publication of the International Sculpture Center
Through Time: The Sculpture of Steven Siegel
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The most obvious
and the most obscure thing in the world, this walking that wanders so
readily into religion, philosophy, landscape, urban policy, anatomy, allegory,
Walking itself is
the intentional act closest to the unwilled rhythms of the body, to breathing
and the beating of the heart. It strikes a delicate balance between working
and idling, being and doing. It is a bodily labor that produces nothing
but thoughts, experiences, arrivals.1 Rebecca Solnit
Some Cans, 2002.
Aluminum cans, rubber hose, and poultry netting, 12 x 12 x 12 ft.
Walking is important
to Steven Siegel: a succession of many small steps, one foot in front
of the other, consecutive movements inscribing deeply felt, embodied experiences
of space and time. There are many ways to approach Siegels deceptively
dimensional, nuanced work. Walking is one fruitful metaphor. The work
never explicitly references walking, yet it invokes the physicality and
psychology of this common activity. Small, sequential movements, each
like the one before, create an impressive cumulative effect. Just as thousands
of steps constitute a long hike, the repetitious tasks required to make
Siegels work transport many diminutive pieces of materials into
simple, yet impressive forms. Walking is generally linear; there is a
destination. But walking is not always expeditionary, it can be aimless.
And most of us have walked in place, with all of the attendant focus and
frustration of stationery movement. It is an activity without distance
or destination. These different ways of walking offer insights into Siegels
makes great accumulations from small elements of a single material elaborately
layered and stacked into monolithic forms that often look like boulders
or vessels, geological formations or immense artifacts. The forms are
androgynously natural and artificial, found and constructed. A painstaking
process of fabrication requires the artist and other willing participants
to engage in long periods of repetitive, yet thoughtful activity. The
physical work may be habitual and reiterative, but it is never random
Siegel uses recycled
materialsthe overwhelming evidence of voracious cycles of production
and consumption. In fact, there is a perverse fecundity to the endless
production, proliferation, and displacement of material. The beverage
disappears, but the container remains awkwardly and obstinately present.
The news of the day is momentary, but the paper itself is surprisingly
stubborn. After being acquired, spent, and discarded, these ubiquitous
cast-offs experience a haphazard and desperate reincarnation. In Siegels
work, materials are not only reprocessed, they are also reconstituted
as the form and content of art. These reiterative structures, like walking,
summon the subject of time. What is natural and artificial about time?
What is ephemeral or enduring, intelligible or incomprehensible, about
There is a dutiful,
yet delightful dimension to Siegels work. A great task produces
a very simple thing. Yet this may be the only clear and dependable equation.
Other connections and conclusions are variable and elusive. Generically
characterized as big, spare forms of recycled newspapers, plastic bottles,
aluminum cans, shredded rubber, or other jetsam, there is a serious content
to this seemingly unaffected work. Remarkable and robust physical evidence
and material accumulations convey a tension of imminent vulnerability
and gradual dissolution. There is a puzzling experience of dissonant beauty
in these ungainly objects made of disposable, if not unsightly materials.
Often mimicking natural forms and processes, the conspicuously artificial
work fits its environment in a plain, natural manner.
Paltz (detail), 1992.
Paper and discarded construction materials, work now destroyed.
a significant quantity of a single material in selected sites. He then
layers and stacks the material, often against large wooden armatures,
to create densely striated forms. Constructed of so many pieces of the
same thing, the work has a modular or molecular quality. The layers reflect
Siegels fascination with geological configurations. Like contemporary
environmental geologists who increasingly study the restive relationship
between the earths systems and human-induced changes, Siegel offers
opportunities for speculation about patterns of development and decay
evident in the deep time of geological history, as well as
the aggressive temporality of contemporary culture.
John McPhee, Rebecca
Solnit, Stephen Jay Gould, and others have written poetically and persuasively
on the field of geology. In a recent book, Solnit explores Muybridges
often overlooked photographs of Yosemites spectacular geological
profusion. Muybridges attraction to sites in the western United
States undoubtedly was nurtured by Victorian cultures mania for
geology. The 1830 publication of the first volume of Charles Lyells
Principles of Geology heightened debate about the history, character,
and age of the earth.
