Ancient Structures

“In 1886, the French Orientalist and academic artist Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904) painted The First Kiss of the Sun, a serene early morning view of Giza from the east. In it, Ra’s rays have set aglow only the peaks of the pyramids of Khufu and Khafre, and the sun is not yet high enough to illuminate the shorter pyramid of Menkaure nor the squat sphinx of Khafre, whose head emerges from the mist in the center of the picture. Three camels mellow in the foreground, their positions mimicking the triad of skyward thrusting tombs beyond. It had been six years since Gérôme’s final trip to the Nile River Valley, but in working in the comfort of his Paris studio from a sketch made on site, he conveyed in startling coloristic chiaroscuro the way the rising sun’s rays reveal the ancient structures from the top down against the brightening sky. Gérôme gave a whitish cast to the apexes of the larger pyramids, although then as now only Khafre’s, the central and tallest one, still retains traces of the gleaming buffed limestone veneer that in the Old Kingdom would have covered all four sides of these ancient monuments.

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“Gérôme’s travels in Egypt were critical to his understanding of these wonders of the ancient world. He had to witness them in the light of dawn to better understand their power. It is the intersection between nature’s cycles and human presence that such monuments catalyze: they better connect us to our environment. They heighten our awareness, drawing us out of a focus on ourselves, and help us to define our lives and lifespans against infinite time. The Land Art of Walter De Maria (1935-2013) can be regarded as a contemporary crystallization of these ideas, inspiring equal parts unease and elation. But unlike The First Kiss of the Sun, they are not inert: they demand and repay the viewer’s personal presence and concerted focus. The intimate experience of his projects and the way that De Maria insisted that you must take only the visual and visceral experiences away with you is consistent in all his work. It may seem strangely controlling, but it is the only way to connect with artworks more often encountered via reproduction.

“It was at quarter to seven in the morning at around 7,150 feet above sea level in the desert somewhere near Pie Town that we first saw the top edge of the sun above the eastern ridge behind De Maria’s monumental outdoor sculpture. Seconds before, as in the effect in Gérôme’s 131-year-old painting, the stainless steel tips of the easternmost of the four hundred rods installed in a one mile by one kilometer grid in the summer and autumn of 1977 had begun to glow. At between fifteen and twenty-five feet high, they were earlier witnesses to the light of our nearest star. We swiveled around to see all the pole points beginning to shine. In the three minutes it took for the sun to fully reveal itself, each shaft stirred to gilded life, and the poles, the majority of which had been invisible in the crisp and eerily silent early dawn, now spread across the plane before us like golden light-saber beams emitting from the scruffy earth. The poles, like the Great Pyramids, are the conduits for an experience that links sky and land, light and form, human endeavor and endless time. The pyramid of Khafre is some 4,549 years old. The Lightning Field just turned forty…”

Text: Walter De Maria and The Lightning Field at Forty: Art as Symbiosis, The Brooklyn Rail. 

Image: Jean-Léon Gérôme, The First Kiss of the Sun, c. 1886.

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