Past: December 9, 2011 → January 21, 2012
Rendered in exaggerated perspective, a foreshortened steel I-beam is a familiar fiction. It signifies productivity and speed and all the optimism of the early machine age. But it is also a perceptual bubble which will inevitably burst. If the process of steel production starts at a foundry or a mill, it sometimes ends with an oxy-acetylene torch. This is the cutting tool that causes sparks to fly when buildings are demolished and beams are hacked apart. Showing the same scars, these sculptures might once have belonged to some larger structure. They are extractions.
Another of the sculptures is a visual trap and an insult to orthagonality. It takes the shape of a lariat knot, or a lasso, pulled tight. And it does everything that an engineer always wishes an I-beam not to do. It’s an invented structural failure, disguised as formalism. People learn to see John Chamberlain’s work as abstract sculptures rather than wrecked cars. Here the opposite is true. This is a sculpture of an I-beam.
Looking for other templates, I visited mathematics to borrow a three-dimensional model of differential geometry that I will probably never understand. With new purpose, I took it to describe a cast iron surface that twists itself into rust and back again. It’s a very crude, binary model of urban renewal, threaded with wormholes. Steel and iron, painted, corroded, repainted. I always marvel at the columns in the New York City subway, given their first coat of paint a century ago. And then I look at the layer upon layer of protective paint on those columns, like a palimpsest, and I think of the painting of modern life.
I only recently learned that Louis Sullivan authored the phrase ‘form … follows function’ not long before those same columns were being cast. Sullivan earned himself a place in the canon of modern architecture by integrating newly efficient steel production into hi-rise office building design. The development of a longstanding signifier of twentieth century corporations starts here. In the new century, I suspect the true seat of power may have moved to technology parks in Mountain View and hedge funds in Greenwich, but the descendents of Louis Sullivan and his engineers’ inventions endure.
And so I recently became fascinated by Mark Di Suvero’s oversize steel sculpture in Zuccotti Park and how it resembles a giant asterisk for the anti-capitalist protests in the canyons of lower Manhattan. I still can’t decide whether it might be repurposed to mock the office towers that surround it, or if the sculpture itself is no more than kindling. Titled Joi de Vivre, I can only speculate what the artist originally wanted this figural bundle of painted red I-beams to do, but who should care what an artist thinks anyway? The protests have now been forced to mobilise but the steel remains, and I’m reminded that rust never sleeps.