Arik Levy ABSENT NATURE
THE FIRST CUT IS THE DEEPEST
By Mark Rappolt
Thunk, urgh, whack, urghhh, smack, gahh, thwack, aaaah. No, dear reader, that’s not the sound of a second-rate chef lovingly tenderizing a particularly ill-favoured steak; it’s the sound of Arik Levy, alone in nature. In a forest to be precise. There he is — the nature boy — taking his rather large axe to a rather big log.
Crunk — axe penetrates bark; ooargh — Levy exhales with effort; kerchunk — axe slams back into a slot that has opened to reveal a pale, fleshy wooden core; aargh — Levy sighs, gasping for air; kerthunk, ungh, ungh, ungh — oops, the axe gets stuck… (don’t worry, he’ll wrench it out with a few more breathy tugs). You get the picture in any case.
Which is why you don’t need me to tell you there’s something sexual (but not sexy — that will come later) about this particular encounter between man and mother earth. About a man ramming his chopper into a V-shaped slot in a tree. And yes, there’s something a little unsettling about all this too: you’re witnessing the kind of dismem-berment that makes you hug yourself to check that you are still in possession of each and every limb. And it’s one short mental leap from that to the ‘knowledge’ that Arik’s chopper created the V-shaped slot in a tree and that, if the tree had feelings (don’t worry, it’s OK, we’re allowed to do this: catapaulting people off on outrageous flights of fancy is one of the things art is supposed to do), it wouldn’t exactly have been eager to entertain his chopper when it first lurched into sight
But relax a bit and you’ll find that this sense of unease comes about not simply because the thump, thump, thump of axe on wood is suggestive of man’s more general, though no less methodical, rape of nature (the deforestation, which is connected to the warming, which leads to the defrosting, which leads to the flooding and so on towards the ultimate unpleasantness of general extinction); rather, it’s the opposite that’s true. For, weirdly, this vision of a lonely man hacking his way through a solitary tree is an expression of love, not hate. Indeed, you might not be too far wrong were you to declare it a portrait of a rather extreme arborphile at work (in the same way as there are those — needless to day not members of the vegetarian community — who declare that the ultimate expression of porcine love is to be able personally to process the swine, cook the swine and then eat the swine from nose to tail). Particularly given that, unless you’re possessed of a particularly suspicious mind, as far as we know the tree bit the dust of ‘natural’ causes — no one ever saw Arik or any mysterious assistant cut it down as an accessory to the crime. And so, back we come to Arik in nature: reminding us of a time before chainsaws and IKEA stores, when trees provided man with shelter, fuel, fishing spears and those cute-but-effective little hollowed-out log canoes.
It’s certainly more natural than the new oak floorboards that have made my apartment more natural and desirable (or so the real-estate agent boasts). But not natural to the extent that you and I remain utterly oblivious to a strong whiff of the kinky and the weird. We’ve all seen a friend going camping: Look! There’s the nature-lover, the natural man, wearing waterproof trousers, heavy boots and the sort of outfit that anticipates a hostile reception from the environment he’s about to enter.
So here’s the rub: the picture of and soundtrack to Arik in nature is at once a document of a deliberate and premeditated attack on the land and one of the most primal, not to say Neanderthal, ways in which man’s harmonious relationship with mother nature (him sucking strongly, but not painfully, on the teat she offers up) is expressed. It’s enough to make you believe that it was in the wild, wild woods rather than the Austrian capital of empire that the Oedipal complex was dreamt up.
Which leads us, like freshly chopped timber trundling through the sawmill, to Levy’s log drawings. Although they could equally be exercises towards some sort of rather loosely mathematical research into stacking, layering and the general organizational potentials of irregular hexagons and pentagons. Had no one previously told you they were supposed to relate to logs. So perhaps it would be more accurate to describe these works as ‘ghost of a log’ drawings. And not just because the most ‘logish’ thing about them is the paper on which they are traced, because otherwise they’re log-like in the barest possible way.
In some ways, the log drawings are a meditation on the variety of uses to which logs have been put by man, a litany of the things an ex-tree can become: most obviously because their forms evince a geometry that nature never planned, because they are clearly processed — already chopped, planed and sawed.
So there’s a sort of encouragement for us to do a bit of processing as well. In some drawings those logs attain a blackness reminiscent of the carbonization that occurs to the log that’s placed in the fire. In others, an arrangement of logs appears to stack up like some sort of drywall (and let’s not forget that efficient woodstacking is an artform in itself — one that famously captured Alexander Rodchenko’s imagination during the early 1920s). Hey — perhaps this is like some sort of log-ocentric Rorsarch test. And yet perhaps that’s taking this particular form of processing too far; perhaps the log drawings are much less than that, much less even than portraits of dumb lumpen logs. Perhaps they are no more than an abstraction, a pattern — an arrangement of black and grey on white.
