indianapolis Museum of Art’s main atrium. Part of a program to obtain 125 new significant works for its permanent collection on the occasion of the IMA’s 125th anniversary, this commissioned piece was primarily underwritten by Ann M. and Chris Stack.

The expansion of the museum was an architectural flop to put it mildly. Among its problems was this atrium, which was a large, dead space – and one that you only get to after passing through a boring entry pavilion, an upstairs landing at the top of the escalator, and an antechamber. The museum wanted to liven this space up.

I’m often skeptical of modern and contemporary pieces. Many of them have way too much of the emperor’s new clothes about them for my taste. But when it works, it works. And it really works here. Light and Space III is an absolute masterpiece by a living artist operating at the top of his game. It is a must see art work.

Here is a picture. Please keep in mind, this is a large work, and difficult to photograph, particularly taking the whole thing in. Some of these I took myself with a lousy point and shoot camera. Others I snarfed off flickr. Apologies for the not so great quality. The lights are, in fact, almost pure white.

I don’t think Irwin would go for my view of this art work as a exploration of the concept of the golden mean. But hopefully he can at least accept that is the way I process the experience of the piece, the lens that I bring to the table. To me, I see several opposites brought to bear and perfectly balanced against each other :

  • Simplicity vs. Complexity
  • Flatness [2D] vs. Volume [3D]
  • Order [Pattern,Calmness] vs. Chaos [Randomness,Energy]
  • Perfection [Manufacture,Design] vs. Imperfection [Craft,Accident]

In addition to harmonizing these opposites, they simultaneously exist in tension, creating a work that almost crackles with energy. (If you prefer to think yin and yang, be my guest). This is a powerful piece.

1. Simplicity vs. Complexity

Irwin only uses two basic materials for the piece: fluorescent light bulbs and scrim. From these two very basic things, he builds a piece of astonishing complexity. Consider the very basic way these pieces are utilized:

  • 2 materials (light bulbs, scrim)
  • 3 planes (scrim plane, light plane 1-front, light plane 2-rear)
  • 5 main light areas (three on light plan 1 and two on light plane 2)
  • 5 basic light shapes (_, __, |_, |__, and _|_)

But consider again the result as seen by the viewer. You’ve seen the picture above, here’s another one looking straight at it from the first floor.

There are an incredible number of surfaces, both bare and seen through scrim. I counted well over 20. And a huge variety of regions and shapes. Again, I counted over 30 regions. You should buy a sketch pad in the gift shop and try drawing just the lines along the edges of these. It is a quite complex drawing.

Additionally, the art takes on very different aspects depending on what angle you see it from. This will be illustrated throughout.

2. Flatness vs. Volume

The work is installed around an escalator. So there are planes of scrim and light both in front of the escalator, and behind it. When you look at these straight on, they merge into a flat/2D aspect. Here’s a repeat of the photo above, which is from the first floor looking directly ahead:

Now, here is on the first floor looking at an angle:

Quite a difference to say the least. Even more so from the third floor at an angle:

At times the piece seems to flicker back and forth between 2D and 3D, like one of those gestalt diagrams. (There’s a similar effect you can achieve by flipping back and forth between seeing the bulbs as the primary feature of the work and seeing the spaces between them as primary, as in a maze).

Of course, the piece really is 3D. One interesting aspect of this is that you can actually get inside of and travel through the work, by sitting on the bench at the bottom, or riding the escalators. The piece offers yet another entirely different feel from the escalator (another example of the complexity of this deceptively simple work).

To me, looking up at the lights on the wall as I ride up the escalator, I feel like I’m traveling past some sort of wacky foreign katakana like script. For some reason, on the way down, I feel like I’m looking at sideways letters I can almost read. You can judge for yourself. I shot a couple of videos of what this looks like.

Going up the escalator (32 seconds):

Going down the escalator (30 seconds):

3. Order vs. Chaos

The work has a strong sense of order as you can see. There are three basic blocks to the piece: a central light filled core with the escalators cutting through them, flanked by two scrim panels extending beyond ribbed wood paneling. The scrim panels provide a nice sense of symmetry. The scrim and wood paneling also take on several delightful roles here. It is like frame for the “picture” in the middle. It also is like a curtain opened on a stage. And while it provides definition, it also has the piece gradually fading off in intensity towards the edges, as much dissolving as having a firm edge. You’ve got this powerful, intense center than just sort of fades out at the edges.

Also, you’ll notice the horizontal bands that partition the piece vertically at regular intervals. And there is the grid formed by the light. All of these provide strong visual reassurance of order and pattern.

