Rest Area – Dan Graham’s Triangular Bridge Over Water, Laumeier Sculpture Park, St. Louis Mo
Recently, while departing from the Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) to my home state of Missouri, I picked up my Dan Graham exhibition monograph from his well deserved 2009 retrospective organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles in collaboration w/ The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. (An exhibition was also appropriately mounted at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, appropriate in that the artist has a longtime base of followers in the Midwest region). Being that I was heading to the nature of the family farm, the generational acreage of my lineage, it only made since to re-assert my attention to the chapter of Graham’s writings in his Garden as Theater and Museum. Although the farm is not a garden, theater or museum, the general notion of immediate nature akin to my family and the recent and partial placement of my own artistic ideas and practice to such an arena seems relevant here. With this said I don’t totally object to the possibility of viewing a farm as a garden, theater or museum. After all, all four of these contexts originate in and from nature. As I read through the artist’s writings on the English Garden’s influence on the French’s own appropriated English garden and the influence that literature, politics and theater had upon the creation of these sites of dwelling, leisure and recreation I became restless as usual. This is actually cheating the chapter which also includes writings on Disney, Rem Koolhaas-Coney Island’s Luna Park and a great almost romantic and historical exampling on the creation of the writer Rousseau’s burial site. In short Graham starts with the early model of the Arcadian garden and the evolution and happenings of the “garden” and its connections to creative culture, theatre, politics and nature. He follows up with the Baroque period and speeds up with corporate American theatre-ism found in the creation of garden-esque atriums in buildings, Venturi’s hand in re-presenting Washington, D.C.’s original city planning in a public art work and of similar corporate frame workings of the garden in Europe. Finally he reaches the European reality of the fair and of art experience as leisure and vacation with families and children loading up in their cars and traveling to sculpture parks to view contemporary art. Ultimately it (being the garden) always seemed to originate in relation to the familial or aristocracy and a tandem relationship shaped by government as an almost socialist model. Perhaps a context of art and life as a seemingly utopia experience, yet through the culmination of societal- political proportions involved it would seem to be more about environments of multiplicity and even dystopia. Make sense? Dan once commented that he thinks I’m intellectually restless. This is true.
I began to flip through the chapter looking at images, eventually coming to plates of Graham’s Octagon for Münster, his Pergola Bridge for Clisson, France (1988-90) and his descriptive reasoning and explanations pertaining to the history of these sites -supporting such structures relevance for carrying out or creating them. The previous priming of the historical context shaping his practice in his writing really makes sense in the location of these pavilion works in their own time and place as well as today. Also, importantly explained here is the artist’s original proposal for the non-realized Two-Way Mirror Bridge and Triangular Pavilion To Existing Mill House for The Domaine de Kerguéhennec (a chateau) in Brittany, France. The site of this original bridge proposal consists of a sculpture park on the grounds of a old familial estate configured within an old French garden that was converted into an English garden. Here we see this cultural and regional transformation as vaguely mentioned above. Other elements found on the site were a surviving Mill House and an old Chinese oriented bridge which the artist wanted to replace with a new bridge constructed from his now common two-way mirror and other corporate oriented materials. These left-over elements on the property in fact influenced the proposal as found in the roof form of the bridge and possibly the proposed converting of a bridge commented (not critiqued) on the sites own re-configuring of cultural and or regional motifs. This also can be said for the ever changing history of the “garden” in general. In many ways the proposal acted as an early in situ response or reaction on elements lending themselves to a practice, relative to site specificity. In reality Graham’s pavilion’s vortex-ual make-up almost always act as site specific in that they absorb the very site they are planted in, but it is important to acknowledge Graham’s relevance in connection to the history of site-specificity and artist’s that tend to get placed under the guise of “institutional critique”. Specifically, the early site inventories of Michael Asher. In possibly a looser or humorous way for the sake of writing about travel or the art fair-here, Asher’s Installation Münster (Caravan) comes to mind. In fact the two artists practices coincided for the exhibition Skulptur Projekte (1987) curated by Klaus Bussmann and Kasper König (the exhibition was the second installment by these curators coming after Skulptur 77 also in Münster and the same year Asher picked his locations for his Installation Münster (Caravan)- ( Donald Judd and Claus Oldenburg also contributed to the 77 mounting). In 1987 Graham created Octagon for Münster a pavilion consisting of eight panels of two way mirror, a sloped wooden roof, a sliding door and a wooden pole in the middle of the structure supporting the floor (earth) to the roof. In short the pavilion was placed in the middle of a tree-lined allée on an old park amidst the presence of pre-existing pavilions, a university botanical garden, kiosks and even a palace. The positioning of Graham’s pavilion acted essentially as an allegorical conductor in that it absorbed not only in production, but in presentation the very essence of the history of the site pertaining to garden-hood (Specifically English-Baroque). It further commented through its use of natural materials, a step backwards into primitivism and even further through its use of two-way mirror specifically comments on the surrounding contemporary city’s corporate make-up of none other than two-way mirror.
