We live in a mostly virtual world, cellphones gripped tightly in our hands. Scrolling through artists’ Instagram images and Tumblr pages it’s easy to forget that the artworks we’re seeing have a real physical presence.
When we encounter the work in person, however, all our senses come into play. We notice not only the basic forms of the artwork but how it interacts with the surrounding environment. We compare the scale of the work to the size of our own body. We note how light is either reflected or absorbed by the textural surface. In other words we have a broad reaction to the work that’s based on conscious and subconscious observations.
All artworks have their own material presence. Large artworks, for example, are different than small ones. Paint on canvas is different than paint on paper. A field of strong, intense color has its own unique presence. Beginning artist/designers should learn to recognize the material presence of the objects they make and then learn how to effectively enhance those qualities in their work.
Here are two sculptural installations that each have a specific material presence. Look at the photos and read the descriptions. Then imagine how much more you would get if you could experience each work in person. That missing element is the work’s material presence.
The first is a piece titled Sequence by Richard Serra, an American sculptor. It is made of massive freestanding steel sheets that have been rolled and twisted into gentle curves by enormous industrial equipment normally used to form ship hulls and oil storage tanks. The sheets of steel are approximately two inches thick and fourteen feet high. They are welded together to create long ribbon-like forms. This particular steel is designed to develop a rust-like patina that protects the metal from further corrosion.
Walking around and through these gigantic ribbons of industrial steel is a very impressive experience. The size and sense of weight are overwhelming. There is an unease about being so close to something so huge and heavy. The color and texture of the metal dominate your senses. As a viewer you are drawn into gently curving open spaces only to find that those same spaces become progressively smaller and tighter – even claustrophobic and threatening – as you move through the maze of spaces created by the giant forms. The total experience is one of awe and intimidation.
The second piece is an intricate, peaceful and gently expansive work by Pakistan artist Anila Quayyum Agha. This installation is titled Intersection and consists of a six foot wooden box suspended in the middle of a 35 foot room. All the sides of the box have been laser cut with complex patterns inspired by motifs from the thirteenth century Moorish castle in Spain known as the Alhambra. A single lightbulb is suspended in the middle of the floating box bringing our focus to that form while casting complex, beautiful shadow patterns outward onto the walls ceiling and floor of the surrounding room.
The feeling here is one of peace and tranquility. The central box seems to float in the space and the patterns cast on the room’s surfaces gently activate those flat planes in a way that unifies the entire room. If you, as a viewer, were to enter the space you would be enveloped by the same patterns and become an active part of the installation – not merely an observer. The atmosphere of this space is weightless, open, inviting and even spiritual. It seems dreamlike.