On last Sunday’s pleasantly clear-skied afternoon, contemporary art enthusiasts and residents of Williamstown alike stopped by Stone Hill to check out German artist Thomas Schütte’s new installation there, a small building he’s christened Crystal. This site-specific piece of architecture, opened June 14, is Schütte’s first in the United States.
Crystal is a profoundly odd structure; non-rectangular, asymmetrical and slantingly angled, Schütte arrived at its shape by imagining a small crystal (such as a piece of quartz) expanded to the size of a hut. Its exterior is covered in a sleek zinc-coated copper alloy, intensely modern, even futuristic. Its interior is more traditional, composed of smooth pine walls treated with weatherproofing chemical solution. The entry doors to Crystal open only outwards, specifically made to keep out cows (as is necessary – the structure does reside in their grazing pasture) but welcome in us Ephs. There are no exit doors; rather, the end of Crystal opposite its entryway has been left completely wall-less, an opening that frames a view of the Hoosac Mountains as they stretch out behind several cherry and ash trees. With this physical breaking of a fourth wall, the structure is left literally open-ended.
Just as it was built literally open-ended, so it has been left interpretatively open-ended by its creator. Schütte never provided an explanation for it, choosing rather to drop the piece in our community’s lap and allow us to come up with some of our own analyses. Representatives of the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute (Clark) report that this opportunity for each viewer to attempt to construct their own meaning for the piece is part of what makes its viewing so enjoyable. This writer for the Record personally had quite a grand old time of trying to piece together his own cohesive interpretation whilst simultaneously attempting to take in a thorough survey of the cool midday scene, around 2 to 3 p.m., for this report. And thankfully for his cognitive faculties, easily overloaded as they can be when sensorially overstimulated or conceptually bombarded, the two tasks ended up handily complementing one another.
As this reporter watched locals of all ages meander about the top of Stone Hill, variously turtleneck-, sweater-vest-, fleece- and parka-clad, he was surprised to see how well the disparate elements of the scene blended and mixed into a cohesive unit, a singular scene. The installation’s older visitors being shuttled up to the top of the hill via a Clark golf cart; the younger tramping around near the forest, tugging on hanging branches to stern maternal reprimands; the Clark representatives standing cheerily under portable tent pavilions, generously proffering donuts and apple cider and fielding queries about the installation; a small herd of cows strolling up the sloping hill behind Crystal to graze at its side, absolutely bucolic and aggressively picturesque; and of course, the sweeping view of the Purple Valley composing half the hilltop event’s lines of sight, spires and finials of the College’s structures poking up down below through surrounding greenery (soon to be red-, yellow- and orange-ery).
All of these features on their surface levels seem distinct from one another, and to a certain extent of course they are. However, one interpretive filter through which to view Crystal may offer a way to see all the aforementioned heterogeneity in a much more unified light.
What Schütte essentially did in creating this piece was take a form of nature, in this case the physical structure of a small crystal, enlarge it by orders of magnitude, and resituate it (constructed architecturally) in nature yet again. In this way, Crystal can serve as a reminder of the universality of nature. Case in point: Though Crystal’s form appears intensely modern in style, it has in fact been around since before art, and before us humans, and even before life itself. The oldest confirmed piece of the Earth’s crust is a crystal, 4.4 billion years old. Crystal is thus about as old as anything can be, and can be seen as not so much an artificial construction as simply a different manifestation of nature, placed inside that nature of which it is itself a part. Regardless of the varied forms and shapes the physical matter of nature assumes throughout the course of time (e.g. an actual crystalline solid vs. a wooden building constructed to look like one, a crystal structure vs. the Crystal structure), the underlying fact of the case is that all that exists is nature, and all of nature is but composed of the same physical matter.
This is a fairly simple message, somewhat straightforwardly Buddhistic in its implications of oneness and unity, but the simplicity of the message only serves to magnify rather than diminish the unifying effect. Crystal not only mimics nature; it is a piece of it. The zinc and copper and pine of which it’s comprised are elements of our world just as much as any crystalline solid is. And for that matter, all the people viewing Crystal are themselves pieces of nature, as are their sewn cotton clothes and the iPhones in the pockets therein (these come from the Earth just as much as “natural” things do, albeit through human agency). Even the electrochemical interactions between the neurons in their brains responsible for producing experiences of art are themselves parts of that same nature of which Crystal is a part. Or, at least, of which it is a part for the present moment; only time will tell if the structure will be able to withstand the New England winter before it closes on Dec. 31. But for now, Crystal stands on Stone Hill, awaiting Ephs’ visitation and contemplation.