Am I the artwork or am I standing on it?

Glarus Steel Slant
Carl Andre. Glarus Steel Slant. 2006. Steel tiles. Arizona State University Art Museum.

In 1967, Carl Andre began creating metal floor art. In 2008, I stumbled upon my first encounter with his art. Before, I had not been that interested in contemporary sculpture. I had little exposure to it. Looking at an image of sculpture does little to capture the experience of viewing a piece in person.

When I went to the museum that day, I did not arrive with an agenda to see a minimalist sculpture exhibit. I stopped in because it was hot out and thought it would be fun to wander through the galleries. I was upstairs when I walked into a room that was hosting a Carl Andre/Tim Hawkinson exhibit. Neither name was familiar to me. The room was large and had four pieces in it. The first thing I noticed was a lot of space. The room felt empty. Hawkinson had a totem sculpture and two ready-mades under glass. Andre’s sculpture was on the floor. I was immediately curious.

I went to the wall to read the artwork’s label. I hoped for an explanation for why the steel tiles were on the floor. The label gave little away. Artist’s name, date, materials, and then a curious line, “Viewers may walk on the sculpture.” I walked around it at first because I wasn’t sure if I could trust the label. Since it was a weekday and school was out, the museum was empty. I wanted someone else to go first, but no one was around. As a visitor to museums, I have heard the line, “Don’t touch the art!” many times. Now, this piece was asking me to walk on it?! To me, bottoms of shoes seem like a much higher offense than hands. Why was this work inviting the interaction? I looked around the room again. No guard on duty, so there was no one to stop me, and the sign said I could, so I decided to try it out.

At first, my walk was cautious on the tiles, treating the work like a sidewalk that was wet from the rain. Next, I ran up and down it. I looked around. I had that feeling that I was doing something wrong, but if I moved quickly, I could avoid getting caught.

Then I stood in the middle of it and imagined I was in a river. The color of the tile was a dark blue, and when I touched the steel, it felt cool. It reminded me of the way the river looks at night. Ripples of midnight and navy blue flowing downstream. I closed my eyes and walked down it and moved my hands and limbs like I was making my way through the water. This experience was the first time I had ever played with a piece of art in a museum.

When I had first looked at the work, it reminded me of the tiles I had seen in a friend’s garden. I made that move that people do when they encounter minimalist art they don’t understand. I dismissed it. Then the work’s interaction invitation gave me a chance to look deeply at the artwork, and I became engaged by it. By having that experience, it changed the way I now encounter sculpture. It awakened my imagination. I have stopped viewing sculpture as something stagnant and cold. When I look at sculpture now, I can see it move, and I notice the way I want to move with it.

Another person entered the room, and I pretended to look at the totem and then moved on to another gallery. When I was near the museum’s exit, the front desk attendant stopped me and whispered, “I saw you in the Andre exhibit.” I immediately blushed. Of course, I hadn’t had the room to myself. There had to be camera posted to watch the art. I felt the guilt of a child caught with a piece of candy she had hidden in her pocket while at the grocery store. A stolen moment of joy revealed and then that sinking sense of judgment. He smiled at me, but I hurried off. My skin was tingling with that uncomfortable feeling of exposure. The only place we can be alone in a museum is in our own thoughts.

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