Driving from Boston down to New York on a late-November Saturday morning, not much felt all that different. The transition from the state of Massachusetts to the state of New York only became clearer when I saw the “Welcome to New York” sign on the highway. As we got off the ramp and exited the highway, inching our way closer to Dia Beacon, we had transported into a mill town surrounded by red and orange brick tones, medium-sized industrial buildings, large glass windows, and a consistent trickling of Fishkill Creek flowing down the middle of the town.
Although understated, the first glimpse of the town of Beacon was inundated with public art, murals and mom-and-pop shops one might find in the streets of Soho. Once we passed the first part of the town — one that felt like a warm and vibrant opening to the second act of La Boheme, we then entered another strip of the town which was an instant contrast to the first. There were homeless people, sitting next to large-scale graffiti and murals on the side of run-down convenience stores. I didn’t think much of the scenery then, but looking back now, this memory of driving-through Beacon town has become an unavoidable part of my Dia museum experience.
To explain what my initial senses were as soon as I stepped into the museum — still gets me choked up. Maybe I am unusually affected by the spirit of spaces, but I was fully taken-aback by the hollow, grandness of the old Nabisco building. I don’t remember ever being in a space as empty, yet earthy as this one. As we got there at around 10am, the sun was gently seeping into the various angles of the building and the light created geometric shapes around the massive off-white walls and art pieces.
What was special about the natural lighting was that at every hour, my eyes had to ever-so slightly adjust, to the dimming and to the brightening of the sunlight. It was dynamic and ephemeral. In hindsight, what made my body tingle most was feeling the stark juxtaposition of being squished in a little studio apartment for months and then being able to stretch out in a 160,000 sq ft. building filled with minimal, larger-than-life conceptual pieces made out of industrial items.
Out of the roughly 30 artists and their artwork on display at Dia, a few stood out to me and moved me visually, emotionally, and sonically. Those were: Dan Flavin, Michael Heizer, On Kawara, and Max Neuhaus.
I first saw Dan Flavin’s work in Seoul, South Korea roughly five years ago in a small art gallery. At the time, the global society and culture was at the cusp of witnessing social media’s evolution from being a simple networking site to a place where people chased after three-dimensional places or objects and would sell those experiences in the confinements of a two-dimensional, digital space. Flavin is an American, minimalist artist, best known for his fluorescent light fixture pieces. His work fit the bill for those who wanted to showcase visually-stimulating images on their social media accounts. I remember seeing a flood of social posts around his work — people would grab the diffusion of colorful light that seeped out of his light fixture installations and made his work feel larger than life. Most interestingly, Flavin’s exhibition in Seoul was presented in a way that allowed for people to easily capture social media-appropriate moments. His installations were decently-sized and delineated by white walls. This form of exhibition display is certainly not new; but it is one that made it easier for the social media-ites to manipulate and exploit art.
On the contrary, Flavin’s work at Dia Beacon was multiplied in scale, size and spatial composition. It was hard to fit his whole work in one shot. I was able to witness one of his largest, indoor fluorescent light fixtures that spanned half of the entire factory wall. The end point of his installation was next to a huge glass window; it seemed as though the installation was never-ending. By taking such a commercial, everyday object and turning it into an everlasting, visually-evoking art piece, I believe there is immense conceptual strength to the materiality of his work, particularly the one displayed in Dia Beacon. I do wonder though, at a high level, where the depth of his story lies in all of his pieces, particularly as it coincided with the age of social media — one that is filled with so many layers of commercialization, hype, and marketing.
Similar to the work of Flavin, Michael Heizer’s sculptures were breathtaking for their mass, gestures and choice of material. Drawing inspiration from construction sites, archeology and the natural landscapes, his North, East, South West work conveys a feeling of lingering doom and intense sense of drop. Standing next to the gigantic black cutouts in the ground, I caught myself worrying that I would fall in. It was interesting to catch myself feel these jolty and fearful emotions from a piece of artwork. The way that Heizer’s piece made me feel, the tingles and scares, oddly rejuvenated my sense of being during a time when there was so much uncertainty and bleakness to humanity.
Pulling away from the emphasis on physical enormity and site-specific materials, two other artists stood out to me from Dia Beacon. One was that of a japanese conceptual artist, On Kawara. His Today Series was much smaller and ordinal in relation to Flavin and Heizer’s works. Kawara’s series filled up a medium-sized white space in one wing of the museum where same-sized black squares were lined up perfectly next to each other. These black squares were at an average adult’s eye-level. Each of the square blocks contained paintings of different dates in white.
My initial reaction to this series was, ‘What do all these dates mean?’ I looked all around to find a wall-description about the work, but it didn’t exist. I was very confused, but still so fascinated by the consistent and focused nature of his series. I couldn’t imagine that the missing wall-description was by accident. I couldn’t get rid of my curiosity and the questions whizzing in my head, so I took time to read about him after I got home. This interaction I had with the artist and his work was memorable to me. It brought out the investigative nature in me — one that is innate to all of human nature. To feel the friction of not knowing and to feel the desire to probe — in an age where information is so instant — was liberating. The tension of actively seeking for answers made me feel alive, rather than being flooded by information on the peripheral.
The fourth and last artist who left a mark in my Dia Beacon experience was the work of a contemporary musician, Max Neuhaus. The relationship I had with his work was similar to that of On Kawara’s. I caught myself becoming more intimate with his work after I left the museum. Neuhaus’s Time Piece Beacon at Dia is a sound installation. The seven-minute sonic display emerged at the perimeters of the factory-building at every hour. The installation is physically invisible, yet so visible in our other senses when it is heard. The sounds were filled with striking bells, sharpness and metal discord.
As a researcher in emerging technology, digital culture and society, I am aware that the integration of auditory experiences are becoming more profound. In the digital world of storytelling, voice interfaces and platforms have all the spotlight. The same can be true in the world of art. The way that sounds of our environment can add or subtract to our visual understanding of the world is undervalued. As culture and art curators of the future look into reimagining traditional museum spaces, the artful construction and embedding of sound with visual-artworks can open doors to more fulfilling and multi-dimensional experiences.
Unlike the more traditional museums such as MFA in Boston or the MoMA in New York City, Dia Beacon viscerally moved me beyond just what I saw. It was the first time that I caught myself analyzing my museum experience not just from within the confines of the museum walls, but from what came before and after: how I got there, what I saw along the way, and what happened after I left. Thinking about the ephemeral, constantly-changing nature of the museum’s peripheral elements, coupled with the immovable, overbearing sculptural pieces is unnerving to me. But it is also coupled with a sense of buoyancy — feelings that are similar to how I feel about our pandemic times.