In the 19th century,
two polarized camps of geologists emerged. Catastrophists argued
for a comparatively young earth in which forces far more violent than
those presently at work had wrenched and welded its topography.
In contrast, Lyell advocated gradual transitions with episodes of abrupt
change. 2 Gould writes: Lyell and the catastrophists were
locked in a...struggle [that] pitted a directional view of history as
a vector leading toward colder climates and more complex life, and fueled
by occasional catastrophes, against Lyells vision of a world in
constant motion, but always the same in substance and state, changing
bit by bit in a stately dance toward nowhere.3
Speculating why an
English major would choose to write about rocks, McPhee puzzled over his
insatiable obsession with the geological.4 In 1978, smitten by
the peculiar eloquence of geological terminology, he began a series of
trips across the U.S. These pilgrimages offered direct opportunities to
study the nations cacophony of landscapes, examine geologys
seductive hold on his own imagination, and witness the inner lives and
intellectual preoccupations of geologists.
And why might an
artist have an interest in rocksamong other subjects? Solnit writes:
In Yosemite, water and rock became Muybridges principal subjects.
The water spoke of change, of the passing moment, and the rock of what
endures, of geological eons.5 Just as rocks and water represent
different concepts of time, Gould also wrote compellingly about times
arrow, times cycle.
Crushed plastic bottles, 10 x 10 x 10 ft.
preoccupation with geology has developed and deepened. It began 20 years
ago when he traveled to Siccar Point in Scotland. In 1780, geologist James
Hutton first observed an unconformitythe evidence of a vivid geological
pattern of development and decay, of renewal and desiccationat this
site. This unconformity suggested a new, but virtually incomprehensible
concept of time. Gould describes an unconformity as a fossil surface
of erosion, a gap in time separating two episodes in the formation of
rocks. Unconformities are direct evidence that the history of our earth
includes several cycles of deposition and uplift.6
publication, Theory of the Earth introduced the idea of deep time, citing
the earths emergence more than 4.6 billion years ago. Siegels
pilgrimage to Siccar Point has served as a lasting source of inquiry,
imagination, and inspiration. Unquestionably, arrival at the historical
site had particular significance, but many of the artists ideas
began to emerge through observations and reflections graciously accommodated
by long walks. It is generally acknowledged that the process of pilgrimage
is as much about the journey, passage of time, and growing anticipation
as the arrival at an intended destination.
of making the work bears a connection to the act of walking and prolonged
pilgrimages. Clearly, there is doing in ample evidence. The
work requires intensive, concentrated, and recapitulative activity. But
there also is a resonant quality of being, which engages multiple
concepts and experiences of time: the visceral time of the body, the unfathomable
deep time of the earth, and the temporal transformations and
inevitable vulnerabilities of materials.
Although his large-scale
outdoor work may be most well known, Siegel continues to make small, intimate,
and meticulous pieces that share a similar palette of materials. I first
encountered his intricately detailed, thickly constructed collages of
newspapers and other materials in 1992. This same year, Siegel was invited
to create a project on the campus of the State University of New York
at New Paltz. Selecting a quiet, sloping field situated between the colleges
academic and residential center and distant playing fields to the south,
the artist arranged to have the recyclables and residuals of daily academic
and administrative routinesskeins of used office paper, old memoranda,
newspapers, as well as discarded construction materialsdeposited
and collected at the site.
A fox lives
here too, 2001.
Paper, 14 x 11 x 7 ft.
A meandering wedge
was cut into the gentle slope of hill. With a group of art students, Siegel
constructed a densely layered, serpentine wall of the universitys
detritus. The work was doubly site-specific. The wandering form tactfully
responded to the local topography and other physical characteristics of
the site. The materials were raw and restive evidence of academic bureaucracythe
endless production of information, procedures, and policies, as well as
the maintenance and renewal of its physical plant. The slow, undulating
form of uncomely and rejected materials mediated the forces of naturalism
and systemization characteristic of many college campuses.
