Editor’s note: Spencer Finch is a conceptual artist whose principal interests are observation and perception. Finch’s art takes a variety of forms, from works on paper to sculptural objects to set design, but his main medium is installation. Finch constructs environments designed to depict nonvisual experiences in visual terms: a wall of electric fans means to express the breeze on Walden Pond, a constellation of light bulbs recalls a night in the Painted Desert, a blossom of blue balloons signifies an autumn sky over Coney Island. A 1989 MFA graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, Finch’s work is on exhibit in “What Time Is It on the Sun?” a midcareer retrospective at MASS MoCA. When Chronogram asked Troy artist Michael Oatman to view the Finch exhibit and write his impressions, he focused on a single piece, “Sunlight in an Empty Room (Passing Cloud for Emily Dickinson, Amherst, MA, August 28, 2004),” and delivered a two-part conversation about that work and Finch’s art overall. Oatman’s title for the article, “Begin Morning Civil Twilight,” is taken from an aeronautics term designating, roughly, the time of day about a half hour before sunrise. As Oatman explains it: “Some years ago, I found a military handbook that featured the following term: BMCT, or Begin Morning Civil Twilight. It means ‘the period of time at which the sun is halfway between beginning morning (nautical twilight) and sunrise, when there is enough light to see objects clearly with the unaided eye. At this time, light intensification devices are no longer effective, and the sun is six degrees below the eastern horizon.’ Seeing Finch’s work reminded me of this term. I was struck by the notion that there are still moments in our experience of nature when the human eye is more sensitive, more capable, than any instruments we have devised.” Finch’s work is on view at MASS MoCa through spring 2008.
Today is August 28, 2007, and for two weeks I have been trying to juggle my schedule to take a trip to Emily Dickinson’s home in Amherst, Massachusetts.
Four years ago, artist Spencer Finch was at her house on the same day; that visit materialized in a work now on view at MASS MoCA. Sunlight in an Empty Room (Passing Cloud for Emily Dickinson, Amherst, MA, August 28, 2004) is one of many of his installations that translate his experiences at sites around the world into physical objects. There are drawings of “darkness,” stacks of fans that simulate a hillside breeze, and windows with lighting gels that “color match” flickering candlelight. “What Time Is It on the Sun?” the first survey of Finch’s work, was organized by MASS MoCA curator Susan Cross, who also produced the artist’s first monograph.
Passing Cloud is a simultaneously daunting and sylvan artwork. A bank of fluorescent lights is blocked and revealed (depending on the viewer’s location) by a massive hanging assemblage of blue theatrical gels, a cloud held together by clothespins: a homemade weather front.
At the show’s opening, a little girl crawled under the cloud. I remember her quite vividly: about six years old, wearing a light blue and spring green paisley jumper. She was dressed for a party, and clearly had no reservations about this work. She turned over and stared up into the underbelly of the cloud. I said to someone, “She’s got the best view in the whole museum. I wish the rest of us could see it that way.” Later, getting into the same position, I became lost in three reveries: seeing what the girl had discovered; seeing what the artist saw; and, finally, engaged by my own memory of a particular place. Moving in, around and under that cloud, enveloped in the cool blue light, I emerged occasionally into the white blast furnace of the fluorescents: It was like my experience at a beach in Italy some years ago. Physically, I was at the museum; mentally I was an ocean away.
Spending an hour or two with a single artwork is a rare gift in this age of more, faster, louder. A former colleague, the painter Frank Owen, once remarked that, all told, he had probably spent about a day in front of Picasso’s Les Desmoiselles d’Avignon. I too have spent a significant amount of time on that bench in the Museum of Modern Art. If you go and see Spencer Finch’s work at MASS MoCA, make sure you let your eyes adjust in each new situation as you move from room to room. Slow down. You might discover, as I did, that the monofilament supporting the cloud, under certain lighting conditions, appears as rain falling up.
I was not able to change my schedule to be at Dickinson’s house today. In the end, I’m not really sure why I wanted to go. It wasn’t to check on the accuracy of Finch’s perceptions; as a quality, accuracy has never really moved me much in art. No, I think I wanted to “add together” the place and the artwork, the inspiration and the result. To be in a place that he thought worthy of evoking in everyday materials, made new.