Outside of Reality: Visiting Storm King and Dia:Beacon

Outside of Reality: Visiting Storm King and Dia:Beacon

This week’s class saw us travelling out further than we’ve been before. We went far past the city limits and into the greater New York area to explore Storm King, an enormous open-air sculpture park, and ended the day with a trip to Dia:Beacon, a factory-turned museum that rests on the banks of the Hudson River. Not only was the location and environment different from our past museum trip to the Guggenheim, the viewing experience was just as new. Despite the contrast in exhibitions and layout, Storm King and Dia:Beacon both affected me in a similar way, in that they both invoked a feeling of departure from reality. 

David Smith, “Personage of May,” 1957, bronze, 71 5/8 × 31 1/2 × 18 1/2 in. (And Becky)

Beginning in Storm King, we started our trip with a brief summary of the site’s history, as well as a Q&A with the guide that had been assigned to our group. The park, founded in 1960 and truly kickstarted in 1967 after the acquisition of multiple works by artist David Smith, covers 500 acres of open land, so says the informative pamphlet handed to each of us upon our entry. And just by the view alone, one would not doubt that measurement. Dotted across the sprawling landscape are sculptures that seem built to scrape the sky. Comprised of a variety of materials, from industrial to that of more traditional sculpting, the artworks stand like monuments across the terrain, and can be spotted from miles away. It felt absolutely awe-inspiring to see.

Walking onto the property I suddenly felt as though I had shrunk. The almost outlandish shift in scale was jarring to say the least, and yet it prompted a sense of wonder within me. I was no longer an average sized adult in a correctly proportioned environment. I was a child in a playground far larger than myself, with grassy fields to run through and large abstracted edifices to gaze up at. Playing even further into the disconnect from reality, it also felt as though I’d entered a world of giants. No piece drove this idea home further than Zhang Huan’s “Three Legged Buddha” (2007). Intended as a dialogue between the ritual past and the contemporary present while also doubling as a self-portrait, Huan’s steel and copper statue towers at twenty-eight feet high, as described on Huan’s page on the Storm King website. The large body poised in its crouched position appears almost meditative at first, and yet there is so much potential energy in its large welded form. Standing under the sculpture, it felt as though at any moment the three-legged Buddha might sit down swiftly and squish unlucky tourists.

Zhang Huan, “Three Legged Buddha,” 2007, steel and copper, 338 1/2 × 504 × 271 5/8 in.

Something else that the grand scale of Storm King brought to mind is how fitting the American landscape is for large scale abstract sculpture. The long, flat expanse of hilled land gives an organic foundation for geometric, manufactured forms to shoot out of, marrying man’s touch with nature’s raw surface. With the sky seeming to sandwich man-made edifices between itself and the earth, the clean lines and impressive height of an abstract sculpture are further emphasized and put on display. One of the works that embodied this best was Mark di Suvero’s “E=MC2,” (1996-7) which according to Suvero’s page on the Storm King website, stands at 92 feet tall. The gigantic work is Suvero’s tallest and appeared to be one of the tallest sculptures in the park (at least from where I was standing). Seeming so perfectly symmetrical and calculated in its design, it somewhat looks as though someone has lodged a giant mathematical compass in the ground. The work almost appears to try and rationalize its surroundings, its straight crisp form bringing order to the otherwise uneven ground. Suvero himself said in an interview with Storm King’s Art Center that he deeply enjoyed placing his work at Storm King, stating “You look at it, and you feel the goodness of the landscape, of the sense of space, the sky that comes with it…” (https://www.theartnewspaper.com/news/storm-king-debuts-sky-high-sculpture-by-mark-di-suvero)

Mark di Suvero, “E=MC2,” 1996-7, stainless steel, 98′ 5″ x 40′ x 40′.   

Dia:Beacon was a change of pace from Storm King. Just as unique, yet the separation from reality I felt here was more through discomfort than wonderment. Built on what was once a Nabisco factory, Dia:Beacon is a museum whose layout is created by the spaces needed for each individual artist’s exhibit. Because its industrial architecture has been left intact, natural light floods the rooms of the museum, affecting how the art within is viewed every time. Many of the exhibits caught my eye and prompted a closer examination, yet only two truly toyed with my sense of reality. 

Internal view of Dia:Beacon; with John Chamberlain “Dooms Day Flotilla,” 1982.

The first to perplex me was Bruce Nauman’s “Left or Standing, Standing or Left Standing.” (1971) Like a good deal of Nauman’s work, particularly his installation work, the exhibit is meant to invoke discomfort. After being greeted with background information by a rather ominous and outmoded television set sat at the entrance, one walks down a narrow corridor towards a doorway illuminated by vivid yellow light. Almost like a moth, the viewer is drawn to approach this intense source of light, and is completely drowned in it once they step through the doorway. The room is completely bare, filled only with a harsh yellow light that brings to mind turmeric. The experience was almost sickening, and all at once I felt like I was in some sort of nightmare, or altered state of being. The reality of naturally toned surroundings was now gone and all that existed was heavy, angry yellow. The fact that the area which fed into this exhibit was unlit only added to the disorienting experience, as I was pushed from barely any light to light so strong, it almost hurt to look at. It amazes me now to think of how powerfully light (especially the color of light) can affect a person. Everything seemed slower within the room, and when it was time to move onto the next exhibit, I felt like I was shuffling out of a daze. 

Bruce Nauman, “Left or Standing, Standing or Left Standing,” 1971, Monitors, fluorescent lighting, text on video, and wallboard.

The second work, also by Nauman, is known as “Mapping the Studio I (Fat Chance John Cage)” (2001). This work, comprised of six projector screens enclosing a space with several metal chairs and security footage of the artist’s studio playing on a continuous loop, is discomforting for a different reason than Nauman’s other work. Rather than force me into an anxious state of offensive color, this installation played with my perception and sense of security. The viewer is taken out of what they perceived as a dark, cellar like hall and placed into this artificial room, where the walls seem almost tangible but are most certainly not. It was like being in a digital hall of mirrors, and I felt constantly under surveillance during my time in the exhibit. The grainy quality of the video only added to that feeling, and the movements of mice and the artist’s cat in my peripheral vision put me further on edge.

Bruce Nauman, “Mapping the Studio I (Fat Chance John Cage),” 2001, video installation.

To have my sense of reality warped in a way akin to  Alice in Wonderland, with the constant shift in scale and overwhelming colors and visuals, was as fun an experience as it was overwhelming. Visiting these locations allowed a different type of museum etiquette, one more driven by physical interaction than quiet contemplation.

A view of Alexander Calder, “Five Swords,” 1976, sheet metal and paint, 213 × 264 × 348″.

All photos courtesy of Kirstin Waldmann © 2019

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