The images accompanying this literary and visual scenario of Octagon for Münster and his Pergola Bridge for Clisson, France (1988-90), like images do, triggered my memory that Dan had created a similar work in my home state. This all struck a nerve. It supported my reasoning for taking the book off my shelf while packing my bag. It was clear to me on the airplane that I would drive across the state, visit the site and do this writing. It wasn’t important for me to negotiate the gesture as art, as in a way this was my mid-western vacation. A middle-class vacation if you will. I’ve still never been to Europe. It only made sense to travel and write about actions that supersede any meandering of if it’s art ort not. It’s simply a case of an artist traveling and writing. I picked a bizarre way of starting out and found myself traveling alone. It was better this way. More importantly this would be the first pavilion by the artist that I would experience first hand.
After spending the week on my parent’s farm in southwest Missouri on the outskirts of Springfield, the hometown I share with the likes of Brad Pitt and Bob Barker, I packed a bag of clothes and headed to Kansas City where I had studied painting at the Kansas Art Institute. Here I stayed with my friends Neal and Lacey and their cats Mildred and Mr. Butters in their turn of the century 4 story duplex in the historic Westside district, with a special bonus to their hospitality always found in their dinners from the garden, Neal’s bread baking and a huge record collection and library. One favorite in this area is Lou Reed’s New Sensations track on the album of the same name, which I normally play at least 5 times over after a few beers or to introduce the drinking of a few beers. I realize this didn’t happen this time and we stayed primarily out on the back porch over conversation, Miller High Life, and a nice breeze w/ Mariah, Timmy and Phil.
Previously the sun had highlighted the back yard and the clothes on the line in a golden amber I haven’t seen even in California. I was finally breaking out of an almost de-mobilizing neurotic and manic episode I’d been having for over a month with Maria as my witness at least in Kansas City. Actually she helped me end it. Even though I was aching to leave L.A. for a bit I had to drag myself to the airport just a week prior. I hadn’t felt this immobile since CalArts. We all talked about lots of things that night and I selfishly talked on and on about the trip I would take the following morning. As Neal had looked through the Dan Graham book earlier in that evening in the front room, I flipped through an older Mike Kelley one that prompted a melancholic smile and feeling towards my studio in Los Angeles- towards Los Angeles in general. I was here to travel and write though. It also got me thinking of what I wanted to do with all of those ball cards under the bed at my folk’s house… That was good. I needed to focus on a different outlet and take a needed break from what seems to be an overarching energy focused on what is success in L.A. I admit it drains me. This inspiration lending to studio could wait for now, but sleep couldn’t. It was already approaching 3 am.
