Connecting to the Universe

Your plane just landed, and while it is rolling down the tarmac, you switch on your phone to let your besties know you’re OK. And then you are staring at the screen, waiting for its status to change from “Connecting to the Network…” to, say, Vodafone. I often feel sympathetic to my phone and its struggle, the way it opens up to invisible tentacles of cellular towers in this search for a meaningful connection, futile and frustrating for quite sometime before the phone comes out victorious and connected.

Of course, it is a projection – anthropomorphic, at that – for I, as a human being, am looking for connections, too, hoping to come out as lucky as my phone at the end. We all do. Some want to connect with other people, some want to get in touch with their past lives, and others want to hook up with God, the Cosmos, or an alien race.

Many artists talk about (or, as it is fashionable to say today, “research”) connectivity, connections, and the basic human need for it. And most of this work is literal and bland, like this Burning Man installation. Often sweet and touching but also mushy and corny, and the impressions it generates fade away as fast as memories of sunset views.

Except, of course, for this one, so much overused and abused over the ages, but still the icon of life-giving connectivity.

Yet, the drama of this search for connectivity, the mixture of fear and hope, is never there. The fear that your efforts might turn out futile, that you might get connected to something or someone you would regret, the hope for success – none of the art I have seen talks about this or makes the viewer relive and re-think that process of fearful hoping.

Except, of course, for the art of Beverly Pepper, an artist very well known in the art world but not a household name like Henry Moore or Richard Serra. Well, she was a woman at a time when a genius sculptor could only be a man. It is true that today, female artists are brought back into the spotlight. It is also true that it is done in a way that simply recognises their existence alongside genius male artists. The art world is afraid to celebrate the genius of female artists because that may pose dangerous questions about the long-established ranking of male stars. And that ranking is sacred because the price system for artworks is built on it. One day, this male ranking will be challenged and dismantled. Let’s take the first small step to celebrate a female genius here and now.

These are the so-called Todi Columns, created by Beverly Pepper in 1979. Indeed, they have the appearance of columns and are located in Todi, a town in Umbria, Italy, but are they truly columns?

Kids are happy to play around them, an occasional group of tourists may walk past them in summer, but few take the time to stop and listen to them. Yes, listen and connect.

There are four of them there, each one geometrically perfect, each with a healthy dose of the Golden Ratio lurking inside their proportions. They are obviously not organic, but the thin layer of rust that both corrupts and protects them makes them a child of the two worlds – natural chaos and human endeavour.

Think of them as antennas, for instance. If you are there, touch one of them. Feel like you are sending your signal up to the Universe. Feel how this antenna is throbbing with your intentions, searching for something to connect in the infinity of space. Try to channel whatever you feel like channelling into it. Of course, this antenna won’t sympathise with your wants and desires; it would amplify and transmit them, but at this moment, you might feel that the Universe both receives and accepts you and your mind.

Can you think of another work of art that would address the human need for connection in such an emotionally engaging way, with such immediacy?

Or, standing at a distance, think of the columns as pins of a power plug. Yes, something like this one:

Walk around them and feel how these columns are reaching out to plug Earth into the Universe, its infinity and eternity, to space with no end or limit. Look at them not as a sculptural installation but as the planet’s way to connect to the invisible forces that shape this world.

Or try to play with them differently. Try to listen to them. It is not difficult, especially for those who tried playing an instrument or two.

With even a minimal musical experience, you know what a tuning fork is. And, come to think of it, you instantly imagine how it would sound when you see one. So you can almost hear it, right?

Think of each of them as a tuning fork. Each would make its own – highly complex sound.

Their tunes, combined, create a “cloud of sound” that wraps up you, the park, and a large chunk of this planet in its protective symphony.

And thus, these columns become guardians, modern totems protecting us and the planet from the destructive forces both inside ourselves and outside our planetary system. In conversations, Beverly Pepper would usually refer to them as “totems”, so I think she would be happy to know her sculptures make people feel both connected and protected.

Four Corten steel columns, created by a genius mind to make the viewer a liberated citizen of the Universe.

3 comments

  1. Certainly the work of women’s artists has been given short shrift and that needs to change. But in my visits to museums and galleries, I see many looking at art as if it was a window shopping experience. Part of the problem with museums is that there is so much art to see, the thrill of which can be offset by museum fatigue. In my view, the real joy is when one can linger with a work and, if possible, come back to see it again. On succeeding visits, great works usually reveal more about themselves and they become more complex. Beverly Pepper’s Todi columns have an advantage in that they are sited in a location where the invitation to linger is clear. Personally, I’d like to see seem in different kinds of weather.

    1. Well, I put down my personal experience with these sculptures – no rule dictates the same (or any) response for others ) Just one note: we have been conditioned by the multitude of reproductions to respond to Michelangelo as this image of his is inseparable from the mass culture now. It is similar to the way our brain responds to the Coke logo. It is not necessarily the power of the image but the power of its contextual presentation that we have experienced throughout our lives.

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