In short, the log drawings appear to be about everything and nothing all at once. Take one of the spreads that appears later on in this book. To me it looks like a pair of kohl-lined eyes. Turn the page and Whack! One of them’s blackened. Turn again. Whack! Whack! Now both. Arik working his way through nature — we’ve been here before. At another time, however, these same drawings become an exploration of the relationship between interior mass and exterior surface, of flesh and carapace, the tortoise and its shell, Victor Hugo’s description of the way in which the Hunchback’s body is twisted to fit the gothic arches of Nôtre Dame (unless it was the other way round) and the ways in general by which man inhabits the world: by moulding himself to fit its shape (squeezing into a log canoe, folding his legs to sit on a fallen log-cum-bench) or by moulding it to be more accommodating to him (squaring the tree’s circular section in the interests of making logs that are easier to stack, then using that stability to make a house or a lodge). The log drawings seem at once an attempt to understand something of the shape and structure of a log and of how to evolve or grow a log into a particular shape.
It’s the latter that seems to have happened in the case of the Fallen Log sculptures, for which one of the sections from the log drawings seems to have been grown like some sort of artificial crystal into something like the log from which it may once have been sliced. But like it only inasmuch as a smooth, regular, perfect, planar object can ever be like a log. Particularly when its materialization comes not merely in wood veneer, but via glass and steel as well. Indeed, it’s very clear now that all that’s left is the ghost of a log, material haunted by a form that’s not really there. And it’s a double ghost inasmuch as the horizontal orientation that’s key to our reminiscence of the log is itself merely a reminiscence of the vertical form that was the tree.
The material oscillation between wood, reflective steel, transparent glass, souped-up by all the associations conjured by Arik’s play with logs, can make the whole ensemble seem like a bizarre conjuring trick. That somehow results in the perfect log. Even though we’re also aware that there’s very little of a log about the work (which is not the product of a man and an axe, but of precision engineering) at all.
But, despite their good looks, Arik’s Fallen Log sculptures are anything but an example of an embellishment that ultimately destroys a simple beauty that it was intended to enhance — like the infamous decorated tortoise that waddles through and then dies in Joris-Karl Huysmans’s celebrated novel Against Nature, its shell having been encrusted with and enhanced by jewels so heavy that the tortoise can no longer move. Nor do they represent the kind of ‘absent nature’ that might exist in a Bladerunner-type world in which artificial animals stand in for originals that have long since become extinct. Arik’s log processing — and perhaps, at this point we can see it as offering parallel or even an alternative to the processes of the industrial timber trade — is a way of understanding how people might inhabit the world — in the sense of being conscious and sensitive to their surroundings. Without doing too much harm.
That’s not to say there’s no violence to Arik’s work. Ultimately it was the first cut — that very first ‘thunk’ and ‘urgh’, action and reaction — that was the deepest. The cut that was both for and against nature, the one that’s preserved in the carved and angular geometry of the sections that litter Arik’s log drawings and are extruded in his Fallen Log sculptures. The cut that also suggested that to be for nature you might have to be against it. To think logish rather than log. And perhaps from that can be derived a logisch — a logic of how man and nature can get along.
Rappolt is editor of ArtReview. His writing about art and architecture has been in many publications He is editor of the books Gehry Draws 2004 and Greg Lynn Form 2008.
AN INTERVIEW WITH RICK VALICENTI
Discussing the first installation of Absent Nature
My name is Arik Levy, and this is my first great exhibition in America. I have a very strong relationship with nature. I believe it is the best source of inspiration — through the alteration of our life experiences. When you look at what’s going on in that respect, nature has always had an incredible influence on us and gives us a new perspective on our proportion within nature. When a hurricane comes, suddenly all these great businessmen and beautiful cars and luxurious houses and everything we look at or everything that is with us suddenly vanish in a second, and the only “things” that comes back to importance are people. People are definitely part of nature and visa versa. I think the concerns people have are no longer about recycling another cardboard box of packaging, but rather going to the opposite extreme — the necessity of saving.
When I was in Tasmania, suddenly the whole car was shaking and a triple semi-trailer passed by at an incredible speed, shaking the whole environment. Huge logs were on the trailer — gigantic, unbelievably big. We were driving to the Forest last of the Sticks, which is already gone. In the two years, they have actually cut it all down. The trees are 400 years old, and they’re chopping them down to make toilet paper for Japan. It’s all out of proportion.
