San Diego

Robert Irwin

University Of California

The site Robert Irwin chose for his permanent outdoor sculpture installation here is a grove of eucalyptus trees just below the Mandeville art center, on a slope crossed by pathways which students use to get to class. In many ways eucalyptus trees may be seen as analogous to Southern California culture: nonnative plants, they are dependent on water brought in from great distances; though they quickly grow tall, they often fall over in strong winds or heavy rains because of their shallow roots. The site’s potential for metaphor, however, is not what attracted Irwin to it. He looks at the art activity first as a process of discovering what is already here, waiting to be revealed. For Irwin the felt presence of a place is its basic essence, shaping one’s experience of it on a preverbal level.

Eucalyptus trees are lithe, lean, and sinuous. Their trunks, branches, leaves, and even their bark, which peels off in thin strips exposing a smooth and vulnerable skinlike covering, constantly move in response to environmental process. Irwin has sought a similar sense of interrelatedness to context in his recent site-determined public sculpture; as the eucalyptus grove so completely embodies this character of interconnectedness, Irwin’s installation here is conceived to alert us to the ongoing flux of being in the present moment, rather than to set itself apart from that process as a static work of art.

Eighteen polished stainless-steel poles, 30 feet tall and 24 feet apart, stand erect in two V-shaped configurations. Beginning 18 feet above the ground and extending to the tops of the poles Irwin has installed lavender security fencing, which looks like chain-link but is softer and more flexible. This elusive cloud of color in the air is matched below by a ground cover of magenta-blossomed ice plant. The two V figures are side by side, like a W divided in half, but differently sized—one 48 feet and the other 120 feet long; their straight lines echo the alignment of the trees, also planted in rows but more randomly dispersed than the poles. Though Irwin’s materials are high tech, they complement rather than intrude on the grove, just as the trees themselves respond to their environment. This is different from the traditional notion of art imitating nature—rather, by reinforcing the directional tnrust of the trees both vertically and horizontally, the poles perform the same function as the trees do of orienting the viewer both to spatial dimensions in the air above and along linear paths on the ground below. Because of their highly reflective surfaces, and in spite of their scale, the poles have a tendency to disappear by reflecting their surroundings; in certain light the fence seems to vanish, as leaves twisting in the wind sometimes do. At other times it fuses in a plane of floating color in space.

The piece looks more like a construction project than a traditional sculpture, and may seem to elude the label “art.” This is in fact one of Irwin’s stated goals—to so alert the viewer to the perceptual richness that is always present that there is no longer a need for “the artist” as a role in culture, or for art to be an activity separate from the rest of life. Some people seem to pass the installation by without noticing it; those who take the time to look at it, whether by chance or because they think they ought to, should experience an enhanced awareness of the place and space, and, one hopes, of the interconnectedness of form and movement, or matter and energy.

Melinda Wortz