Holocene New Paltz
(1992) lasted roughly six years. At first, the wall of campus garbage
contrasted aggressively with the serene, meadow-like site. The work was
accepted skeptically. Some people liked the contrast of its graceful form
and rough edges, but others questioned the aesthetic intent of arranging
and presenting the colleges discarded materials in a bucolic site.
Over time, the works abrasive character softened and diminished.
The newspapers condensed and darkened into a stunning, shale-like formation.
Grass grew in abundance, and the work was slowly embraced by the site.
Several years ago, as a consequence of campus planning and not a sudden
geological incident, the site was violently disturbed and the work abruptly
dismantled. Earthmovers reconfigured the site and excavated the foundation
for a new residence hall. Two hundred students now live, study, sleep,
and party over Siegels scattered and entombed work.
Almost 10 years later,
I was reminded afresh of Holocene New Paltzs sinuous shape when
I encountered Siegels work at another SUNY campus. Invited to participate
in the Neuberger Museum of
Arts 2001 Biennial of Public Art in Purchase, New York, Siegel selected
a long stretch of the colleges vast promenade as the site for his
temporary work. On a wandering and winding plywood armature, he created
a 200-foot-long snake-like form of shredded rubber tires. Playfully animated
and decidedly anomalous, Carbon Strings (2001) meandering path of
cast-off industrial materials invoked a mysterious, incongruous organic
occurrence in this managed, austere architectural setting. Siegels
witty, yet serious intervention disturbed the boundaries between natural
and artificial, element and artifice.
In many respects,
Holocene New Paltz and Carbon String engendered ideas of walking. The
forms of these wandering digressions suggested the individual orchestrations
of passage, diversion, and pause that constitute a walk. There is the
feeling that natural forces and confluences have determined a capillary-like
pattern of channels and routes, like streams that agilely dodge and weave
through wooded sites. But the materials have an entirely contrasting character
of circulation. They were both the cause and consequence of more constructed,
rational, and linear systems.
The spliced rubber
comes from discarded tires, their treads worn by thousands of miles on
the roads and highways of the nations arterial network. Generic
construction materials presage a proliferating uniformity of the built
world. Given Siegels frequent deployment of discarded newspapers,
it is difficult to ignore how his massive structures, in both disturbing
and prescient ways, convey more ominous messages about the alarmingly
generic quality of printed media. Purveyors of information, print is almost
instantly obsolete, replaced by the next daily or weekly issue. Yet the
paper itself is surprisingly tenacious. (Nineteenth-century newspapers
stuffed into the walls for insulation in our 170-year-old house remain
intact, if not serviceable.)
Mixed media, 24 x 19 x 8 in.
is engaging and often surprising, but there are multiple critical dimensions.
The work can be easily, if not obviously, engaged as an indictment of
an alarming escalation of consumption and waste, a geological
process of development and decay that has metastasized into a threatening
condition. There is practicality and frugality in art that deploys large
quantities of stuff that people have used, rejected, abandoned, or overlooked.
Materials are a rhetorical device. Their physical properties always say
something. Even if they seem expeditious and eminently pragmatic, materials
Siegel has staged
linear installations, but his bulky, concentrated forms may be more commonly
characteristic of his practice. At the University of Virginia, Siegel
constructed a 10-foot cube of crushed plastic bottles. Bale (2001) is
a large minimalistic object of many similar elements strapped torturously
together. Sharing genetic and geological characteristics, Can Can (2002),
at Western Carolina University, is a 12-foot misshapen sphere of aluminum
cans held in place by poultry netting and lengths of rubber hose. Both
pieces also invoke the large-scale sculptures that pepper cities and communities
across the United States. Tethered into manageable, moveable forms, they
mimic the systems developed to collect, organize, and redistribute, if
not eliminate, our waste problem.
This summer, I once
again visited one of Siegels recent constructions (I had first seen
it more than a year ago during a leisurely morning walk with the artist
and his dog). I experienced a more integrated understanding of the work.
