Thumbnail image for echo_satelloon_color1.JPG

So all this time, I've assumed it's common knowledge that I am planning to recreate a satelloon and exhibit it in the nave of the Grand Palais in Paris. And if the curators of Monumenta, the annual contemporary art installation there, hadn't called about it yet, it was just because they were busy clearing the older guys [Kiefer, Serra, Boltanski] off the list first. Which is fine, of course. No rush.

Sketch for echo satelloon in Grand Palais

But then I get this tweet about Anish Kapoor's project, which opens next week, and well:


You can understand my concern. So I "c'est quoi ça?" retweeted, and then I started poking around the Monumenta 2011 site more carefully.

And before I figure out if Kapoor's workin' my side of the street, I have to say, I'm now slightly fascinated by the mechanism of the teaser, the reveal, and the spectacle.

Monumenta has assembled a range of concepts and images highlighting aspects of Kapoor's practice which, I assume, they see as relevant to or illuminating of their own commission.

kapoor_monumenta_teasers.jpg Artwork become landscape
To see is to imagine
The écorché
Fiction and ritual
Light become ghost
Void become shape
The artwork skin
Inhabiting space

I can't help but imagine them as a narrative, a presentation, an argument that culminates in the essential, inevitable work. Leviathan: c'est logique!

The work is called Leviathan, and with references to sea serpents and gargantuan invaders and gaping maws, the write-up taps every ominous, apocalyptic Leviathan reference available, from Job to Hobbes.

Which, now that you mention it, does sound a lot like several of the works Kapoor has done before. And there's this sense of simultaneously wanting something new, that no one's ever seen before--oh, boy, will they be surprised!--and of wanting more of what works, what you know, what has been before. And then what is the nature of anticipation and experience when the pitch for the project is, "it's like Marsyas at the Tate, but bigger and spookier"?

So I'm basically thinking it's the Doomsday Machine from Star Trek: The Original Series, but in red? Or mirrored? Or mirrored on one side, and red on the other:


And then today, there's a teaser photo, a detail, on Facebook, which doesn't quite match up to my image:


Unless maybe it's the Doomsday Machine's nuts. Either way, it's all good, and totally different. Still, it's an important lesson learned, and I've decided to preserve a bit of the mystery surrounding my Monumenta project. Which is not to say anticipation.


Monumenta 2011 au Grand Palais, 11 Mai - 23 Juin [ via @Monumenta2011]

john_r_pierce_port.jpgEveryone [sic] probably has the story tucked away in their head that science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke was the father of the communications satellite. I only recently realized, though, that satellites have, if not a thousand, then at least two fathers.

Dr. John R. Pierce
was Executive Director of Bell Labs' Research Communications Principles Division. He coined the word "transistor." And in 1955, independent of Clarke's 1945 conception of manned, geostationary satellites, Pierce published a proposal for an unmanned communications satellite.

"Orbital Radio Relays" was published in April 1955 in Jet Propulsion, by the American Rocket Society. Pierce calculated that relays in space would be useful for transoceanic communication and proposed three types:

(a) 100-foot reflecting spheres at an altitude of around 2,200 miles; (b) a 100-foot oriented plane mirror in a 24-hour orbit, at an altitude of 22,000 miles; (c) an active repeater in a 24-hour orbit.
He was concerned with maintaining proper orientation in cases (b) and (c), the geostationary orbits, and so concluded that (a), a 100-foot inflatable sphere, was the easiest, most feasible starting point.

So yes, Pierce's proposal triggered NASA's early work on Project Echo, and NASA teamed with Pierce's Bell Labs to operate it. Meanwhile, by 1960, Pierce was already well along on developing the first commercial satellite, Telstar I, which launched in 1962.

I'm kind of blown away by how much major work Pierce was involved in, but also at the breadth of his contributions and interest. And yet I'd basically never heard of him [or, rather, made the connection.] He wrote regularly for a non-expert audience on the role of technology in art, music, and literature. His 1968 collected essays is titled, Science, Art, and Communication.

But he was no technological evangelist, no Marshall McLuhan-style pop guru. And certainly not even remotely avant-garde. As far as I can tell, there were no Billy Kluver-style artist collabos for John Pierce.

Pierce opened a speech about Echo I at the Economic Club of Chicago on Dec. 8, 1960 by quoting Milton:

Sweet Echo, Sweetest nymph--
Sweet Queen of Parley, Daughter of the Sphere!
So may'st thou be translated to the skies
And give resounding grace to all Heaven's harmonies!
So even as he zeroed in on the cost and technical calcuations needed to realize them, Pierce had to have been conscious of the beauty, the aesthetic perfection, even, of the satelloons he conceived.

