Sarah Corbitt-Intern Architect LEED AP BD+C

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An Opening & A Closing

Sunday, October 21st, 2012

Some designers must make things. It’s part of their nerve endings and their synapses, muscle memory and emotional state. For these folks, the creative process hits closer to the ‘will go crazy if I don’t do it’ side of the continuum between a want and a compulsion.

Two shows I’ve seen recently demonstrate the output of minds like that – and one of them is closing this weekend, so go see it if you can. This first one is the closing show of multi-media artist Yayoi Kusama at The Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. The second show just opened at the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art in Charleston, SC: Pulse Dome, featuring work by architect Don FanZagna.


At the Whitney, Kusama’s prolific mixed media output over at least four decades demonstrates her ease with formal and mathematically executed paintings, as well as amorphous and instinctual shapes. Many of the paintings are trippy patterned mind warps where octopus tentacles precisely writhe into the foreground; many of the sculptural pieces are phallic, or terrifying, or both. Within Kusama’s work, there are many ways to be enraptured and wonder about the geography of her internal emotional state. This exhibition is primarily that, an interior monologue said aloud but in formats and doses that we are used to seeing in galleries: paintings, roped-off rooms of waist-high soft forms that invite (unallowed) exploration.


But then there’s a room – Fireflies on the Water. The rectangular room is the focus and maybe the impetus for the Kusama show. It’s a box that a person walks into, built around human scale. Due to viewer demand and the constraints of Whitney working hours, you’re allowed  to walk in and stand for one single minute – sixty precious seconds of immersion. The box (I think I remember this right) is white on the outside, entered through a small doorway in a room on the ground floor of the Museum.

Waiting in line for your minute, you watch others come and go, and watch their faces expectantly. When the door opens, you can see a dark walkway and more darkness inside. Children were scared. More to the point, their moms looked annoyed to enter it – navigating a narrow walkway into a dark room while holding a 7-year old’s hand and pushing a stroller is the art world’s Achilles heel.

When my turn came, it wasn’t scary. This was a small rectangular form that you stepped up into. The box is mirrored on all sides, except the floor which is black. Over the black floor is the narrow walkway, with a thin lip. No railing. Then, there’s a shallow layer of water over the flooring. I thought about throwing coins into the water and surely someone has by now. It probably only adds to the effect.

Arranged around the dark cube are a series of faintly pastel string lights. Standing full height on the walkway, the effect is of staring at yourself. In the corners, you’re staring at infinity. You can also stare at yourself, fading into infinity. It’s lovely. Emotionally, you’ve got one minute. No photos are allowed. It’s at once some kind of fun and easy-spirited connection with yourself. Are cameras watching? Should you smile? Can you keep yourself from smiling in this faint, midnight dreamscape?


Architecturally, it’s also a mockup of a dance floor prototype for the most comfortable disco you’ve ever dreamt of.  The size of it does bring to mind a mockup or prototype, an ‘infinity machine’ which could be pretty iterative. One can imagine thousands of variations on the theme: Infinity hot dog stand; Infinity bourbon bar; Infinity beach dunes; Infinity in my third-grade dream bedroom, with red carpet and stuffed animals everywhere…and so on. This, Fireflies on the Water, is one infinity. Is it a definitive infinity? No. But it closes on the 28th of October, so see it this week. It’s amazing and you will want more than sixty seconds with it.

Courtesy Don ZanFagna Foundation

Iteration is a stronger theme at the ZanFagna exhibition at The Halsey. Intuition plays a role, here too.

ZanFagna has the visionary artist’s obsessiveness and productivity, as well as the journals. The exhibition booklets excerpts one journal entry: “Time to call it “quits”…? If I don’t write in this notebook, I’ll go nuts”. After looking at about forty of ZanFagna’s paintings, drawings and artifacts, you’ll believe it.

His primary means of designing for sustainable living here (beginning in the 1970’s), is the Pulse Dome, a type of house or commercial development which could be grown from several seed packets and circuit boards to form a geodesic dome to live inside of, and grow food outside of. It’s revolutionary architecture, and also theoretical and interpretive. The Pulse Domes are roofed sometimes by rainbows, colors or just the film of a soap bubble. Driving all this is the Pulse, an electronic life-giving force. Its effects on the materials around it, shown in the countless paintings Zan Fagna made, would be unpredictable, growing, and sustaining. What he said about these Pulse Domes is true of every kind of art, “The free mix of spontaneity and formality cannot be predicted or rationalized into a system”.

His silent partner in the design is a futuristic, presumed, technological savior. He writes, “ I keep thinking that somewhere, somehow, there must be a better way to utilize and impound sun energy. My chlorophyll-pulse-dome ideas I’m sure will someday become a reality of some kind…” and more, “The idea of a stretched, chlorophyll membrane has always been uppermost in my thoughts about bio-architecture – an intuition more than anything”. In other words, this is paper architecture; the concepts are not figured out or practical.

But the work is beautifully and precisely done – expert color choices and collage materials come together in each and every work. There are no artistic missteps, even if the things aren’t buildable. His work evokes that hopeful era of the 1970s and 1980s when computers and technology newly offered answers and freedom through data crunching and Science. The fonts, the robots, the dot matrix printers – it could all mean something. It’s wonderful to see this architect tackle such big problems as sustainable housing people all over the planet with the biggest tools in this then toolbox. He used ancient concepts such as the Golden Section, and new computer rendering programs. It’s a great effort, and the results are beautiful and pleasing to the eye – every single one of them.

And all of his hopeful work is rooted in the ideas that physical boundaries are inconvenient framework to view the world. In the future, all of our particles will be geometrically and organically sorted into some better system. We will retire to our ground dwellings to continue our best lives and our best optimistic exploration of the human condition.

Writes the architect, “Men do not make structures out of “materials”; they make large structures out of small structures – visible module associations out of non-visible module associations. The limits of the visible spectrum did not represent that threshold of change between man-devised structures and nature-devised structures. There was, in fact, no threshold.”

This exhibition runs throughout the fall and winter, and will be capped off with an installation of Clemson University architecture students building something, perhaps a Pulse Dome, in Marion Square.

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