Although I was visiting New York last weekend, hundreds of miles from home, in the back of my mind, I couldn't help but think of the impending destruction of our beloved Gulf of Mexico. So, I found myself experiencing things through that lens.
After enjoying a rousing night of ballet, we woke up early on Saturday morning to partake of a delicious brunch at renowned purveyor of jellies and baked goods, Sarabeth's, and then hopped on the Amtrak at Grand Central Terminal for a ride along the Hudson River to Beacon, New York. Watching the mountains (an unfamiliar sight) looming over the majestic riverways made the long train ride quite relaxing and enjoyable. We arrived in Beacon for a visit to the Dia: Beacon Museum. Throughout my years in New York, a visit to the Dia was on my "to do" list, but a lecture by my cousin, who just received her PhD in Art History from Yale, was a wonderful excuse to finally make the soujourn to the Museum. The Dia is a huge space (formerly a Nabisco warehouse) that is home to enormous pieces of modern art that could never possibly be housed in museums in the City.
Among the day's pleasures was seeing three "Torqued Ellipses" and a "Torqued Spiral," by Richard Serra. I have always been intrigued by Serra's work, particularly because one of his pieces resulted in a very famous art law case. He was comissioned as part of an Art-in-Architecture public art program, and he created "Tilted Arc" for the Federal Plaza in New York. However, after eight years of controversy, the piece was removed due to public displeasure. The users of the Federal Plaza found it difficult to get around and overly cumbersome to their ingress and egress to the building. Rather than viewing this unusual piece as a point of pride; there was a battle cry to have it removed. His work is not particularly user-friendly, nor is it intended to be, as was readily apparent when I actually tried to maneuver within and around it; however, I am personally opposed to the idea of removing an artist's work, particularly where he was commissioned to create a site-specific work of art. But I digress.
My cousin's talk was about Michael Heizer's work, particularly his piece, "North, East, South, West." Although the work is behind a glass protective shield and visible only during certain short windows of the day, those who attended the talk had the opportunity to view his work, only ten at a time, before my cousin, Jenni Sorkin, began her remarks. Once we got in, I understood what all the fuss was about -- this was perhaps the most awe-inspiring and dangerous work, I have ever seen. Basically, you stand over huge gaping holes of varying shapes and are permitted to peer carefully within those cavernous spaces, but you do so at your own risk. Negotiating the way in which you choose to view a piece of artwork is an unfamiliar experience. You want to be courageous and charge up to the work, but as you venture toward the holes in the earth, you can't help but shy away from full exposure.
Each time I neared one, I thought I would approach it differently, but in the end, I reacted in much the same way again and again. By comparison, the following day, we saw the understandably crowded Picasso exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and I found myself bobbing and weaving in front of each piece so as to avoid the range of view of the various visitors. Although I was slightly concerned about annoying someone by being in his/her way at the Picasso exhibit, the Heizer experience was completely different. There were, of course, approximately ten other people (visitors and an appointed caretaker from the Dia) in the space behind the glass barrier; but somehow it felt as though I was completely alone as I stared into the abyss below the surface of the museum floor. It was not a bottomless abyss, you could see where it ended twenty feet below. In fact, we learned that the custodians have fashioned a contraption to grab eyeglasses and other items that visitors have dropped to the bottom of Heizer's work. Additionally, the fire department is specially trained in rescuing visitors from the bottom; although I don't believe they have ever needed to do so.
In seeing this work, I very clearly felt a profound sense of the fragility of our existence. I thought of the first time I saw the deep gash in downtown Manhattan shortly after the Twin Towers fell. And then I thought about how close we all are to losing the vast body of water that shapes so much of our existence in Sarasota. Will we someday, in the not too distant future, peer into the Gulf with the same trepidation that a viewer feels when inching up to Heizer's work?
Heizer's work was originally developed for Sierra Nevada in 1967, and was ultimately redesigned to be displayed at the Dia in 2002. While he was not commenting on the destruction of the Twin Towers nor the Gulf oil spill, but rather man's relationship with nature and the environment more generally, I could not help but relate to the work in this way because of my own history, as both a resident of Manhattan and now Sarasota. Heizer also seeks to echo large scale monuments of the past, such as the pyramids and Machu Picchu. I, for one, am grateful that human beings are no longer subjected to hard labor to create huge monuments to leaders. Yet we are now slaves to our modern conveniences and our unquenchable desire for oil. Thus, we were willing to permit oil companies to drill enormous gaping holes in the middle of one of our most precious resources. And now that we have realized the error of our ways, there appears to be no way to reseal that hole and stop the endless barrage of oil pouring into the Gulf waters.
Had I seen the Heizer exhibit fifty days ago, my experience would have been quite different. In all likelihood, I still would have been moved to ponder the precariousness of life in our natural world. But I would have left and probably not thought much more about it. Unfortunately, however, that fact has struck much closer to home, and I am left thinking about the brilliance of "North, South, East, West" long after my visit.
Next up, we returned to the City in time to see "Fela!" on Broadway, which I will write about in my next blog entry.