It was morning and the sun blanketed the front downstairs library room. It was a lot brighter than the amber one from the sundown the night before. Being summer I slept with only a sheet and pillow in a floral design similar to Warhol. Mildred kept me company and woke me up by jumping on my back, while the mockingbirds played rooster. It was 8:30 or so and approaching the upper 90’s already. I was anxious, shat, showered Bronners style, brushed my teeth Toms style (neither my own), grabbed some printing paper (not mine), a pen (not mine either) and left the house (I really came prepared). It was time to travel again. I grabbed a water and headed to the local snack shop YJ’s for some fruit (a banana and an orange), said hi to my old professor Jack Rees who was eating his breakfast in close proximity to where we once held a conversation on Max Jammers Concepts of Space and the elementary foundations on geometry several years prior. I told David Ford- a local artist and owner of the café- I’d possibly be back through in the evening and he invited me over for a studio visit, wishing me a safe travel. The day would be packed. I was on my way.
St.Louis is a straight line from Kansas City on Interstate 70. The destination would be approx 250 miles and end 4 hours later. I turned the radio onto hear Felony’s Fanatic, a fitting song for the trip and a great rhythm to approach the pavement regardless. It was a 96.5 the Buzz’s resurrection segment that wouldn’t last much longer after the song, as once it got heavy into the popular music of 80’s I changed the channel for obvious reasons. Most music or creative things coming out of the 80’s that I can appreciate relate more to the aesthetics of the 70’s. Punk and pre-alternative seems relevant to my own interests. That and rap. Not thirty minutes into my trip I began to question my driving for the first time alone to a city I’ve only visited not even the number of fingers on one hand. The last time I rode in a car on I70 was to see Sonic Youth, Wolf Eyes and Hair Police in Columbia. On the way back we listened to And Justice for All by Metallica. We stopped in a gas station in Booneville to be called a bunch of faggots. I was wearing a Men’s Recovery T-Shirt. My cousin Kristen once went to military school there. So this time I drove, I peed, I drove, I peed, I drove and I arrived. I also stopped to buy batteries for my camera- my mother’s camera-a Fuji.
Laumeier Sculpture Park is located on the outer edge of St.Louis off of I44 (198 miles west of the artist’s birthplace of Urbana, Illinois and 188 miles north of Springfield, Mo) on 72 acres on the former land of the park’s namesake Matilda Laumeier. She donated the land to the county in 1968. Between 1975 and 1977 the artist Ernest Trova via Pace Gallery donated 40 works to help form the Park and other donated works were later offered by Robert Morris, Alexander Calder and Mark Di Suvero. The Triangular Bridge Over Water (1990) was part of the park’s Ten Sites Program from 1980-1990, a unique program that facilitated a collaboration between artists and the county’s trades people from the Parks Department. It was commissioned w/ funds from the Mark Twain Laumeier Endowment Fund and the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1989 the year before the Bridge’s installment the park founded its first children’s summer camp. Obviously the new installment added a proven treat then, over time and now for children visiting the park and as with most of Graham’s structures and own admittance makes for great photo opts for couples and families.
