The die cast by Skycube, an outdoor sculpture by David Wallace Haskins installed in 2015 at the Elmhurst Art Museum, led to Presence, his first exhibition inside the museum in 2016. David and I met in the galleries to talk about the works in Presence and the skein of ideas and research giving rise to them. We recently met again at the museum to talk about Polarity, his immersive exhibition that uses smoke and mirrors to sculpt experience of time and space. Polarity embodies an artist’s enchanting investigation into illusion and perception.
The video Where We Meet is first the work in the show that we look at and talk about. We sit together and watch a procession of human bodies and faces enlarge and emerge out of darkness and then see them recede as they walk away from us and back into the depths of black.
David: The figure on the left is leaving, and the one in the middle is stopped for a moment facing us, and the one on the right has almost disappeared. I’ve removed the horizon line and any frame so you don’t see the projection frame, you’re not thinking of it like a film. The people are isolated on the museum wall, and you’re just left with their gait, the movement of their body in space. And they’re all emerging out of the darkness, out of some unknown place, and slowly coming towards us until they become full-size, their actual size on the museum wall, as if they’re here with us. These are all people from my life that have come in and out. Some I barely know, some I maybe met just prior to this. Some I’ve known for years. Their absence and their presence and then their absence again is something you get to experience and attend to.
Each of these people are actually in a dance, in a sense, with my wife Brittney and me. She’s walking with each person on this side of them with a light. And I’m behind each person, or leading them when they’re walking away, with a big black square. I’m the darkness and Brittney is the light. Each person’s walk was quite long, 300 feet forward and 300 back. It had to be far enough that the person would start to disappear.
Lise: Besides walking with the black square, how did you create the darkness?
David: All the black fabric we used for the floor in the film is from Void Room in my last exhibition. It’s now helping these people in the film disappear into the void. In Void Room we walked into the darkness and disappeared and came back. Now we sit and watch others.
Lise: What is the relationship between the ideas of Void Room and Where We Meet?
David: I have walked through the death of numerous dear friends. Walking with people back into the unknown is an incredible experience and an honor. It got me thinking, how could I articulate the experience of people coming into our lives seemingly out of nowhere. Like one day I met you, and now you’re in my life, and someday one of us will pass or move away and drift apart. Yet you hold them in your memory. They’re with you, but not present in the same way. This piece seemed an opportunity to create a meditation on that coming and going, the presence and absence in and out of each other’s lives.
The whole piece was born out of thinking about both how could I bring a visual language to what is impossible to describe, which is how we appear and disappear in this world. How attending to somebody allows you to hold them in your heart, in your mind so you still feel the encounter after they’re gone. People have told me that they started to connect with certain faces, they wanted to talk with them, and they were kind of sad to see them leave. They felt in a safe space where they could look into another’s eyes and not feel nervous. The people in the film said the quiet walk from the darkness into the light and back into the darkness was a moving experience. They weren’t walking alone. We made this processional and recessional together.
Lise: Words like processional and recessional suggest a ritual sensibility.
David: It did feel like some sort of ritual—like we were doing something mysterious in the darkness.
Lise: That brings to mind walking meditation in Catholic cloisters, in Buddhism, and other contemplative traditions.
David: This is essentially a walking meditation and a meditation on walking. The idea was born out of being a caretaker for 21 years of a man whose neurological condition gave him an unusual gait. I started thinking how we each have a unique gait. Our gait is there for the whole world to see. I wondered if people would watch a video of other people walking. Maybe there’s curiosity about who’s coming next. But something also is happening on a quieter level within deeper parts of ourselves as we learn to attend the presence of the other.
Lise: We’re talking while watching the video but it would be a different experience to watch it in silence. The fact that there’s no sound with the film could deepen its meditative quality.
David: People ask, “Why didn’t you put sound with this?” I wanted there to be nothing but the presence of the person, and attending to that.