But there’s another side to this. Start with the violent slash of the escalators through this scene. Then look to the large numbers of odd shaped regions and textures and effects this creates in the piece. And look at the pattern of lights itself. This looks like computer code, like some sort of well-ordered output. But it contains no visible pattern. Like DNA perhaps, there are a hand full of letters in the alphabet, but they don’t seem to be spelling anything. (I have documented this pattern and would like to spend some time analyzing it, but have not yet had the leisure to do so).

We seem to be programmed to like symmetry and order. I know I am. But too much order is boring. When something is just a little “off” it attracts our attention. It makes us sit up and take notice. Things like this pattern which are ambiguously disordered do this perfectly. It looks like a repeating pattern, but its not, so you aren’t sure so you try to figure it out, etc. This is how the piece sucks you into it. Too much order and you just file it away into a category in your brain. It disappears from your consciousness like it was never there in the first place.

I’ll give just one great example of this. I recommend clicking to enlarge the following picture:

Now look at the light bulbs and how they extend into the metal hand rail area on the escalator and how they dip down below the escalator box. Some of the lights never make to the edge. Others seem to barely touch it. Still others violate the border. But these are all by different amounts. There’s a jagged edge there, and it’s a sort of random one.

4. Perfection vs. Imperfection

When you see a piece like this, something that just screams “digital”, you think that it was plotted out on a computer, fabricated and installed with machine-like precision. But in this case, that isn’t the case. Let’s go back to our original straight on photo of the piece from the first floor:

Again, this is easier to see if you click to enlarge, but look in the light panel on the back wall along the escalator to this floor. Slightly to the right of center you’ll see a single vertical bar (“|”). Notice how it is not aligned to the grid. In fact, the “T” shaped piece to its right has its bottom cross bar pointing at the middle of the piece. There are several other instances of lights like this, where pieces are not grid aligned. (Actually, most of the pieces don’t seem to be, but that’s for another day). One could ask if this was intentional or not, though I assume it is since I observed the same exact thing in one of Irwin’s previous Light and Space pieces.

What is definitely not intentional, but is serendipitously wonderful, is the way the scrim is stapled to the frame. I don’t have a shot of this, but if you get up close and inspect it, you can see large staples that look for all the world like basting stitches a tailor uses while making a suit. These are mostly regularly laid down, but clearly not so perfect as a machine might have done it. These stitches weren’t laid down by a sewing machine, that’s for sure. In fact, they clearly veer offline at various points. The edge of the scrim is also frayed in various places.

These staples are one of the little details that are there to discover if you study the piece closely. It also clearly marks this as not just a work of digital art, but as a work of the craftsman as well. Human beings made this, not a machine or a computer program. Indeed, you often hear purchasers of fine handcrafted luxury goods noting with pride the small imperfections in their items. Only the machine and the mass production process is capable of the perfect product. Again, we see that too perfect, like too much order and symmetry, produces boredom. It’s like an overly coordinated outfit. The true dandy knows that the magic is in breaking the rules from time to time.

The thought of these basting stitches, and the rows of staples that veer off also prompt questions. Is this the finished piece? Or is this a model or trial run? Of course we know this is the finished work, but is it what Irwin hoped it would be? Is there always some other tweak he wishes he could have made?

Before we close, I’ll make a few other observations about this piece.

I noted that you get different dominant impressions of the piece when looking at it from different perspectives. It’s interesting to observe what that is when you see it from the same place, but on different floors. Here are three different views of the piece from directly in front of it, and the dominant impressions I took away:

First Floor: shapes, planes, textures

Second Floor: movement, spaces (boxes, tubes) – it certainly helps to see it live

Third Floor: contrast of light and dark

You might also be interested in a shot of the ceiling. There is a skylight with a grid pattern that plays off against the Irwin nicely.

I’ll also mention the approach to the piece. You check in at the front desk at the ground level in a glass entry pavilion, then take the elevator upstairs to a landing. Then it is through glass doors into an antechamber. From here you walk into the atrium and get your first glimpse of the piece. You can see the lights on the wall along the escalator, but it doesn’t register as anything more than a random piece of art of the type art museums are wont to install in such places. You might see the glow of the lights in the atrium, but it probably won’t register as art. Indeed, it is very easy to just walk past the Irwin without noticing it – until you turn around and go “Woah!” It’s a nice surprise.

Speaking of walking around, walking around the perimeter of the atrium generates the optical illusion of motion in the piece because it of the different depths of the light planes. It’s kind of cool. Here’s a video from the second floor that shows this (45 seconds):

I’ve been told, though have not observed personally, that the piece also has a very different feel at night vs. daytime. I’ll look forward to seeing for myself on a future visit. And I’m also told that Irwin believes the piece would work even with the lights turned off. I believe it.