After parking my car I snapped a photo of a Harley Davidson Motorcycle with veteran sticker tagged helmets sitting freely on the seat. I then approached a man driving a golf cart, asking where to find Dan Graham’s bridge work. He offered me a lift in the now 102 degree weather. I explained that I was visiting via Kansas City via Springfield via Los Angeles, my connections to Missouri and that I know the artist. I jotted down the dates of the park’s founding, inquired of the works 1990 installment and before I knew it we were at the location, or at least right above it. He told me, “It’s a steep incline to walk down, but you’ll find it.” I smiled and laughed inside and told him thanks! I didn’t get his name, but I’m going to write a thank you letter soon. It was indeed a steep concrete stairwell, with long black handles that winded down a hill that turned into a beaten down dirt path with wildflowers and surrounding woods. The structure began to reveal itself mid way. A child might think there’s a house down there. It felt very Hansel and Gretel. I could see its peak. Its two decade old white frame still quite stark for the mostly dual palette of green and brown found in these particular Missouri woods. The sun sparked off the structure. The sun was a spotlight in this garden of a museum. I once joked that I thought Dan’s pavilions were the perfect culmination of two of his past relationships. It wasn’t meant as a cut down obviously, but more so an appreciation for Dan possibly acknowledging his influences subversively. Actually the artist has never been one to hold back from admitting influence or admiration for others or support for that matter. Basically, it was that Dan borrowed a general aesthetic from Smithson through glass by replacing it with corporate two-way mirror and reconfigured Flavin into the sun that shines upon his works. I must say that the full credit goes to Dan and not on a whimsical or even absurd observation, but more so the very fact that his pavilions are proof to the evolution of art in general (this isn’t an academic approach it’s strictly natural-almost scientific and or supernatural). Knowing that Dan’s generation despised Duchamp it can safely be assured that such a natural and elemental shifting upon say the view of fluorescents being replaced by the sun can be spouted. It is my opinion that Dan’s work is the perfect example of a capturing of the everyday activities of humanity and materiality, specifically in relation to art and nature and more specifically in the hybrid- non predictable or given viewing of all of the above. It’s alive! In Dan’s own words- “I’m skeptical of models that implicitly recognize the world as it is.”(1) Sometimes these activities of production, thinking and viewership are captured literally through documentation and sometimes not. Whatever the case a pavilion on its own does this- It sits there, it participates, it has a conversation with nature (which is anything, but natural), with kids playing, it might even reflect a police car with sirens flying by- ultimately it reflects upon the societies surrounding it. It is this that is in complete alignment with the evolution of the garden, museum and theatre-this is not sociology, but rather a culmination of varying humanities. With this said I find The Triangular Bridge Over Water and its placement at Laumeier Sculpture Park to be a very important work in relationship to Graham’s Garden as Theater and Museum and although some may argue the second French site that was realized (Pergola Bridge for Clisson, France (1988-90) makes more sense to the original proposal (Two-Way Mirror Bridge and Triangular Pavilion To Existing Mill House for The Domaine de Kerguéhennec) not only in it’s location, but in it’s regional posterity- I propose that the Midwestern placement in relation to the sculpture park, the existing homestead of Laumeier, along with other architectural structures, including a country style bridge honoring a bird sanctuary- makes more sense in alignment to the original proposal. But what also stands out to my personal experience is how photographic the work looks. Aside form the fact that the thing is alive in all that it does- it really just feels like a great snap shot from a distance. Maybe I’m bias on best case scenario, or maybe this is a question for the artist and a needed visit to the French location on my part. Whatever the case the book to life experience feels somewhat one to one.
The dirt path has now turned into a curvilinear gravel one surrounding and defining the perimeter for Triangular Bridge Over Water. There’s a faux wood bench to the right, but I walked into the work, took in a few glances and for the moment opted to sit in the middle of the structure instead of on the outside. It was a place to rest and a place to write. (The last time I had been to a rest area or park in St.louis was speed induced as I recall an old friend losing his knife in a game of throwing it at a tree while another drew blood and pushed it back in, while a possible cheating couple on their lunch break fornicated on a park bench). The thing about nature is it is always reminding and revealing, especially when you come from a place with a lot of it. It’s not always good. A lot of times it is weird, but this time it was pleasant. Actually, this time it was great (Laumeier Sculpture Park)
I began to take note of the elements making up the work and their and the works overall collaboration with the nature surrounding it. The Bridge’s make-up consists of two large concrete walls placed on each side of a cavity where a run-off from two large drainage pipes spring exists. The structure is reflected in the shallow water below and in the current climate looks similar to a sheet of glass itself laid flat across the earth (this is very interesting in relationship to the properties along the streets to the park where the water comes from as low-tier corporate buildings with two-way mirror glass line them). Sitting atop this common support system for bridges are three black high beams, a black metal grate like frame acting as the surface you walk on, over and in which you can look down into the space below (both the original proposal and Brittany work had two-way mirror flanking the grate walkway whereas the St.Louis work is solely the black grating). There’s some minor flaking of the paint on the edge of the black edging, revealing an orange primer and some small cob webs also exist. Both entry and exit sides are flanked by aged, but still very sturdy and approximately 8×2 raw-non-stained wood pieces / base boards. On the south side four large sheets of two-way mirror extend from one edge, the sheets of glass are seamed and held up by long industrial and flanged like aluminum struts and held in place with a few replaced bolts that are raised and octagonal in shape and mostly secured by the original rounded phillips style heads (the cross kind) that are now rusted. It all makes sense the way it is. The cycle makes itself. No need for restoration, but fix anything that might jeopardize the standing of such a structure, this being a very common view in the likes of repairing things in this part of the country with work skills originating from the Great Depression.