Back to the gait—there’s a young man in the film who drowned and was revived when he was a child. It caused severe brain damage, and they thought he would never walk again. And he’s walking in this film. It’s a beautiful testimony of the human spirit. You can tell that he is very focused and determined. He’s 20 now and has become a man who commands his body to walk. He’s constantly willing himself to do things that most of us do without thinking about.
Lise: Walking on two feet distinguishes humans from other primates.
David: Through walking we become a bridge between the sky and the earth. Only the soles of our feet are touching the earth when we walk. Everything else is in the sky. Atmospheric layers start at earth’s ground level and go all the way up.
Lise: Is there a particular pattern to how the people come and what groups they’re in? Or is there an algorithm to randomize the order and combinations of appearance?
David: The film is 90 minutes. It’s all different people during the first half hour. Then the next hour, it’s those same people coming and going but they’re in different positions and matched up with different people. And that’s how life is. You don’t always see the same person in the same group. You might have met someone in a group and then you see them at the grocery store. The context changes how you experience them.
Lise: The frequency of seeing someone changes over time, too. They may go away for an indefinite period of time, or go out of your life for a while, and then suddenly they’re back.
David: This makes it a meditation on walking as well as on life and death.
Lise: And on presence—when the person stops walking and looks ahead into the camera, or seemingly directly at the viewer.
David: That’s why I called be piece Where We Meet. We’re meeting here in this tension between the known and the unknown.
[David and I move past the wall on which Where We Meet is projected and enter the adjacent space of Time Mirror III. On the screen in front of me, I see myself projected in real time. Eight seconds later another image of myself appears while my past image continues to hover. And then a third image of myself appears eight seconds later. When David enters, the same thing starts happening to him. In a few blinks of the eye, there’s six of us, with one or another coming and going.]
Lise: Moving slowly or staying in the same place intensifies the effect of triplication.
David: Where We Meet allows attending to others. Here it’s attending to the self. You have an encounter with three different versions of yourself. You see yourself walking back and forth. You see your own gait from the front and back, what you look like from the back when walking.
Lise: When I stand in the same place, someone appears to come out of me.
David: I set it up so that the past occludes the present. The oldest self steps in front of the past one, and then the next oldest self will be behind them, and your present self will be in the very back. Your present self is standing in line behind two previous versions of yourself.
Lise: As soon as you stop moving, the images start lining up.
David: If you keep moving, they’ll follow you around the room.
Lise: You just keep following yourself. That’s what time is, too, a succession of moments.
David: The past is always in front. Your past is always in your way. We have to learn to step through the past to get to the present.
Lise: That’s an interesting visual language for the past. Often people talk about the past as a load that you need to shed. As if you’re carrying it on your back or dragging it along behind you. But then again, there’s the expression, “to put the past behind you,” like it’s in your way and you have to ditch it.
David: I talked earlier about three kinds of seeing in my work, and in life. Time Mirror III gives us an example of how we get stuck in the second kind of seeing. The first kind is spatial. You need it to move around and make sense of what’s near and far, right and left. The second kind of seeing, interpretive seeing is the most helpful form. Without the past, you can’t interpret or make sense of anything. “Which side of the road am I supposed to be on? Oh, I remember, when I rode on the right side, it was safe, the left side I almost got in an accident.” Viewing the present through the lens of the past also creates prejudice and assumptions. You are judging it before you get a chance to phenomenologically be present to it. Time Mirror III lets you see how the past gets in the way and how to step aside.
Lise: We can also show ourselves how to peek around the past. But first we have to see how our past precedes us into the future.
David: The third kind of seeing is a beholding that transcends language and thought. Language and thought are so connected to the past and an analytical kind of being. My work is about that third kind of seeing. It allows you to enter a space that’s difficult to make sense of: How is this happening? How are there three of me? Where are these people coming and where are they going?
