RHYTHM AS STRUCTURE
"All things flow." Heraclitos
In ancient India it was believed that each artist, before becoming painter, sculptor, poet or musician, had first to master dance, mother of the arts. Indeed, excepting perhaps architecture, dance is the only art which combines all the elements that separately constitute the domain of the different visual and auditory arts; the only one which merges space and time as vehicles of formal expression; and also the only art in which the live body is the prime transmitter of form.*
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.
Time enters my sculpture at many levels.
One, and perhaps the only way to perceive time is through displacement in space of one body in relation to 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 (heart-beat, 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 condition, our mood, our will; and above all, it is determined by the ground, whose configuration can alter the walking rhythm in terms of regularity, speed and direction. Walking is one of our prime relationships with the environment: the vital body-to-ground relationship.
One cannot modify to any great extent the possibilities and limitations of the act of walking as controlled by our bone and muscular make-up. Such facts as the length of the two halves of the leg; the hinge nature of the knee-joint; the size of the pelvis and the ball-joint of the hip; the flexibility of the ankle and foot; the size and shape of the sole, heel and big toe; the position and strength of the muscles that perform the motions allowed by the bone-and-joint understructure; the solidity of the bones which carry our weight and do not break under "normal" strains; and above all, the bilateral symmetry of the body and the motor controls of our nervous system -- all these elements that define walking are human constants. There is no getting away from the facts that, generally, people's steps measure between two and three feet (note the measuring unit), and that a person will take equal steps on flat ground. 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.
These are the means I employ to transform the body-rhythm of walking into a receiver of artistic expression, a sensor of a new kind of form. By disrupting the usual expectations about walking, ascending and descending, I try to re-attune our sensitivity to kinesthetic experiences. By breaking up the ground into steps (the two meanings of the word are no coincidence), and by varying the height, depth, width, inclination, direction and regularity of these steps, I aim to create a rich variety of temporal patterns, a different feeling of space and a new awareness of gravity.
Our vertical position when standing and our horizontal perception of the ground are closely connected to our sense of stability and balance, which has become second nature. This, in addition to practical reasons, accounts for the extraordinary predominance of the rectangle in human-made environments, and for its becoming our instinctive measuring unit of space. Rectangular architecture and urban design have so saturated our vision that we tend to feel disoriented in an environment made of tilting planes or ambiguous curves. If one loses the "measuring rod" of the gravity-defined horizontal and vertical, one tends to mistake approximate horizontals and verticals at right angles to each other for the real thing. The eye, our all-powerful detector of the surrounding world, is able to mislead the key sensor of gravity, the ear's labyrinth. Also, the absence of parallels (which are our usual guide, due to our intuitive grasp of perspective changes) can cause us problems in space interpretation, i.e., in locating objects in depth or estimating distances and sizes.
Naturally, my real aim has been far from physical or psychological manipulation of the spectator. What led me to develop this range of forming devices was the need to express some of my vital interests. The fundamental importance of gravity in the structure of the universe and in the very nature of space and matter; the interchangeability of matter and energy; the equivalence between acceleration and gravitational pull; the interdependence of space and time, and the peculiar characteristics of the latter (e.g., apparent irreversibility); the possible dependence of space on matter (or vice-versa), and a certain "materiality" of space which endows it with qualities such as elasticity and malleability -- these and other such concepts that modern science has developed are subjects of great excitement to me, which I want to render tangible and communicable to others through the language of form. I am a great believer in the power of form as a probing tool for understanding reality. I am even willing to imagine that matter comes into existence by way of form (or structure).
On a less abstract or intellectual level, I am immensely fascinated by observing in nature some kinds of forms (waves, spirals, spheres) recurring at all levels and scales of reality. I want to extract the essence, the common elements -- or vice-versa combine into one whole the different characteristics -- of all forms in nature that captivate my eye and give me peace and joy: rock-formations, sand-dunes, sea-waves, icicles, tree-bark, soap-bubbles, lava-flows, coral reefs, schools of fish, and an infinity of other manifestations of organic or inanimate matter.
