Listen Closely to What You See
Read Mercer Schuchardt, PhD Media Ecologist
Listen Closely to What You See:
Media Ecological perspespectives on David Wallace Haskins' Skywall Opening
Listen Closely to What You See
Read Mercer Schuchardt, Media Ecologist
You spoke to me through her.
You spoke to me through the sky.
The Tree of Life, Terence Malick
You are in a midwestern suburb of Chicago, in an otherwise nondescript house turned into an Architect and Interior Design office, in a small room where there is an exactly nine-square-foot section of wall glowing bright sky blue in a perfectly square shape. It is unsettling. It is unsettling that you're seeing it, but more unsettling because where it's happening is not supposed to be here, where, you know, you ended up living. This should be in New York City. Or Paris. Or Tokyo. Maybe in Berlin at one of those burnt-out underground bunker sites that have been converted into art-space with a lot of cool graffiti outside. But this? This is the midwestern suburbs, and people wear khakis and are very nice and are completely unhip and uncool and in fact -- can we be totally honest? -- kind of predictably boringly safe to be around. They ask if you would like more cheese, or sparkling water. They say, "How do you do?" and "I saw one of your kids on his bike at the park!" and "We should get together!" and things like that. None of them have spiked hair, or tattoos or piercings or anything weird, or if they do, they are on parts of their body that aren't exposed during normal working hours at Starbucks. So how did the bright blue square get onto this wall?
The press release, which you got in e-mail form, one of about one-hundred-and-fifty that you deleted that day, said that, "For the first time in art history, the full vertical dimension of the sky has been brought to the picture plane." And your skeptical mind said quietly to no one but yourself, "I don't think so." But then you start to wonder: wait, really, for the first time? Isn't this just a trick of the light? Isn't this just a mirror angled at 45º outside an unframed window? Haven't mirrors - or at least photorealistic reflective surfaces -- been around since as long as, I don't know, the ancient Greeks and the myth of Narcissus? Is it really possible that in the thousands of years of still-water reflections, polished metal, glass reflections, metal-backed glass since the first century and actual silvered-glass mirror technology since 1835 in Germany, that no one, not one person, has actually ever brought the full vertical dimension of the sky to the horizontal picture plane for the eye to see? That sounds so ridiculous that it just can't be true. So you look it up.
What you find is that it is true. Some folks have come close, but never quite done this. What you find are James Turrell and Anish Kapoor, artists born in 1943 and 1954, respectively, who have played a lot with the sky, mirrors and space, and done some really cool things but not actually, ever, technically, brought the vertical dimension to the horizontal plane. James Turrell is Quaker and keeps making you look up at the ceiling to see a bit of sky, which is where you'd already be looking to see it. And Anish Kapoor is the guy who did the bean in Chicago, which is technically called Cloud Gate but no one ever calls it that, but it's such a big artistic deal that no souvenir shops in the city sell anything but two-dimensional pictures of it, because the 3-D sculpture has been copyrighted and no one is allowed to legally sell miniature 3-D versions of it, which is the only version of it you should actually pay money to buy. So then wait, if it's just Turrell and Kapoor, then that means that no artist in all of art history has actually ever brought the full vertical dimension of the sky to the horizontal level of the picture plane. But David Wallace Haskins has. And he was born, like, yesterday. Which means he has a lot more years to play around with this stuff and make things that are even way cooler. Like bigger Skywalls, like Skywalls that actually make the whole viewing audience fall over on their faces on their first encounter. This is actually what G.K. Chesterton said the purpose of true religion was: to make a grown man fall on his face and weep.
The real message or meaning of any work of art is, of course, its effect. The effect of the Skywall installation is threefold: first it disorients you, then it defamiliarizes the sky, and lastly it becomes a ceaseless invitation to wonder. The disorientation is quite real, but is sort of like the way certain movies have to be experienced without any preconceived notions otherwise you lose the impact. Do you remember the 1990's when they said that if you saw the Blair Witch Project without first knowing that it was not a real documentary, then its effect was to mess with your head pretty badly? If you don't know what you're walking into when you first see the Skywall, the disorientation is total, surreal, and has had the effect of making people jump back, fall over, and just sort of bend over and stare weirdly at it while trying to grab onto something to make sure their eyes aren't perceiving up and down incorrectly. Your inner ear keeps you in balance, but the Skywall can make your ears go wonky if you're not prepared for it.