On the other side a 20 panel frame out and grid (equilateral to the two-way mirrored one) akin to an open garden trellis or lattice for vegetation (English Ivy) to possibly run up supports the north side. It’s very Sol Lewitt. The trellis built out of approx. 2×2 cubed welded and painted white steel beams is currently and has been presumably empty and patina-ed with a couple of run off rust drips right at the seams. It has been sweating. A similar description aside from the mentioning of somewhat arbitrary disrepair supports my St. Louis experience and findings as stated by Graham on the Pergola Bridge, “My Two-Way Mirror Pergola Bridge from 1988-90 consists of a four-meter-long equilateral triangle bridge, one side two-way mirror glass, the opposite side an aluminum lattice planted with climbing vines. The spectator can walk through the triangle over a water canal across an open steel grid.”(2) Although the setting of the French work is probably and arguably a more desired setting by many as its location is more grandiose, it is obvious the two works share very much in common in their production and placement in nature. More importantly the grate like walkway relates to Graham’s original proposal for Two-Way Mirror Bridge and Triangular Pavilion To Existing Mill House for The Domaine de Kerguéhennec more specifically- in that it is based off of the French use of similar materials in their vents found in the Paris Metro. (“The bottom of the triangle-the walkway surface-was to be the steel grating with an open square grid, the same surface used for Paris street air vents over sewers and the Metro). (3) Grating was the first word that came to mind as I took my notes on the Bridge’s materials. Visually the grate is very optic-al and another example of a practical material used by the artist to lend itself to something other than what it is. Importantly here, it reverberated- focused upon to the visual vibrancy of a Bridget Riley painting in monochrome of course. More importantly it was a pluralistic suggestion on post minimalism. Aside from these assumptions, as usual Dan’s referencing to materials and site is right on and strangely very specific. This can also be said for the general make-up of the surrounding nature found in the water and foliage of greenery. This thing is alive in nature as indicative of its general make-up and the aforementioned rustic patina, the peeling of paint and I now remember – the fogged up glass. It has become if not already in the beginning part of nature. Actually the nature surrounding Dan Graham’s work is something I don’t believe to be written enough about aside from the artist’s own words. People tend to get caught up in the corporate appearance, which is hilarious in that the very material Dan is referencing or possibly critiques, people generally fall in love with. This is all fine, but I suspect that the greater relationship found in the work is of hybrid if not of multiple sensorial relationships between humans, objects and natures. However, maybe it is the fact that these works can be viewed anyway one likes that make them so special and for the matter by anyone and I guess in some cases there isn’t literal nature at all.