No surprise, the Irwin dominates the atrium. On the other hand, does it really enliven it? I’m afraid not. The singular quality of the Irwin piece in many respects only highlights how bad the rest of the atrium is. Irwin might be a world class artist, but he isn’t an interior designer. I’m not sure exactly what needs to be done with the atrium, but some interior design consultations are definitely called for. The challenge is not to do anything which interferes with the Irwin.

If you are ever in Indianapolis you’ll of course want to go to the IMA (closed Monday). Light and Space III is an absolute must-see there. It is worth a trip on its own. Just be careful that you don’t end up spending your entire budgeted museum time with just this one work.

If you’ve got an hour to kill and are interested in learning more about this piece, you can watch this conversation between Irwin and IMA conservator Richard McCoy. (If the video does not show for you, click here).

Lastly, as a post-script I’ll leave you with a snap I took of this work by Adrian Schiess. It has nothing to do with with Irwin piece. I just like it and hope you do too.

Topics: Arts and Culture
Cities: Indianapolis

10 Responses to “Robert Irwin – Light and Space III”

  1. Jennifer says:

    Is that a "piece" or a piece of a "piece" that hasn't been installed yet?? Your post made me want to go see the Irwin but I'm not sure about that last one.

  2. Darrin Thompson says:

    Hah. My thoughts exactly. I'm expecting there was a guy putting together the rest of it around the corner.

  3. cdc guy says:

    My first reaction to the 2-D photo of the Irwin was "gridplate". I live in a part of town (and spend enough time around construction sites) where there are lots of pickup trucks with shiny toolboxes and bumpers that have a gridplate pattern.

    If viewed that way, one might conclude that this piece is a bit of a prank on the high-art establishment, using commonplace construction components to evoke a common man's toolbox in a high-art space.

    Of course, to get the joke, one would have to be familiar with truck toolboxes. And that adds yet another layer to the prank, as the escalator serviceman or light-bulb changer is far more likely to get it than the high-art patron.

  4. JG says:

    I'm even less qualified to comment on art than URBANO. But I too love this piece.

    There's an interesting effect as one walks parallel to the piece from the terraces across the hall. As the two planes move in your line of sight independently, new "characters" appear to form between the bulbs. The piece is almost cryptic, as if the artist has a hidden message that can only be read from the correct angle. (I don't think there is one – trust me – I tired, haha.)

    The BLOG needed a a fresh, "light" topic such as this. Good post.

  5. ChristopherWestPresents says:

    Yes Aaron, thanks for writing this. Excellent post and of course I wouldn't mind more art criticism!

  6. AmericanDirt says:

    I like CDC guy's interpretation (whether legitimate or not), even though I certainly never would have picked up on the toolbox reference. Any inversion of a discipline often criticized for undeserved self-aggrandizement is generally a welcome antidote, especially when done with a light touch. Irwin's choice of clothes during his interview are terrific.

    The absence of either chamfered or beveled vertices at any of the light patterns–essentially just placing two separate fixtures together so their corners touch perpendicularly–definitely reminded me of malfunctioning digital reading from the very beginning. But I still prefer CDC Guy's perspective.

  7. Anonymous says:

    1) Thanks for the review. In many respects, I think it's entirely consistent with the theme of this blog, which has often focused on cities as works of civic art — an archaic term that has fallen by the wayside in favor of more mundane "urban design" and "urban planning" labels that reference current professional practice.

    2) I agree with cdc guy's insights… very thoughtful observations.

    3) The IMA redesign is not a show stopper, but it's hardly a flop. It's a good place to view art, maybe better than Wright's Guggenheim. It's been great to see all the new stuff that was locked away in storage, and the artwork has been hung in such a way that it really brings out the best of collection. I also understand the new space has allows for programming that's bringing new interest to the museum. In addition, the landscaping is pretty remarkable as well.

    I know contemporary art museums are suppose to serve duel functions as civic icons as well as places to view art these days. But, I've been to several new additions (Des Moines, Savanna, Chicago's MCA) that are more building than they are places to view art. Even Calatrava's new addition to the Milwaukee museum of art tends to fall into this category.

    IMA may disappoint architecture afficionados looking for a starchitectural statement, but it shouldn't disappoint those who actually like art. I think the new addition does a superb job of showcasing IMA's collection. I had no idea that it had such breadth until I saw the new addition. That aspect deserves more kudos than it's gotten.

    Just my two cents…

  8. The Urbanophile says:

    One great thing about almost all top works of art in any medium. They are nearly inexhaustible wells of interpretation. People never get tired of writing or thinking about, for example, Don Giovanni.

  9. John says:

    I'd like to see more of these intentional imperfections and misalignments built into our street grids.

  10. Walkr says:

    You could do this sort of thing more often… It is not without appreciation. TS

The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

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