A few weeks ago, I stumbled across an insane collection of photo negatives relating to Project Echo, including this image, of Pierce at the Palmer House hotel for the Economic Club dinner, prepping a fully functioning demo how Echo I works. Fully functioning. They are not miming; there are actual vacuum tubes and whatnot underneath that transmitter dish and the horn antenna. And of course, there's a chandelier-sized satelloon hanging from the ceiling. Dr. John R. Pierce is now my favorite performance artist, and I must collect the ephemera from his most important work.


I've seen a million and one lawn ornaments without ever noticing any connection to satelloons. And then I saw this odd ball self-portrait of Edwaerd Muybridge last spring at the Corcoran [detail below], and I"m like, big shiny Victorian garden balls and satelloons!


Actually, I see it was the other way around: Muybridge was in May, and tricky photographs using mirrored balls that happened to be satellites was in March.


Anyway, that's when I realize I have no idea what they're actually called, or how to find them, because they're called something besides "those+glass+lawn+balls" or whatever. And so I start trying to figure out when I might accidentally run into our neighbor who has one, so I can ask.

Then last fall, on a trip to Amsterdam, we were walking through the antique scientific instrument district, we went into Staetshuys Antiquairs, which had some incredible and odd-looking globes and orreries in the window. And there on the edge of the mezzanine:


Big [and small] shiny balls. Thick-looking, silvered glass globes, but hanging on chains, not sitting on grass. Staetshuys's Stephan Meulendijks explained that they are called witch balls, and they served to deflect evil spirits from the windows of your house in 18th century England. Most witch balls I see discussed online, though, seem to date from the late 19th and early 20th century.

Wikipedia's entry for witch balls shows hand-sized globes, but a couple at Staetshuys measured at least 30-40cm. [Actually, the one pictured, from the V&A, which was originally "acquired as a 'Witches ball,'" and is now labeled a "bauble," is "almost certainly a Christmas tree decoration."

Anyway, the garden variety, are known as gazing balls, which is pretty close to a satelloon after all.

April 18, 2011

On Size Matters

And speaking of Richard Serra. I can't figure out how James Meyer's 2004 Artforum essay on the problematics of size in contemporary sculpture got by me until now. It ends too soon, but it's pretty great.

Beginning with the overwhelming Tate Turbine Hall pieces by Olafur Eliasson and Anish Kapoor, Meyer retraces the history of sculptural size and scale, and how minimalism's supposedly non-anthropic form was still keyed to the human viewer's presence. And how post-minimalist folks like Tony Smith and Richard Serra got into, basically, a size arms race, which manipulated the spatial power and experience of the institution instead of critiquing it or fostering self-aware perception. [I'm collapsing a whole lot here. It's really worth a read.]

Anyway, I mention it now for two reasons, the first being that Meyer begins his history with the 1940s and Abstract Expressionist murals:

SCALE ENTERS THE DISCUSSION of postwar art within the context of Abstract Expressionism. The development of the mural canvas by the late 1940s introduced a bodily scale into painting--a scale that was variously described as one sustained between the painter and the work and between the viewer and the work; on one hand, a phenomenology of making, and on the other, one of perception. Jackson Pollock famously spoke of his drip method as a means to "literally be in the painting." Mark Rothko noted that he painted "large pictures ... precisely because I want to be very intimate and human." Mural scale was seen as an antidote to the easel scale of Cubism and Surrealism and the illusionism this embodied. As Pollock observed in the same statement. "The tendency of modern feeling is towards the wall picture or mural."
Which means postwar sculpture and space becomes yet another aspect of the photomural's history and influence I have to look into.

The other, bigger [sic] reason, though, is Meyer's articulation of size-ism and awe-based exhibition experience. His is one of the few strongly argued critiques of otherwise-sacrosanct subjects like Richard Serra's giant torqued sculptures and the museums that fit it, particularly Dia:Beacon and the Guggenheim Bilbao:

Having demanded and inspired the enlarged spaces that museum directors and trustees find it so necessary to proffer, Serra's sculpture has become the contemporary museum's major draw, an attraction of sufficient size and impact.
satelloon in the grand palais, mockup with serras

This challenge to the pervasive art world conflation of size, significance, and permanence is basically the context out of which I hatched my own idea to exhibit a Project Echo satelloon in an art space. The problem being, of course, that since all the world's biggest, newest museums were built to accommodate Richard Serra sculptures, there are less than five venues that could actually show a 100-foot diameter spherical balloon sculpture. They're just as prone to stylistic and functional obsolescence as a 19th century, fabric-walled salon.

Of course, the real problem is I hadn't read it, and I really should have.