I work quite a lot through nature in my artwork and design work. The rocks I started carving are actually metaphors of rocks, but not really rocks. When you look at a rock, you say “rock” because that’s what it resembles, but it has no connection to biological growth; it’s absolutely manmade. I build the rocks out of subtraction — taking pieces away and not growing them from the inside. When you put the rock in an indoor environment, as an indoor piece, then it resembles nature, which is outside, in whatever material it is. When you put it outdoors, it doesn’t connect to nature, but it might make you think about nature. It makes me think about nature from another civilization or another planet or a nature we’ll never know, one we’ll never meet. The lines, the stainless steel — these are about reflection, about life, about the rock showing itself through its surroundings. They exist by the fact that they are where they are, not what they are. And the ones in wood are even more erratic because when you look at that you say “rock” and then you realize that it’s made out of wood and wood is not a mineral. A mineral is made, and what you think is a mineral is made out of vegetable and so on down the chain.
I have explored rocks in many different ways, and it’s an ongoing project. The next phase is going to go inside the rocks, so they become chambers. You will be able to walk into this cell — and it depends which way you look at it; I have the impression that it could be a huge space or it could be a very small cell. The way the log was born is just that — I was imagining that the rock actually becomes a seed. And if you put a rock seed in the ground, then what will grow there is a rock tree. Any of the facets can grow three-dimensionally and extract themselves to become like the tree, where it extracts itself from the ground. This is how the logs were born, and this is why the logs are there. They represent the old parts of the rock itself; the rocks are the trees and the trees are the rocks.
But when we look at the whole thing — at the absent nature, and the reason why the installation is created in these pieces, (which is the first time it’s going to be worldwide, when it is at the Wright Gallery), it is really about what we make disappear. It’s all about what’s not there, and that’s what I’m trying to emphasize in this work. Because when you look at these logs you can easily imagine the rest of the tree, the pieces that were chopped out. You almost turn your head around looking for the pieces that were cut off and maybe laid outside or in the same space. We are creating an absence by healing what is there and recreating it through a sort of replanting, and there is a sort of obsession around that. We say, “Oh, no, no, no, no, we are actually really good because we are replanting, and we’re going to cut it again and then replant.” But this only weakens the soil so we can’t weave the mineral through it.
The film that I’m going to make especially for this installation is about cutting a tree with an axe — the old way of how to chop the tree, cutting one that already fell down. It’s not about killing something that is alive, but killing something that is already dead; that is where this obsession is expressed. Hitting the tree with an axe is an incredible — a very physical action that actually demands a very high precision, even though it just seems like standing. It is very physically difficult. You have to calculate every time you hit the tree — like the calculations a person does constantly, though not necessarily in the right direction.
I bought an axe, and I walked around in the street with it. It was very radical because Paris, where I live and work, is definitely not a farm. And on a farm it looks normal, but when you walk in Paris with a huge axe like that, it looks very weird; people look at you in a weird way. On a farm you would go and work the land, cut what you don’t need, and make everything look the way it should. When you walk with the axe in Paris, you look like a criminal, like a murderer, like someone that came out of a horror film.
The absence of people is very present. The aura — the energy that we leave in spaces — is very important for me and important in my work. I will bring other pieces to this installation that are related to that, they will be within the forward space. The fractal cloud, a huge light installation, is connected to it — and this is actually the first time I’ve had the opportunity to make one of this size and join it into a circle or form. This creates the look in our thinking and the look in our life and in our non-controlled muscles, because we are actually in the loop. We don’t control waking up, we don’t really control falling asleep, we don’t control breathing, and so on. The fractal will be the main source of light for the installation. It will be both a cloud and a moon at the same time. When you look at it, you have the feeling that what you’re looking at is very fluffy and almost a textile, and then you look at it again and the amount of light that it emits is so powerful that you can almost put it in a bag, it’s almost a material. There will be two other small fractals, one in color and the other a little warmer. It will have a lighter temperature to enhance the relationship between the two and the transition that they have in the light temperature. I like to look at light as temperature and not necessarily as a lamp. I’m not making lamps; I’m creating a certain kind of temperature.
The installation will include a medical cabinet that represents the years of research and the work that I’ve done for this project. It will have many pieces of wood that I’ve collected from around the world — some of which I’ve repaired, or fixed, and which have the nature of being fixed, as in fixing people. It seems so much easier to break a chair, but when the chair breaks, we put it in the garbage; when a person breaks, we bring that person to the hospital. I’m sort of being a doctor or a surgeon or a scientist or just somebody who loves taking care of these pieces — joining them and having them become something — not just lost pieces of wood in the forest or on the side of the road. I’m turning them into something worthy of being cared for, making that care an important issue.
