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Measuring Space

March 6, 2012

Measuring space

I think and see spatially. When I’m driving, I don’t see the landscape as a moving image on the flat screen of my windshield, rather, I see a pancake of space between the clouds  and the plane of the ground. I constantly gauge my shifting orientation to north with my internal sensors built of intuition and experience. The angle of the sun, the stars, the planets, the shape of the clouds, and the wrinkles in the topography all give subtle clues as to the direction I am facing. I count turns, knowing that four rights make a straight. Climbing out the Escher like complex of stairs, escalators and tunnels of the New York subway I manage to keep my orientation to the map: uptown or downtown, east side or west. I can gauge distance traveled by dead reckoning: spotting distant land features, guessing their distance and ticking off the miles as they pass into my rear view window. Walking, I know that three miles takes an hour. Hiking a rough trail, that same hour earns me two.

We measure distance and gauge space by comparing a known thing against the unknown. Trees, people, buildings, telephone poles all give us spatial clues. Here, in a landscape devoid of all that, I am confounded. Most of what I am working on here deals with the measure of space. I have just completed a more conventional drawing of the view driving into St. Louis with Eero Sarinen’s magnificent arch forming the “Gateway to the West”. Without knowing it up close and seeing just how enormous it is, the parabolic curve appears just as another flat shape, an abstraction on the horizon—like the ubiquitous arches of Mickie Ds that appear on a foreground billboard. Having walked around the triangular bases of the arch I know its scale. If you are brave enough you can take an elevator to the top. Seeing it as I approach the city, I see the tunnel of space that leads me to the wide expanses of the western states.

Out on the playa, I have been playing with measuring distances and articulating space. Remarkably, much of this country was surveyed using 66 feet of chain with a stake at each end. I’ve made a chain using surveyor’s tape and photographed it in different positions. Relative to the known distance of the tape, the scale of the playa shifts with as you move away from the shore. Measuring the entire length of the lake would give a number to the distance, yet, moving across the playa, one’s sense of space is confounded by the slogging pace as the mud sucks at your boots. Without the familiar trees or buildings of home my eye is lost.

For a second piece I walked a grid of 13 rows in the mud, delineating a square of space. As I was doing it I was reminded of how searches are done by walking (or flying) a grid. It is the only way to fully encompass an area. Just yesterday I lost my reading glasses in the grass but I was able to find them by walking a long grid. Last summer I watched in apprehension as volunteers walked a grid in the murky waters of the state park swim beach; fortunately the boy had simply gone for ice cream without permission.

The Playa has become my laboratory for spatial thinking. The broad flat plane is my drawing board, I consider these works are sketches or drawings. The work I do in the studio is a corollary. I like drawing as opposed to painting. In drawing there is an understood connection to the process of thinking and design. Like an architect or engineer, my drawings model a thought process and present ideas for further development. They are the means and not the ends.

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