No more scale: the experience of size in contemporary sculpture, James Meyer, Artforum Summer 2004 [findarticles]


You know, every once in a while, I think that it's crazy to be considering satelloons as art instead of what they really were--aestheticized objects designed to be seen and exhibited.

And then I'll catch a glimpse of Expo 67 somewhere, and realize I'm still well inside the bubble.

A still from The World of Buckminster Fuller, which is on DVD, available at Amazon, not, why would it be?

Previous Expo67 posts:
not that anyone asked, but here's Fuller's own idea for the US Pavilion
on the American Painting Now show, organized by Alan Solomon
the Canadian fracas over Barnett Newman's Voice of Fire
Forgot how much I loved writing this post on art protestor/greenhouse owner John Czupryniak's Newman knockoff, Voice of the Taxpayer
Expo 70 design finding the Expo 67 Pavilion hard to beat

image via Morioka Yoshitomo's online syllabus of Art & Technology

I don't collect posters, I really don't. I just buy some. And then some more.

But when I saw the description of this poster in the Getty's E.A.T. archive finding aid, I knew I had to add it to the list:

Pepsi Pavilion
printed in Japan, Shunk-Kender photograph of interior of the mirror dome. It shows a rehearsal of the work by Remy Charlip, "Homage to Loie Fuller," performed at the opening ceremonies. The photograph is printed upside down to emphasize the three-dimensionality of the real image the concave mirror dome produced. Signed by all artist/engineer participants, unnumbered.
Signed or not, I have to track it down.

E.A.T.'s Pepsi Pavilion still kind of blows my mind, several years after I first fixated on it. And it only belatedly occurs to me that though the project was officially a failure, which E.A.T., Kluever, and Whitman were left trying to make the best of, there is a Japanese domestic perspective on it that remains largely unexplored, at least in the English-speaking world. I will have to look into that.

Meanwhile, it's almost enough to know that the Japanese term for Pepsi Pavilion is ペプシ館, pronounced Pepsi-kan.

Also, Remy Charlip's "Homage to Loie Fuller"? Do we even have a complete list of all the artists, happenings, programs, and performances that went unrealized when Pepsi cut off the cash?

Also, Shunk-Kender? Those guys really, really got around. Have we already done shows or books or something on them? Art History, I'm talking to you.

UPDATE WHOA, and I have heard back from Art History. At least I got her voicemail. Stay tuned.

Previously: E.A.T. it up: the Pepsi Pavilion at Expo 70 in Osaka
Q. was the Pepsi Pavilion art?

Oh no! I mean, oh yeah!


Gerhard Richter did do other steel balls. At the end of his 1973 interview with Irmeline Lebeer, he complains about my favorites of his series, the grey monochromes:

the only problem with them is that they are so beautiful.

And that bothers you?

No, but it's like a blank canvas. A blank canvas is the most beautiful thing, and yet you can't just leave it like that. You have to add other elements to it. If it were only a question of perfection, we wouldn't do anything any more.

You need dynamics and a certain tension.

Without those, everything would be dead. We would all come to an agreement, once and for all, on the sphere. At home, I have these particularly beautiful steel balls.4 But it's impossible to get any closer to perfection. But we start down that path, it's all over.

Which is an odd place to put a footnote saying that "Indeed in 1989 and 1992 Richter produced three editions of balls made of gleaming stainless steel."

The largest was the last, Sphere III [above, via g-r], which was done in an edition of 11. In addition to the title, signature, number and date, each ball is engraved with the name of a Swiss mountain.

Spheres I and II are 8cm [ed. 25] and 5cm [ed. 11], respectively, with no mountains involved. According to the Dallas Museum of Art, which has all of Richter's balls, they were all published by Anthony d'Offay and fabricated by FAG Kugelfischer, which I will assume is a company. Indeed, under the Schaeffler Group's guidance, FAG has been a leading German manufacturer of ball bearings for over 120 years.

search results: kugel []
Previously: Richter's Balls, Regrets

February 14, 2011

Richter's Balls, Regrets

So I'm reading along in my new copy of Gerhard Richter: Writings 1961-2007--which is pretty awesome, and which does appear to supersede the artist's previous collected writings, The Daily Practice of Painting, which is good to know, but really, what to do with all this information?--and I come across this discussion of glass and mirrors and readymades in a 1993 interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist, and I'm like, holy crap!

When did you first use mirrors?
In 1981, I think, for the Kunsthalle in Dusseldorf. Before that I designed a mirror room for Kasper Koenig's Westkunst show, but it was never built. All that exists is the design--four mirrors for one room.

The Steel Balls were also declared to be mirrors
It's strange about those Steel Balls, because I once said that a ball was the most ridiculous sculpture that I could imagine.