Once you know what it is that you are looking at, you start to wonder how the sky looks so unfamiliar when framed on a wall like a piece of indoor art. “Man, that looks like a backlit Magritte painting!” “Man, that looks like a piece of neon!” “Man that looks like a video loop of the clouds going over.” “Didn't you see something like this once on a Cathode Ray Tube at the MOMA?” But these clouds are three dimensional, and was that a bird?
Depending on the weather, the time of day, and the temperature, you're going to perceive something quite different. And the temperature is a real phenomenon when viewing the Skywall, because you find out that this is an open window outside of which is an angled mirror bouncing the sky into your retina on the surface of a specially cut square hole in the wall. If you stick your hand through that hole, you'll actually be reaching outside the building, as in sticking your hand through a window that looks to your eye like a solid surface. If it's cold outside, or raining, or just overcast and misty, you'll feel it.
The blue sky, as you know, is the Virgin Mary. She is humanity cloaking divinity. This is all ancient iconography stuff, but seriously, it's kind of abstract and universal and strangely particular or wait, actually, kind of oddly specific, all at once. In the original Italian Pinocchio version of the story, she's called The Blue Fairy. In modern corporate logos, she's the new Pepsi logo competing against the red Coca-Cola. She's like the replay of the Blue versus the Grey, which was how the Civil War played out. This is all free-floating word-association stream-of-consciousness stuff, but seriously it's what hits your neocortex after you stare at it long enough and you have one more glass of Moscato D'Asti on a summer evening. It's low alcohol stuff, like three percent at best, the Moscato, but on a late summer afternoon it's plenty. Especially with the sky showing up in front of your face, at eye level, on a summer evening in the suburbs of Chicago in a house that's been converted into an architecture firm. When you're in an airplane you don't see the sky this close up. You don't perceive it this directly. You take off and fly through clouds and move up from 1:1 scale all the way up to full map scale, which is like 1:43,000 scale, where the rivers actually look like the thin stripes they do on the map itself, and you're surrounded by nothing but blue sky and these two-dimensional map icons below -- there's the farmland grids, there's the snakelike line of the river, there's the Lego-block city -- but you still have never had the sky this much in your face before, and like I said before, its unsettling. Being in the sky is not nearly the same as having the sky come to you.
Its unsettling the way true religion is unsettling, the way your cynical friends are unsettling once they've settled down and stopped saying "whatever" and started saying grace before meals. The way certain old people in restaurants who still love each other are unsettling, especially when you're the waiter and you see the old man pull out the chair for his wife and he asks if you can get his daughter an adult beverage and the wife says, "Oh Henry!" and she blushes like it's their first date on March 30, 1936 which was a Thursday and she still remembers it like yesterday and when she orders the Manhattan clam chowder and he orders soup you don't even need to ask because you already know its the New England clam chowder because that's how old people are, and yet you go back to the kitchen with the order and you're all choked up because your grandparents didn't make it and you hope like hell your wife still loves you this much when you're that age, and you think to yourself what do I have to do to make her blush when she's 82 because she's sure as hell not going to fall for this "Get my daughter a glass of wine" line that old Henry has just used. I am not, of course, explaining it well, but that's how blue the sky is. And that's what you think of as you look at it, for about an hour, as it visually changes on the wall precisely as slowly as the sky itself really does when it's, you know, in the sky: immovable, while clouds and weather and climate and barometric pressure and daytime and nighttime play out their little dance over its infinite grace. At night the Skywall shows you the stars. This is so much cooler than childhood, when your parents finally got you those glow-in-the-dark stick-ons that were actually oversized, and green, and never quite glowed fully after the first week of being stuck to your ceiling, and then fell off one by one so that the big dipper ended up looking like an angled question mark and you just wished you had a bigger room so the ceiling was farther away from the top bunk and looked more like real stars.
