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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Slowly Erased by Wind

“I live and grew up in Lima. About 60% of the city today lies within the desert, most of it grew without any serious urban planning. It’s a self-made metropolis, the second largest city built in the desert after Cairo. It grew from 1 million to 8 million people in less than 60 years. There’s a lot of problems derived from this development in terms of sustainability and living standards which exacerbate the huge inequality of our society. The desert plays a big role in this regard. People living in desert areas of the city are usually poor and often have to pay more for water than those living in more centric (richer) areas. They also lack proper infrastructure and have much less public places and parks. For a long time, these areas were not considered part of the city by the ruling class and the authorities until they became the majority.

“By drawing a gigantic map of a city onto the desert, the project not only seeks to draw attention to this facts, but questions our very concept of city, specially in regards to its environment. Lima is a sort of negation of the desert. Our model and ideal of city is very occidental, and does not adapt very well to its context. The desert is seen a kind of non-place, not a part of our living environment. In this sense, there’s a sort of irony in using a robot to draw a city onto the desert, as if it would be drawing it on the surface of Mars (exploring the outer space for the possibility of urban life).”

The city drawn in the desert is ephemeral is that correct? Isn’t it disheartening to dedicate so much energy and see the city being slowly erased by the wind and other natural elements?

“Sometimes I also find it disheartening, but most of the time I think it is ok for it to be slowly erased by the wind. The lines loose the sharp contrast with the surface in a couple of weeks, but the relief will be visible for years. I don’t know if I would find the drawing and whole action equally meaningful in, let’s say, 20 years. The desert is quite a special place for me, and I had my thoughts about leaving permanent marks that large on its surface…”

Text: Interview with Rodrigo Derteano about his project Ciudad Nazca. Via We Make Money Not Art.

Twin children of the nuclear age

“But a larger question concerns our scientific knowledge: is our representation of the natural world universal? Throughout the half-century of SETI, Cocconi, Morrison, Drake and their followers have argued over which regions of the electromagnetic spectrum it would be most ‘rational’ to target for a search. They have based their arguments on naturally occurring processes like the 21-centimetre hydrogen line or similar emissions from other constituents of water molecules. But who is to say that other advanced civilisations – even if they pursue something like scientific investigation – would carve up the confusion of nature in the same way as we do? We now think in terms of atoms, electrons, quantum transitions and electromagnetic waves, but are those the only ways of making sense of physical phenomena? Can the intellectual history of Western science really be a universal phenomenon, with the current state of our science being a fixed point in the evolution of intelligence everywhere in the cosmos?

“And SETI might indeed make its greatest contribution in the nuclear arena. Some of the most hazardous by-products of the nuclear age, including isotopes of plutonium, have half-lives of hundreds of thousands of years. One challenge is to find places on Earth that are likely to remain geologically stable over such a time-scale, where such waste can be buried. A second challenge is to design symbols to warn our descendants, 300,000 years from now, not to go digging in these areas. As the historian Peter Galison has been documenting, the US nuclear agencies have sought the wisdom of diverse experts – linguists, anthropologists, sculptors – to imagine how we might plausibly communicate with terrestrial beings in the impossibly distant future. After all, the Latin alphabet dates back a mere 2600 years; only hubris could lead us to imagine that familiar modes of communication will be recognisable in the year 300,000 AD…”

“Alongside linguists and artists, nuclear bureaucrats have also enlisted experts in SETI. Struggling to communicate with our future selves calls for the same kind of radical imagination that SETI requires. Both efforts criss-cross the boundaries between disciplines; both require experts to project from what we know about our own civilisation to facilitate communication with some distant other. They are mirror images, twin children of the nuclear age…”

Read More: David Kaiser: Diary – London Review of Books

Image: Proposal for Yucca Mountain ‘warning’ sculpture by Michael Brill, via

You Are Here

“Geocaching was invented in May 2000, within days of the US Government switching off the security restrictions on global positioning systems that limited the accuracy of civilian receivers. A Portland computer consultant, Dave Ulmer, posted a message online that he had hidden a plastic bucket with software, videos, books, food, money and a slingshot in the woods near Portland, says the author of Geocaching For Dummies, Joel McNamara. “He used his GPS receiver to record the latitude and longitude and encouraged others to try to find it,” McNamara says.”

“Geocaching is “a high-tech treasure hunt for adults” – at least, that is the most succinct explanation enthusiasts can offer. A striking mix of the latest network technologies, unregulated gaming and muddy-boots bushwalking, it’s an activity that didn’t exist nine years ago. Now there are about 1 million cachers who participate worldwide, an estimated 13,000 of them in Australia. More get hooked all the time.

“Cachers refer to the wider public – the uninitiated hordes ignorant of their secret missions – as “muggles”, after the non-magic folk in the Harry Potter books. A cache that has been disturbed or trashed is said to have been “muggled”.

“Science writer Darren Osborne, who has been geocaching since mid-2003, says: “When I started, it was very much a clandestine activity. There are a number of people who do like the secrecy of geocaching and want to keep it that way but as more and more people find out about it, it becomes a bit harder to retain that secret squirrel, Get Smart stuff.”

“It’s not really about the treasure hidden inside the caches – typically trinkets from $2 shops or small toys. It’s about finding it. Caches are not buried but they are concealed – in tree trunks, under benches, under stones, sometimes even in fence posts or landmarks.

[…]

“Geocaching was invented in May 2000, within days of the US Government switching off the security restrictions on global positioning systems that limited the accuracy of civilian receivers. A Portland computer consultant, Dave Ulmer, posted a message online that he had hidden a plastic bucket with software, videos, books, food, money and a slingshot in the woods near Portland, says the author of Geocaching For Dummies, Joel McNamara. “He used his GPS receiver to record the latitude and longitude and encouraged others to try to find it,” McNamara says.”

Adult Hide and Seek, The Sydney Morning Herald