Mathematical MoCA sculpture belies human touch

Round black balls the size of small fists crash in waves, spreading themselves in layers upon layers. Suddenly one giant wave rises above you, about to crash – and everything freezes. You marvel at the static hollow cave-like structure above in a seemingly endless display. Yet when you take a step back, you see the wave itself is cut off into a rectangular shape by invisible boundaries, giving the impression that it is merely a part of the whole.

Such is the design of Geometric Death Frequency – 141, Federico Diaz’s new site-specific sculpture at MASS MoCA on display at its main entrance until March 2012. Diaz, who lives in Prague, is an artist who has won international acclaim for his interactive exhibitions. Currently composed of 420,000 ABS plastic black spheres, the sculpture is an image caught between science fiction and fantasy. MASS MoCA held an opening reception for Geometric Death last Saturday attended by the artist and members of the team involved with the project, including museum director Joseph Thompson, curator Denise Markonish and benefactor Martin Setina. During their brief talks, all three emphasized the teamwork element of the project and the multitude of people who had supported the long-term process of Diaz’s creation.

Despite the collaborative effort it took to put this sculpture together, Diaz’s artistic design and process avoided the “human” aspect as much as possible. He began with a digital photograph of MASS MoCA’s clock tower taken from where Geometric Death now stands and replaced each of its pixels with a spherical ball – a so-called “voxel,” short for volumetric picture element. In the final structure, the voxels were represented by black spheres that had entirely manufactured by two specially-designed robotic arms. Though he had originally intended to stop with the unadulterated image, Diaz felt the sculpture would be too recognizable – too photographic – and, treating each voxel as a water molecule in a computer simulation, he applied the principles of fluid dynamics to manipulate the image frame by frame. In the transcription of a conference call with Thompson, Diaz explained that he stopped at frame 141 (hence the work’s title) because he “decided that from an aesthetic point of view, that was the instant the original image was subsumed by wave action.” Of the entire process, this decision reflected “the (only) human input into the piece, the artist’s choice.”

An unresolved tension resides between Diaz’s decision to remove his artistic “touch” from the artwork and the hands-on qualities of the sculpture itself. Geometric Death was put together entirely by hand; less than an hour prior to its official opening, crew members were still gluing spheres and spraying acrylic finish. MASS MoCA’s website reveals that one of the robots Diaz used will also be installed in the museum; in addition, the robot will continue to manufacture spheres that will be slowly added to the sculpture itself. Visitors are invited to touch the work (in spite of the reprimands from the occasional misinformed security guard) and engage with it on a physical level, a rare treat in the artistic world. Like Sol LeWitt but with a twist, Diaz has reversed the traditional artist-viewer role: The artist is now more physically removed from the work than its spectators are. Is awareness of this discrepancy necessary for the casual viewer to understand Geometric Death? Diaz answers with a definite “no.” In the transcription he claims, “The viewer does not need to know about the technology of the creation; it is the aesthetic aspect that matters.”

Aesthetic values, by their nature, vary from one individual to another. But there are striking features of Geometric Death which give rise to its notion of frozen motion – motion in death. Elements of continuity and discontinuity come into play to reinforce the idea of past movement, a scene once violent in life but now dead. A passing sidewalk view of the sculpture reveals a window contained within the prominently featured wave-like arch, at once encapsulating and exposing the viewer. When directly facing it head-on from the parking lot, one observes a general increase in height of the sculpture which swoops dramatically on the arch side, but gradually creeps upwards on the other. Both ultimately culminate against the wall, where the sculpture briefly continues indoors as a segment physically separated from the main body by the windows and wall of the building. Above the sculpture hangs a completely separated arrow-like segment; if the eye follows it downward, it sees that the segment just misses a complete puzzle piece-like “fit” into the main body of the sculpture and remains unsatisfied by its incompleteness.

But one of the key highlights of Geometric Death is the “medium,” so to speak, that Diaz uses. “In this sculpture, light particles were replaced by black spheres. So they represent the fluid movement of light, like a wave, as much as they represent the motions of fluids,” he explains early on in the transcription. The highly polished black spheres also reflect light as much as the absorb it; added to the haphazard but climbing structure, Geometric Death is almost irresistibly tactile (perhaps deliberately so since, as mentioned before, Diaz does explicitly allow touching). It is a work that begs to be touched, to be viewed in the round, to be questioned and examined in its entirety. Small children and adults alike could hardly resist the temptation to feel the polished, shining spheres.

Regardless of its computer-drawn origins, Diaz’s Geometric Death communicates with its viewers on a very human level. Its frozen depiction, its organic fluidity as dictated by the laws of physics and its tangible lure all communicate through what Diaz calls “touch-less art,” or art in which the artist’s hand cannot be detected. With his sculpture, Diaz has exemplified the creative spirit of MASS MoCA in a refreshing way.

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