Tucson's Muesum of Contemporary Art has developed a tradition of having outsiders do big shows about Tucson.
Gerben Mulder of the Netherlands, artist-in-residence at the museum in 2011, was so entranced by Tucson's summer monsoons that he painted a series of large-scale semi-abstractions that conjured up lightning, storm clouds and torrents of rain.
In 2013, inspired by the view from his airplane as he arrived in town, Austrian Alois Kronschlaeger re-created the Catalina Mountains—peaks, valleys, canyons and all—inside the museum. Made of lumbered pine and aluminum mesh, Kronschlaeger's enormous installation filled nearly every inch of the museum's Great Hall.
The current show, Tucson 3 Ways: A Foray into Digital Alchemy, is another big installation, again made by out-of-towners. This time, it's a pair of Los Angeles-based artists, Steven Joyner and Jason Pilarski, who operate as the duo MachineHistories. Unlike their predecessors, though, they've barely set foot in Tucson.
Pilarski spent three days here last fall scoping out the museum site the work would occupy; Joyner came to Tucson for the first time just weeks ago to help install the piece.
That didn't stop them from making a portrait of our town—of a "non-illustrative" nature—using "digital information that they've turned into three dimensions," as curator Jocko Weyland puts it, through a kind of high-tech alchemy. The artists' lack of firsthand, physical experience with Tucson is part of their point: in a massively digital world, a wealth of data about the city—and about you and me—is out there for taking on the internet.
"Everything today is recorded," Weyland says. "You're sending out information constantly. With all this data, you [the artists] don't need to be here."
Call Tucson 3 Ways the first portrait of our brave new post-physical world.
The artists amassed mountains of online information about Tucson—about the height of our peaks, the size of our population, the rate of gentrification in the old barrio and the tenor of our political tweets. Feeding those facts and others into a computer program, they directed a CNC (Computer Numerical Control) machine to chisel designs into big blocks of pure white foam, cutting away at it to make giant bas-relief sculptures.
The Californians created four foam structures (thus the punning Foray of the title), organized into three sections (Tucson 3 Ways). Visitors are meant to begin with the two massive stelae at the north side of the gallery. Rising fully 16 feet high, just 2 feet shy of the Great Hall's 18-foot ceiling, and 8 feet wide, these monumental structures act as a doorway to the installation, with the open space between them offering a view of what lies beyond.
Beautiful and imposing, both are etched with a network of the machine-cut designs. While a few of these patterns obliquely suggest the forms of a saguaro or rocky crevices in the mountains, most are abstractions indecipherable to the non-mathematician. Small horizontal rectangles line the perimeter of the panels' doorway, for example, and mysterious ovals erupt at the top. Four times a day, colored laser projections of incomprehensible threads of numbers and letters dance across the surface.
"The magic of it," Weyland says, "is that it's like finding cuneiform, a language we don't know how to read yet."
Ironically, etched as they are with the new digital "languages," the monumental pieces give a nod to art history. They evoke carved slabs from the Middle East of 5,000 years ago or, even, as museum director Sam Ireland suggests, the doors of medieval cathedrals that were sculpted with scenes from the Bible.
The white foam, a disposable lowly material of modern times, can trick the eye: it could be plaster or ceramic or, if you squint, the carved marble of the ancient world.
The artists play with that confusing sense of time as you move from the first section of the installation to the second. Here, a much smaller slab is endowed with the aesthetics, not of the distant past, but of the retro times of the early computer. A smooth white casing gives the slab the look of a primitive Apple, or even, as Weyland notes, of the pioneering 1940s ENIAC computer. A lighted digital feed flashes written facts about Tucson: the number of inhabitants in the city (526,695) and the population density (2,260 people per mile).
The third obelisk, at the back of the installation, is the easiest to "read." It's 12-foot-square, a relief map of some of Tucson's geographical and architectural features. They're not in an order that conforms with the real Tucson as we know it—the bas-relief Santa Cruz River flood plain is out of place right next to the carved Catalina Mountains, and buildings occupy space where the open land begins in our real desert. Even so, after the challenging confusions of the digital regions we've passed through, it's a pleasure to see the contours of the Catalinas that we know and love and the snake curve of the Santa Cruz. This is a portrait that we can see and understand.
Tucson 3 Ways is a challenging exhibition, for sure. It's worlds away from the analog Tucson installations created by Mulder and Kronschlaeger. But it's an opportunity to ponder over the quantified life that we all lead now, where every step is counted and recorded, and every random thought casually typed into a device can be archived for all time.
"The artists are mapping ourselves and our environment to a level beyond our own comprehension," Weyland says. "What we are doing to ourselves is incomprehensible. You're constantly telling the whole world what you're doing."
And it could be that the artwork is also a veiled warning. That middle obelisk (the one that looks like an old computer) also conjures up HAL, the intelligent computer of Kubrick's sci-fi classic 2001, A Space Odyssey. Endowed with fierce sentience, HAL goes rogue and rises up against his human makers.