Poets Walk is sited on the east side of the Hudson River south of
Bard College. Its trails wander through woods and open meadows, offering
thrilling views of the river and the Catskill Mountains to the northwest.
Its name suggests the historical and contemporary connections between
the regions natural landscape and its cultural heritage. For most
visitors, it is a quiet place to walk and reflect. As Solnit observes
about walking, it offers an opportunity to be both idle and intensely
Invited to create
a sculpture for this open park with its spectacular, open vistas, Siegel
instead selected a wooded, modest, and secluded site on a steep decline.
The shaded space is occasionally dappled with sunlight, but its conditions
are chronically cool and damp. To create this project, the artist worked
with high school and college students from the area. Enormous piles of
extra, presumably unread, newspapers were delivered to the quiet, unassuming
site. After constructing a wooden armature, Siegel and his collaborators
built a large, hive-like form of layered and stacked paper. Like many
of his projects, A fox lives here too (2001) looks absolutely natural
and utterly incongruous. Surrounded by a calligraphic circle of trees
and saplings, the voluminous form is shockingly alien: out of time and
place. But during the past two years, the newspapers, now darkened, discolored,
and softened by the seasons, weather, and humidity, sensitively match
their surroundings. With the passage of time and exposure to the elements,
the work has developed a co-dependent,
inextricable relationship with its site.
With their mimetic,
metaphoric quality, Siegels works bear witness toand also
exploitthe enormous accumulation and deposition of often absent-mindedly
and hurriedly used materials. In many ways, Siegel has always been what
curator and critic Nicolas Bourriaud would describe as a postproduction
artist. The postproduction artist uses pre-existing things to make new
cultural products. Basically, artists insert themselves into the innumerable
flows of production.7
Newspaper, earth, and grass, 7 x 15 x 10 ft.
inserts itself into the flows of production, as well as into
the processes of the natural world. Speculative and searching, the work
assiduously avoids didacticism. Its propositions never entirely confirm
dependable or defensible answers. Siegel plays with often incompatible
systems, values, and expectations, blurring their distinctions. With an
elegantly simple and numbingly repetitious process, he invites viewers
to analyze and accept the ambiguous relationship of technology and nature,
and the comparable cycles of consumerism and geological depositions. He
challenges a staunch partisanship that creates an unbreachable gulf between
consumption and the environment, development and decay, the artificial
and natural worlds.
his own notion of unconformity through skillful and subtle
juxtapositions of industrially produced and natural materials. In significantly
different ways, Siegel questions, proposes, and represents the multiple
characters of time and our varied experiences of the temporal realm. He
achieves this, paradoxically, with remarkable restraint and thrilling
abundance, and with the sensitive articulation of banal materials. Walking
is often a way to puzzle over questions and uncertainties. When I accompanied
Siegel at Poets Walk, we strolled and talked quietly about life
and art. As we passed through sun-drenched meadows and descended to the
prosaic site where he had chosen to construct A fox lives here too, I
understood vividly that this deceptively simple, singled-minded work defies
obvious conclusions. The work is focused and digressive, intelligent and
errant. It may seem easy to get, but it is hard to know. Somehow that
walkgetting there one step after anotherclarified the meaning
and appreciation of arrival.
Patricia C. Phillips
is a professor of art at SUNY, New Paltz, and executive editor of Art
Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking (New York: Viking, 2000),
pp. 3 and 5. 2 Rebecca Solnit, River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge
and the Technological Wild West (New York: Viking, 2003), p. 13. 3
Stephen Jay Gould, Times Arrow Times Cycle: Myth and Metaphor
in the Discovery of Geological Time (Cambridge: Harvard University Press,
1987), p. 132. 4 John McPhee, Annals of the Former World (New York:
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1981), p. 3132. 5 Solnit, River
of Shadows, op. cit., p. 84. 6 Gould, op. cit., p. 62. 7
Nicolas Bourriaud, Postproduction: Culture as Screenplay: How Art Reprograms
the World (New York: Lukas & Sternberg, 2000), p. 11.