Back to the site- The non presence of ivy running the trellis is replaced in the reflection of nature upon it in its reverse, as the grid acts as a window in to normal viewing as well as in its reflection found in its reflecting counterpart (the four-panels consisting of two-way mirror). As a reflecting image or reality the grid juts out appearing as a propped open window in its two-way mirrored counterpart. This is actually what happens when you create an equilateral triangle that is reflective on one side. Meaning it pulls the overall form up to the reflecting surface, essentially suspending the object partially in mid air. At least visually it appears that way. It is a kind of geometric substantial magic, a weightless pendulum. The setting of this thing is appropriate and fitting, even if strangely literal for the imagination of a summer window opening. We had a place we went to as teenagers that we called trip land. We played baseball with hedge apples. I ran through a Lewitt-ian landscape of multiplied grids being chased by a Doberman-Pinscher. On another occasion a friend humped a tree, shaking its leaves as another threw a cinderblock through a large black corporate window. In nature anything can be seen and can happen. I glance through the trellis to find a woodpecker and three squirrels running up a tree in the nature surrounding the trail. They are real! I turn around to see my own morphed projection and reflection onto the two-way mirror. I’m not on anything. It is true Dan’s works are of psychedelic relations. No drugs needed. Extra priming might make it more intense though. Everything is still moving for me. It’s similar to my father’s copy of the Byrds Greatest Hits album, which consists of an overlay of psychedelic foliage transposed onto the band member’s images. This connects to Dan as well. Dad is ten years younger. Good early music taste though. Another tangent but, in my opinion, which many may disagree, the Stones were actually Punks in a good way. Punk goes back to blues and jazz and even further into ancient tribes. A somewhat more recent pop-cultural example coming to mind is the Predator’s appearance in the jungle as it dives in and out of combat blending itself into nature. What I was trying to say is the Rolling Stones were an early punk band, but became popular.
A tour is approaching. It is the man who gave me a lift. “You found it” he declared to me and the group with a friendly gesture of his hand to the work. He then stated, “And here we have a friend of the artist.” I’m on the stage, the bridge. I’m wearing rose colored shades. I step out onto the path. He asks, “How do you know the artist?” I explained the gallery I once ran and the fair conversation, Dan’s generosity in conversation and ideas, but more importantly the conversation began to act as some kind of a locative performance between myself, the two docents and the 3 couples riding in the empty golf cart I had rode in before. What I mean is we began to talk about the work. I realize when I say performance this sounds as if I’m describing it is an artwork. I must stress I don’t view this as such. I think it is safe to say I share Dan’s distaste for such institutionalized conversational gestures of say Tino Sehgal. The only thing else I could say is, “Yes this is a great location for this work.” The man exited the cart and stepped into the bridge as I followed him in he said, “Tell Dan that on tours rambunctious kids always go to the middle, see their reflection and calm down and it really takes to them.” I acknowledge the sites great ability to possibly do this for anyone and the fun house nature and corporate joke as well. I also say there could be a good Frank Lloyd Wright joke in here somewhere, with this quasi architecture over water. The female docent goes into her tour speech declaring-“This is a perfect place where nature just melts.” The tour is wrapping up their viewing of the bridge as they leave the man energetically says, “Only a friend of the artist would be caught viewing the piece in rose colored shades.” I explained I was born and raised in Missouri.
After the tour left I decided to snap some images through my rose colored shades of the perimeter and even of the bridge. I must say I didn’t experience the work with my shades on, but the remarks by the tour guide prompted production. I wrapped up my tour of the piece as well. I made two passes in and out of it. As I reached the top of the stairs I glanced down at the peaking roof again. The brush was making noise to my right by way of a chipmunk. I snapped a photo and walked away.
Although I visited Laumeier Sculpture Park to view Triangular Bridge Over Water, I wasn’t necessarily traveling to see art. Actually I was trying to escape it temporarily. Out of respect for the park I walked around and the land, its history and installments are impressive. With this said I’m not dis-recognizing Dan’s work as art or even the importance of a park I will most likely visit again, it’s just that sometimes we just need a place to rest. I guess I should pack my bags. It’s time to go back to Los Angeles.
(1) Back of Book Manga Caption (Fumihiro Nonomura and Ken Tanimoto)- (2) p.252 and (3) p. 253, Dan Graham Beyond, Simpson and Iles, Editors, Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, The MIT Press
Aaron Wrinkle: http://aaronwrinkle.com/