Here is then another aspect of time's importance in my work: I see time as a constant denominator of form. The sphere, a classic symbol of equilibrium, is actually the form of minimum surface for maximum volume, and of minimum energy expenditure -- of temporary balance (e.g., a drop of water). Waves are the form of motion in fluids, or rather of interfaces between moving fluids. The spiral is the form of growth and of turbulence (faster motion in fluids). Erosion patterns are created by the passage of liquids over denser matter -- again the record of a time process. It should be noted that waves and series of vortices, my most frequent sources of inspiration, are periodic or cyclical phenomena, like walking.
Ultimately, I wish to express in my sculpture the various forms of fluidity which appears to be the constant state of matter. The predominant formal idioms of the '60s, Minimalism and Serial-Systemic Art, were clearly incapable of this task. Rectangularity and uniformity are basically static and rarely encountered in nature (e.g., in crystals). I had to develop (at first unconsciously, starting in early 1974 with the Charles River Step Sculpture; curvilinear side view ; Close-up) a new way of composing or structuring form, almost antithetical to existing modes, much closer to music than to the visual arts. I wanted rhythms (not shapes), unhomogeneous but self-consistent, interweaving with each other, regular only in their irregularity, growing naturally like ivy in the woods, fluctuating like a swarm of insects. Thus without realizing it, my sculpture became itself an interface between air and earth, as if the ground were a moving fluid and the sculpture its surface. My visual syntax was born to match the kinesthetic vocabulary which is the sister-carrier of my message (both of them progeny of time).
My formal language is gradually expanding in various directions. My compositional principles presently include overlapping or crossing of rhythmic systems of different frequencies (e.g., 33 Rhythms, close-up); transformation of one set of forms into another; and interpenetration or superimposition of two rhythmic systems: angular vs. curvilinear (e.g., Griffin Memorial), geometric vs. natural (Streams), rounded vs. hard edged, vertical vs. horizontal sets of forms. Recently, convoluted ramps, twisting over and under each other at many interchanging levels, introduced into my work more sweeping and unbroken rhythms which allow faster perambulation. Whether the ramps are looping garden-paths (e.g., my proposal for the Sawyer Point Park in Cincinnati, July 1977), or open metal structures (Eddies/lnterchanges), the form is increasingly fluid and can be perceived through swifter motion. Hence the work lends itself to a more condensed spatio-temporal experience. Such ramps, suitably enlarged and built in reinforced concrete, could actually become one-way "drive-in" sculptures.
Another effect of time that fascinates me, much as I rebel against it, is the process of aging -- evolution, disintegration, change. I naturally want my sculptures to be permanent, so that they carry their message to more people through their physical presence. But I also want them to last in order to have a chance to age -- to be worn out from use, covered partly with weeds or scars, mellowed by time, slowly taken over by nature and blended with it. I think that my forms will be little affected by the ravages of time, since my method of composing is compatible with nature's ways, such as organic growth -- though I follow the principles of lower organisms (for instance, plants). A tree can lose a branch without substantial change of its shape (which relies on its character, on the way it grows), whereas a higher animal becomes clearly disfigured by the loss of a limb. So does a Greek temple by losing a column, or a Minimal sculpture by having a corner broken off. Some works of art (the closed-form type) depend on the wholeness of their entity. They spring from our anthropocentric Western culture. A medieval cathedral, on the other hand, or a work by Gaudi, can be deprived of a major part (even a tower) and can receive later additions without suffering too much. My work belongs to this latter, open-ended, sprawling kind of art, in spite of its "classical" serenity.
