Williamstown

Jeffrey Schiff

Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA)

Jeffrey Schiff's installation occupied two dramatically contrasting adjacent rooms in the museum. The first site is a characterless rectangular room subtly illuminated by a skylight. The other gallery is a spectacular octagonal space articulated by an inner circle of Ionic columns supporting a central dome. The two components of Deus Ex Machina, 1988, share tough, industrial formal and material vocabularies, but possess different spatial dynamics. Through their juxtaposition, Schiff explores the relationship of the two structures and the phenomenological experience of architectural space.

In the rectangular gallery, Schiff constructed a metal funnel—an inverted pyramid. At its tapered base, it connected to a narrow pipe that ran into a sealed cylindrical vat. Built to the dimensions of and suspended just beneath the skylight, the metal chamber seemed to engulf the room’s natural light, with the exception of a precise sliver that glowed near the ceiling to mark the perimeter of the skylight. This monumental apparatus made comic reference to its apparent task of directing light into the small container placed on the gallery floor. The funnel was a heroic instrument of work for an entirely mysterious process.

Compared with this dark space, the rotunda of the museum seemed brilliantly open and illuminated. In this classical room Schiff created a more accessible—but no less ludicrous—machine. A thick piece of stone resting on a base of crisscrossed wooden slabs was ever-so-slowly reduced to powder by a metal grinding disc. The grinding mechanism was secured with metal collars to one of the columns; attached to the same device was a tall, thin pole that tentatively wavered and wandered in the evocative, celestial space of the deep-blue, 30-foot hemispherical ceiling. The ponderous movement of the grinding wheel was activated only occasionally by the artist or museum staff; its episodic, arbitrary use was an ironic foil to the efficient logic and calculated results of the machine.

Schiff’s simple and elegant tools are utterly absurd; they accomplish no necessary task, expedite no tedious job, hasten no painstaking process. Their quiet and heavy presence satisfies no functional agenda. But they enlarge a puzzling and wonderful awareness of the space they inhabit and probe, as well as the light they contain or focus. These improbable mechanisms concretize for a few, precious moments the ethereal, intangible characteristics of time and space, and the ritualistic, meditative dimensions of the most prosaic tasks and events.

Our culture’s enduring infatuation with the machine has been compromised by unexpected consequences and unrequited expectations. Schiff’s benign and poetic instruments suggest some possible reconciliation with the new imagery and applications of technology. These objects seem simultaneously made, found, and spontaneously generated. They capture some essence of the machine as an object and symbol capable of distilling the excitement of uninhibited invention and the intellectual challenge of mechanical refinement.

Patricia C. Phillips