Moving Things Around Until They Sit Just Right
By: Amber Murray


“Nature is beautiful and endless. Because it is beautiful, it is endless, and we are happy to be a part of it. Happiness could be found only when we know to be part of it, losing our individual condition, but keeping our awareness.” – James Turrell

I cried when I saw Michelangelo’s Pieta, a retrospective on Per Kirkeby, an exhibit on John Singer Sargent, and I could go on. I felt the loss. I felt the weight of their particular nuanced existential terror, and it was absolutely beautiful. I did not know these people, but I somehow knew what they were getting at.

Michelangelo started with a piece of carrera and shaped it into what some call his masterpiece. The folds of Mary’s gown flow over her legs forming a cradle for her dead son who lays in her lap. The figures are disproportionate - Jesus is small in comparison to Mary, but bears all the signs of a full grown man. Mary’s youth and gaze are pure grace as she looks down at the son of god resting peacefully in her lap. The marble glows from within. Death looks beautiful and sweet.

       Michelangelo, Pieta, 1498-99                                                                                                                     Haegue Yang, Towers on String -- Variant Dispersed, 2013

       Michelangelo, Pieta, 1498-99                                                                                                                     Haegue Yang, Towers on String -- Variant Dispersed, 2013

How did he do this? Haegue Yang might say practice. She is an artist who starts with an idea, then picks it apart through a very precise process of articulation. Instead of a piece of stone, Yang’s medium is the horizontal venetian blind. Yang has noted that each time she begins a work, she asks herself, “Am I going to push myself over the edge?” Which I take to mean, is she going to push her mind to that abstract place of shaping form to align with a particular idea? And she does it. For Yang, the idea is usually to create a sense of loss instead of gain. With window coverings. I realize she is not the first person to do this—to take a common object and place it in a different environment to give it new meaning. But there is something about the precision of the idea Yang communicates with her work.

Yang’s Towers on String installation is marked by a sense of delicacy. Delicate strings suspend delicate rows of colored aluminum strips. Hovering, floating, cascading from above to create a lightly formed space within a space—like confetti captured in mid-party-surprise. But then add a layer of precision and craft: colors and shadows and blades, all linear in form, align and dis-align over one another in a mercurial polarized play. The structure, not obvious at first glance, is hidden deep in an armature of octagonal joints. The patterns made by the venetian blinds reference a bevy of cross-cultural vernacular textile traditions. The black blinds make me think of a bachelor pad, I think of how much dust they collect and how with every apartment unit I have ever lived in, I have taken them down and stashed them in a closet.

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There is a relationship between the way the brain works, the way the universe was put together, and what we find visually compelling. It all comes from the same place. The same starting point. There was an explosion 13.798 billion years ago and the atoms and protons and neutrons have been buzzing through space and time ever since to bring us to this point, here and now. We are all here in it together - in this common experience entanglement. So things can be very specific and very universal at once. We can all be together in this one place and also alone in our minds. Van Gogh was tortured in solitary in his madness, but when we look at his paintings, we can connect a little bit to that madness. The application of paint to canvas is thick, brushstrokes are abrupt and disjointed, colors contrast, and space is warped – these are not the marks of an artist lulling you into a dreamland. Rather they speak of an artist attempting to tell you something about his struggle, his pain, his wonder, and the torture that can be found in this human life.

      Vincent Van Gogh, Self Portrait, 1887                                                                                                         James Turrell, Breathing Light, 2013

      Vincent Van Gogh, Self Portrait, 1887                                                                                                         James Turrell, Breathing Light, 2013

We learn more about the universe every day, but full meaning is always out of reach. It just is, while we continue to attempt to figure it out. Perhaps that is why we were given this humanity. To prompt us into creating and experimenting with the world around us. To move alongside the continual change that is built into everything. Knowing the world through the human lens is therefore a practice. We don’t completely understand any of it - the body, the mind, or the universe, but we make strides. We don’t seem to be very close to a finale of understanding, but perhaps there isn’t one. It is all without beginning or end or limits, and there is only change. We are just in it. Contributing and connecting.

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When I first began architecture school I became very skeptical very fast. The aesthetic decision making process was seemingly arbitrary and that did not sit well with me. I thought I had signed up for a practice that would work toward understanding basic human needs and creating forms and systems around those needs – it seemed so simple at the time. I wanted to know where all aesthetic directions came from, so I looked to history to aid me. After a BArch I enrolled in a Master’s program in Architectural History and Theory and I tried to connect the dots. I wrote papers on how a definition of “nature” can influence an architect, applied the philosophies of Henri Lefebvre to looking at cities, and even started learning a little French and German because sometimes you just have to read the original text yourself if you want to know what was really being conveyed.

The constraints and the framework of scholarship are what I thought I would find comfort in. But alas, in my Master’s program I still found the connections of aesthetic cause-and-effect to be endless and sometimes arbitrary. At school, we scholars would talk about our research as a collective effort. An effort to uncover the underlying cultural meanings of decisions and trends in thought after the work had been built. But honestly, all it did for me was to understand, after looking at hundreds of years of history, that sometimes there is not a good clear explanation for why the window opening should be 2 x 4 rather than 4 x 5, that sometimes you just know it needs to look a certain way to convey the intended message. The delivery of the message is therefore what I try to keep an eye on.

Amber Murray, project architect, Janus remodel, Workshop AD, 2013

Amber Murray, project architect, Janus remodel, Workshop AD, 2013

All artists have recurring themes in their work. I never set out for this in my own work, but they just seem to creep in. The only thing I can think to do now is to watch out for them. Explore them. Try to articulate them with whatever mediums I have available. Refine. Build upon. Reflect. Take note of and find new tools to explore. Themes for me are, as this essay suggests, usually around the origin of things. The relationship between us and the world around us. Design as an interface that defines how we interact with it all. Understanding ourselves by looking at the things we make. It can get very meta. I am working within a world that I seem to “know” inherently, but not always intellectually. I know enough that I know that I don’t know much at all.

In any case, I am now at least comfortable with the practice of oscillating between making and thinking. Learning to trust the endless possibilities of the abstract. Moving things around until they sit just right.

 

Amber Murray is a Seattle-based architect, designer, low-budget philanthropist, and writer.