Here's the thing: when you look at the sky, actually the real sky, you have to be outside looking up.
When you look at a James Turrell skyspace, you have to be inside looking up. You're just doing what you normally do to look at the sky, only you're doing it inside. A Turrell skyspace is like having a fancy skylight on your roof, except it has no glass in it and at dusk and dawn the ceiling is flooded with different colors of light to affect the color of the sky. But even then you find yourself entertained more then anything, and perhaps asking yourself some fun science questions about how our eyes perceive color. Which is Turrell’s intent and background in perceptual psychology. He wants you to see yourself seeing and to play with your perception with light and color, and maybe even help you into a reflexive loop of wordless thought where you might begin to have some deeper thoughts about yourself and the world around you, like the Quakers do in their silent meeting houses, or the ancients Greeks did inside the first skyspace, The Pantheon. But you always leave thinking about your aching neck more then anything because that whole time you were stuck looking up.
When you look at an Anish Kapoor piece, you have to be outside looking at. You're looking at a mirror, either straight, or bent, or curved, and your looking mostly at your reflection, or the city's, or the slightly angled reflection of the space and sky behind you, but it's all mirror-mirror-on-the-wall narcissism type of stuff: look at me in the funhouse, look at me as an oblong refraction like the skyscrapers behind me, but just look at me. Most of your pictures of the bean in Chicago's Millennium Park, can we be honest -- they're selfies.
But when you look at Haskins’ Skywall, you have to be inside looking through. And that is a difference with a difference. You are not outside looking up, you are not inside looking up, and you are not outside looking at: you are inside looking through. That is a monstrously massive change. It is a huge-and-yet-easy-to-overlook epistemological difference. It is the difference between an icon and an idol. You look through an icon, to catch a glimpse of the true light, whereas you look at an idol, which only shows reflected light. Looking at is the primary means by which you can unwittingly commit the metaphysical crime of idolatry, which is mistaking the made for the maker. To look through the wall, and to look through the horizontal dimension to visually perceive pure sky, something you only normally perceive by being outside looking up, well now you are in an entirely new realm of perception. You begin to wonder what else you've been misperceiving all your life. You stare through it longer: you might become decontextualized, perceive sensory deprivation, or have an out-of-body feeling. In a few minutes you'll enter theta-wave consciousness, which is what Buddhists call meditation and what Christianity calls prayer. You might feel like you're floating. You might feel mesmerized, or hypnotized, by the pattern you're seeing. You will lower your level of cortisol production, and you'll lose belly fat if you stare through this thing long enough. That's pretty much the opposite of what will happen if you spend all afternoon sitting on the couch, looking at TV, and eating corn chips. Television is all idolatry, all the time. You just look at it and feel bad about yourself by comparison. So you eat more corn chips. The Skywall is like a religious icon for your visual culture's overreliance on the visual. It rebuffs your attempt to visually comprehend it, to visually contain it, to sum it up in one glance and say, "Yep, got it" to yourself. You stop seeing very quickly and slowly realize you are starting to listen, to go internal, and you go pretty deep pretty quickly.
Listen closely to what you see. You might even feel like you should obey what you hear. This means something. What is it?
Pretty soon of course you have to go. You drive home wishing you had this in your house. But not really having it as a piece of art to own, but having it to help you listen and see differently on a daily basis. I just saw something I've never seen before, you realize. That's all genius ever was: showing us something that's right in front of us that we've never seen before. Because ubiquity is invisibility. You realize you haven't seen the sky in years, and years, and years. And now you have. Rather amazing, no?
Read Mercer Schuchardt earned his B.A. at Swarthmore College and his Ph.D. in Media Ecology at New York University under the invitation of the late Neil Postman. He is founder of the website Metaphilm, Editorial Board Chair of Second Nature Journal, and co-author of Understanding Jacques Ellul.