The structural kinship of my sculpture with "lower" organisms or aspects of "inanimate" nature comes ultimately from my deep-rooted conviction that all matter is alive -- a kind of pantheistic attitude. I have always felt an extreme empathy for everything existing, from animals, to plants, to rocks. In fact, the only time that I am not afraid of death is when I realize that my remains will merge with the rest of nature, will become part of the forms I love in the mountains, the clouds, the waves of the ocean. How can we not be in communion with all matter, since we are made up of the same atoms and particles which are constantly pulsating inside every bit of stone or metal? The properties of such materials are manifestations of their inner life. Steel's sensibility makes possible vibrant forms that are inherent in a sheet of metal. Thus, my metal sculpture makes use of yet another aspect of time: latent energy.
In order for time-rhythms to be experienced by body-locomotion, a large enough expanse of space is needed. Therefore, my works have to be very large, at least in one predominant direction. Size per se is of no interest to me; but size in relation to the human body -- human scale -- is of prime interest. I am most intrigued by the problem of how small can a particular work be and still be able to communicate its message, or, vice-versa, how large can an environment be and yet be experienced as sculpture? I believe it is all a question of formal relationships of the components to the whole and of each to the human body. This is another reason why I favor permanence: because my work, like much other sculpture, has to be experienced through its real size and in its real locale. Even sculptures of the simplest shape, like the pyramids of Egypt or Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty, can be grasped but inadequately through photographic documentation or language. I not only believe in the unique powers of form, but also in the necessity of its materialization.
I am interested in yet other aspects of scale, such as its effects on perception of form. It is most likely that form exists everywhere, but we cannot always perceive it, because of great differences in scale or a disadvantageous point-of-view. For instance, we cannot see that our galaxy has a spiral shape, because it is much too large and we are within it. This stupendous difference in scale between nature's various domains is actually one of its most awesome and puzzling mysteries. The human mind cannot conceive the vastness of either intergalactic or infra-atomic space (Pascal's "two infinites"). Even matter may change its behavior and follow different laws in drastically distinct scales. However, form seems to remain constant: a subatomic particle within a magnetic field moves (at nearly the speed of light) in a spiral similar to many galaxies, or to the whirlpool that the water makes when one flushes the toilet.*** It is possible that the underlying fabric of space dictates the formal laws of matter at all scales.
Since my work needs to be walked on and lived with in order to become fully communicable, it ideally should be located in public places. Like other artists, I am consciously breaking away from the 20th century tradition of having art concentrate on its own ontological questions -- a highly specialized direction. I would welcome a link with the general public, a social or urban function for my art -- such as its being a square or a park. I would like my art not to be set apart as art, looked at with awe or antagonism, but to exist in the context of daily life. In this way, I would hope that the average person, crossing the work routinely, would absorb unconsciously my message, just as Romans get into their marrow part of the meaning of the Spanish steps or St. Peter's square. I would hope that through my work, as with Indian dance, people's bodies can eventually capture an echo of the rhythms that permeate the universe as I see it -- in constant flow.
Copyright © 1977 by Athena Tacha
* Architecture depends not only on three and two-dimensional form, but also on rhythmic effects (fenestration, colonnades, etc.) and on being experienced through body-locomotion. However, function has placed so many demands and constrictions on architecture that it almost stands halfway between science (engineering) and art. Theater, of course, depends partly on space and visual effects, but its literary element (and therefore its time-dependency) is of far greater importance. Only a recent development of the visual arts, "body-" or "performance art," can be said, like dance, to use equally as vehicles of expression space, time and the live human body. Nonetheless, body-art can be distinguished from dance or theater by its non-reliance on rhythm or language.
** Sound, which can also structure time, is in fact displacement of air molecules; and light signals are release of moving particles. Continuous change, which is another way of experiencing time, can be broken down to multiple motions on a microscopic, atomic or subatomic level. Subjective experiencing of time, on the other hand, is due to chemical changes in the body, which can also be reduced to motion on the cellular and molecular levels.
*** It should be noted that the time scales are also vastly different in the three cases mentioned: a water vortex in our daily reality occurs within a few seconds, galactic events take place in millions or billions of years, while the lives of subatomic particles are measured in billionths and trillionths of seconds.