When I first visited the space and saw its fantastic dimension, it was immediately clear for me what I wanted to do and how I wanted to install the work. I would like the light to really fill in the space, as its own material. I’d like to have the logs lying down, one next to the other, expressing this very large and long tree that has been cut down. Manufacturing this and making these logs is very laborious and very demanding. It takes a lot of planning, and a lot of work. We are actually extremely precise, and every line has a reason and the proportions have a reason. The ones out of metal are connected to the medical cabinet. The stainless steel is cut and welded. We are working very, very hard to take the welding away until its marks vanish completely, and all that remains is on a molecular level, a connection that is no connection. This means that at a certain moment when the work is finished and it’s mirror polished and reflective, it has no beginning and no end — this expresses the fact that we are continuing this loop we are starting again and again and again. They will reflect the wooden logs, done in an oak veneer wood, which is basically black stain, as if it was fired. Then we are making it vanish. But the logs are made with a completely different technique, as we can’t really weld and sand them; it’s very, very precise. It is a technique that we have developed over the past two years — to be able to glue, to connect different facets. Every facet has different angles, so every piece, every part of this log and wood has been machined specifically to fit together as a three-dimensional puzzle that makes this log stand there, and makes you wonder how it is done. It is so astonishing that it actually feels like a full, big piece of wood — a real one that has been lying there for years or just arrived out of the wood manufacturing. (?)
This presentation of the installation at Wright Galleries in Chicago will be the world premiere. It is an important landmark for me because it is going to be one of my largest installations. This opportunity to express all these ideas in the same place is fantastic and unique for me. It is very important for me to bring some pieces from my past works that connect to the future of this installation and to what it is. Therefore, in the front space, we’re going to have other pieces, which are more or less known, or exist in previous, other stories. The exhibition before this one — which was an important one — was in London in October, 2009 called “Cosmic Nature.” That show featured things that had different relationships, cosmically speaking. Now it’s an absent nature, a lot more tangible and in our hands; this is why it is important for me to connect the pieces to each other. [end of audio]
ELSA ON ARIK
ARIK LEVY: LUMINESCENCE
at the Santa Monica Museum of Art
From May 15 to August 21, 2010, the Santa Monica Museum of Art will present Luminescence, an installation titled “between fire and ice” by Arik Levy. A matrix of wires suspends two low-hanging light sculptures — one red, one white; each a cluster of thin fluorescent tubes — over a highly polished, multifaceted stainless steel table in the form of a log. The log reflects and scatters the glow of the hovering fixtures. This project is distilled from Levy’s Absent Nature, a larger exhibition shown two years ago at the Wright 21 Gallery in Chicago.
Luminescence reveals a master designer whose work balances on the threshold between industrial design and fine art. With resourceful intervention, Levy transforms hardware into lighting and natural forms into furniture.
A cloth belt wrapped around a stack of books becomes a bench and storage container;
a pile of light bulbs becomes a light sculpture;
a log sawed from a tree becomes a table;
stretched and squeezed linear abstractions become jewelry.
It is a particular pleasure to present Arik Levy: Luminescence at the Santa Monica Museum of Art.
Bridging two disciplines — and two aesthetic worlds — Levy’s work exemplifies the tradition of discovery that defines our mission.
This project was funded by the The Philip and Muriel Berman Foundation with additional support from the Wright 21 Gallery. I extend my heartfelt thanks to Nancy Berman and Richard Wright.
Santa Monica Museum of Art
LUMINESCENCE BETWEEN FIRE AND ICE
Santa Monica Museum of Art 2010
This project room installation comes to express the tension created between fire, ice and our daily doings. It is a continuation of the Absent Nature project — a comment on the evolution of the man-made genetic environment — as well as my drawn studies and written imaginary axioms.
This installation brings together three elements:
Fire represented by the Red Fractal
Ice represented by the White Blue Fractal
A Log that will never burn or freeze.
The log, a result of a genetically modified faceted tree, grown out of a faceted “RockGrain” is made of mirror Mirror Polished Stainless Steel. It represents us and at the same time reminds us of our doings. On each of its sides the juxtaposed extremes of fire and ice are reflected/projected.
Once in the space, the possibility to experience and observe these elements is available to us. We, feel, read and interact with light and reflection.
Luminescence Between Fire and Ice embraces numerous issues dealing with nature and our doings.
The logs we cut to create fire for warmth, protection, and food, will effect the world in which we live —
the ice over the planet,
oceans and seas,
I am interested in the process and transformation of these notions — feeling one next to the other.
Arik Levy 2010