If one makes it oneself.
Perhaps even as an object, because a sphere has this idiotic perfection. I don't know why I now like it.

Richter's mirror Steel Balls? Whew, never mind, they turn out--I think--to be Kugelobjekt, 1970, these odd, little postcard-sized objects, three steel ball bearings suspended in plexiglass in a shadowboxed photo of a staircase.

Kugelobjekt I, 1970, image:

And anyway, on the next page, Richter explains how all the work on the dimensions and framing and installation of 4 Panes of Glass meant it's "not a readymade, any more than Duchamp's Large Glass is," when he goes,

At one point I nearly bought a readymade. It was a motor-driven clown doll, about 1.5 metres tall, which stood up and then collapsed into itself. It cost over 600 DM at that time, and I couldn't afford it. Sometimes I regret not having bought that clown.

You would have exhibited it just like that, as an uncorrected readymade?
Just like that. There are just a few rare cases when one regrets not having done a thing, and that's one of them. Otherwise, I would have forgotten it long ago.

And I'm like, the clown! the clown! I swear, I'd written about it before, but I can't find it anywhere. And then I realize I'd written about it for the NY Times in 2005.

Previous most ridiculous sculptures I could imagine: The International Prototype Kilogram or Le Grand K, and the Avogadro Project

UPDATE:, uh, no. Richter has more balls than I thought.

Isamu Noguchi's Akari lamps have been manufactured at the Ozeki Lantern Company in Gifu, Japan since 1951. They are contructed from paper and bamboo using the traditional techniques for which Gifu's lanternmakers are famous. In Japan. [via @freduarte via @langealexandra]

This is so awesome, watching this process makes me want to use it somehow.

Also, I lived in Gifu for a while, just after Noguchi exhibited his Akari lamps in the US Pavilion at the 1986 Venice Biennale. Not that I knew what a Biennale was at the time, of course. The Noguchi Museum re-created the Venice installation in 2009.

From the Ozeki site, it looks like there was a massive, room-filling Akari sphere at Venice? I can't tell, but none of the other photos I can find seem to show such a thing. The largest size for sale these days is the 120A, which is around 4' [or 120cm?] in diameter. Which looks smaller than the Akari in the stairwell of the Noguchi Museum, right?


And smaller than the one in Noguchi's own apartment, which he set up across the street from the museum, an interesting-sounding private space that was mostly dismantled, but not irreparably destroyed, when Fred Bernstein called for its restoration in 2004. Waitaminnit, Jonathan Marvel of Rogers Marvel is Buckminster Fuller's grandnephew?

Noguchi's Unknown Home []

January 30, 2011

Les Ballons de Léon Gimpel

Last week in my interview with Mike Maizels for Pinkline Project, I'd mentioned how the Grand Palais in Paris would be an acceptable art venue for exhibiting my satelloon project. Not only was the grand nave one of the few spaces in the art world that could accommodate a 100-foot diameter inflated aluminum sphere; but historically, it was the site of major, early air shows, and it has held giant balloons before.

As new reader Erik points out in this awesome color [!] photograph, which was taken in 1909 by Léon Gimpel.


I didn't know Gimpel, but the Musee d'Orsay says I should be as familiar with his work as with his Belle Epoque confreres Lartigue and Atget. They staged a retrospective of Gimpel's pioneering photography in 2008. Apparently, he experimented with distorting mirrors, perspectival compositions, and color photography. He published the first color news photo, using the Lumieres' autochrome technology [the same as above] just days after they introduced it. And though I can't find examples of it yet, his aerial photography sounds pretty sweet:



From 1909 onwards L'Illustration commissioned photo reports directly from Gimpel. He stood out from other photojournalists by producing unusual images. At the first major air show, held at Béthény in August 1909, he went up in an airship and so was able to photograph the progress of the aircraft, not from the ground like the other photographers, but from the sky. So, thanks to Gimpel, readers of the magazine had a stunning view of the pioneers of aviation.
From this date, the photographer started to exploit this bird's eye view in order to set himself apart from other reporters and to seduce the press.

[update: found some via fantomatik]

Fortunately, there's a catalogue. Unfortunately, it doesn't look to be readily available in the US. Judging from the cover, though, I could probably ask Ricci Albenda to lend me his copy.


Léon Gimpel (1873-1948), Les audaces d'un photographe [ via ck/ck, the equally awesome tumblr of Swedish designer Claes Källarsson, thanks Erik]
More Gimpel images: La guerre des Ballons de Leon Gimpel [fantomatik]

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Since 2001 here at, I've been blogging about the creative process—my own and those of people who interest me. That mostly involves filmmaking, art, writing, research, and the making thereof.

Many thanks to the Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Program for supporting that time.

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Category: satelloons

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