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The many masks of modern art

Few centuries have worshiped order as much as ours. The idea that this increasingly perplexing world would be neutralized or controlled through intellectural, social, political, or aesthetic systems has had an extraordinary appeals to our age.

But order is a complex matter and exists in many forms. It can be based on fear and imagined threats to one's security or identity, on rigidity of personality -- or it can result from a search for meaning, for what is reasonable, balanced, life-enhancing, and most appropriate for man.

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Art's identity, to a large extent, derives from such a search, and from what this search uncovers of life's intrinsic rhythms, patterns, and laws. In the process, art enters the unknown and makes itself thoroughly at home. It senses, registers, and transmits information back to the culture and society through the artist's intuition, sensibility, and intelligence -- and thus serves as civilization's litmus paper, weather vane, and lightning rod all rolled into one.

But it can also serve as chart, map, and compass for the future -- and as a prefiguration of what can and will be.

Among the various means art takes to convince us of the truth of its insights and forms in orderliness, as design, as rhythm, or as a regulated progression of events. We are comforted and calmed by the orderly, even if for no other reason than that it suggests control over the chaotic, the threatening, and the unreasonable.

All in all, art has been both well and poorly served by order in this century -- witness modernism's remarkable formal innovations, and the deadly sterility of the state- controlled. With this kind of experience behind us, we tend to be extremely open to all forms of experimentation and improvisasation in art -- and suspicious of any attempts by another party to exercise even the slightest degree of control over our sensibilities and our aesthetic responses.

Because I share this suspicion, I was wary of my enthusiastic initial response to the art of Athena Tacha when I saw it in a show recently. Her scale models and drawings for environmental sculptures, whose identity can only be fully established by walking up, over, along, or down their carefully orchestrated steps and forms, struck me as extremely beautiful but possibly also a bit totalitarian in intent. After all, doesn't she plot every movement we make by varying the height, depth, width, inclination, direction, and regularity of the steps we take up, along, and down her sculptures? And doesn't this suggest subtle authoritarian control over our freedom of choice and movement?

This bothered me a bit until I realized how "musical" these multilayered and lyrically geometric sculptures were, especially "Nine Rhythms (Fragments From a Dictioary of Steps)," a scale model that consisted of nine stairlike structures made of balsa wood and painted different colors. My eye, moving up, along, and down each of these structures' numerous steps and landings, registered patterns and rhythms in space and time that echoed those made by musical instruments playing musical notes.

It was a lovely experience (the various colors added an additional dimension of visual pleasure), and so I tried to imagine what it would be like actually to walk up and down the stairs of the full-scale and completed work. It seemed to me that if one gave over to the experience and really took one's time to truly savor it, it would be quietly exhilarating -- and not at all the sort of experience that the left one feeling controlled or manipulated. Any more than one did listening to music or reading a book -- both activities that demand total attention and the willingness to allow the creator to set the pace and the regularity of movement into time.

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The question, of course, is what all this walking and climbing signified. Here I shall quote the artist: "In many ways my sculpture is comparable to dance. Naturally, it exists in real space and relies greatly on visual means (including color). Yet it can be fully experienced only through body-locomotion , and therefore through the element of time and physical participation of the human body. . . . One, and perhaps the only, way to perceive time, is through the displacement in spacem of one body in relation to the walking rhythm in terms of regularity, speed and direction. . . .

"However, one can manipulate walking by changing the ground's configuration, by controlling the environment's visual stimuli and by subtly altering the body's relationship to gravity. . . .By disrupting the usual expectations about walking, ascending and descending, I try to re-attune our sensitivity to kinesthetic experiences . . . and to create a rich variety of temporal patterns, a different feeling of space and a new awareness of gravity."

A particularly beautiful example of her work, and one that clearly illustrates her overall intentions, is "Charles River Step Sculpture," designed (but never built) for a sand dunes.

The final effect, as we can see in the photograph of her scale model, is quite stunning. Walking within this environmental sculpture, and moving wherever its forms indicate (and one has several choices) -- or merely viewing it from various vantage points -- would have to be a fascinating and pleasant experience. And since the point of her art is to enrich our perceptions of ourselves and of our relationship to our environment -- to make us more aware of the nature of our existence -- it would be a humanizing and possibly a liberating experience as well, with the work's underlying rhythmical order serving to expand our sensibilities, not to control or manipulate them another, i.e., through motion. Repetition of motion can structure time, give it a perceptible 'form' -- a rhythm. Many regularly repeated movements (e.g., the rotations of the earth and the moon) create cyclical rhythms that structure or measure our time.The most familiar biological clock, our body, contains a number of cyclical rhythms (heartbeat, breathing, etc.). Normally, walking is also such a rhythm, a regular beat due to the fact that we have two legs of similar structure and length, and a steady relationship to the pull of the earth. However, walking depends on other factors as well -- our physical condiiton, our mood, our will; and above all, it is determined by the ground whose configuration can alter 750-foot-long area along Boston's Charles River at a spot across from Boston University. Tacha had decided on the site after a walk along the river during which she became acutely conscious of the "inhuman character of American river banks: there is no pleasant place to sit, or to get a hot drink, and no way to walk down to the river."

Water -- its flow, but also its double nature as solid (ice) and liquid -- became the source for her sculpture. Since the area she chose was divided into two by a trainline, she decided to use angular, crystal-like forms on one side, and curvilinear forms on the other, but with both opening up into flowing expanses and alluding to related aspects of nature, such as cascades, lava flows , and for any ulterior purpose.

Tacha, in other words, uses order to in- still a sense of purpose and meaning into the consciousness of those participating in her art. She does not regiment our responses, as would be the case in totalitarian art, but, rather, invites us to participate in a physical activity that creates rhythms and patterns in our minds and sensibilities as we walk with her through time. And the result, as is natural to art, is a sense of harmony, design -- and of beauty.

The next article in this series appears on July 7.

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