Disrupting the ability to make sense of the surroundings is like the moment when a person trips and is falling. In that state you become present to the moment. You don’t have time to think about the past. You don’t have language to articulate what you’re looking at. You’re suspended in a state of beholding that activates a primordial sense of wonder. In that pre-lingual state, you see in a way that enables an encounter with the other, whether the other is yourself, someone else, a sunset, a tree, or a chair.
Lise: In the present moment, the flow of meaning-making takes a pause. It’s a narrative rupture. For a moment we stop trying to forge links between past, present, and future. Time Mirror III is also a playful space. Do children start playing when they see this work?
David: Kids go absolutely crazy in here. Every eight seconds you’re in this dance with these two other versions of yourself. It’s a simple experience, but it’s so disorienting. There’s a kind of reorientation that can only happen through disorientation. That’s a big part of my work. It’s really never a viewer with my work, you’re a participant.
[We move to another gallery to experience the third work in the show, Architecture of Light.]
David: Stand about right here and look forward. Let those two blades of light go around the outside of your eyes, so they’re just touching the outside of your eyes. It’ll feel almost like the light itself is almost caressing the outside of your eyes.
Lise: The light feels like hands coming around my face.
David: Someone called it a benevolent body scanner. The light you’re looking at changes from wide blades to very thin, until they’re almost just a pixel of light. They become smaller and smaller until they feel like they’re bending around the outside of your eyes. In fact, you’re seeing the curvature of the lens of your eye. You’re seeing how you see. But you’re also experiencing a line in space being drawn by the light itself.
Architecture of Light plays with how we experience architecture. We see architectural objects because we see light bouncing off and absorbed into them. If I could extract the architecture from that experience and use light itself to create sculptural and architectural forms in space, then I have a very different encounter with architecture because I can move through the walls. I can see how it’s formed.
Lise: As the bands of light grow wider, it seems like the dark is the band rather than the light.
David: Exactly. The whole point is to transform negative space into positive space. As that line of light is drawn and widens, it becomes a hallway.
Lise: So now you’re walking in. It’s like railroad tracks as they appear to grow closer in the distance.
David: Now the light is creating a horizon line. Unlike the other two works, you need other people in this room so you can see these phenomena happen as a body moves through the space.
Lise: This work requires participant observation of another participant.
David: If you look at the back wall, you’ll see a simple grid moving. And it hits the floor, and then it starts accelerating. If you stand between one of these alleys of light and look forward, you’ll see what it feels like when you’re flying in a city and looking down over buildings. You’re experiencing the architectural light as well as a sense of depth. Next you see hovering squares from the haze. Now, the sweet spot here in the middle. If you stand here and look in, you’re inside. I’ve taken the room and compressed it to this one single passage. And then there’s a red horizon that forms into the sunset in the distance. When you stoop down, you can be under it.
Lise: That’s what the sky looks like when you’re in a plane and you’re looking above or below the clouds.
David: This piece was inspired by an experience when I was flying and saw a horizon line of bright pink. Since we were above the clouds, they were pink and above them was pure blue sky.
I haven’t talked about polarity yet. In the previous piece the polarity is between the singularity and the plurality of the self. We think of ourselves as one, but science is showing over and over again we’re not just one. Here you have the polarity between darkness and light, which we also had in the first piece, but also between fire and water. The water is the haze, and the fire is the light. You can’t have light without burning something. Here we have fire contained by four bulbs shooting 12,000 lumens of light through one single lens. All that bright light is moving through these droplets of water. That’s how the sky works—what we see from an airplane is the interplay of fire and water. When the two are brought together, the sublime happens.
Lise: You’re painting with colored light.
David: And it becomes sculptural as you watch people move through it and cast shadows. There’s a volumetric extrusion through space. Your shadow isn’t just on a flat surface. You’re seeing the movement.
Lise: The work creates projections that illuminate three-dimensional space. It has a holographic feel to it.
David: So now we’re back to the grid. These are the last two treatments. I’m playing off of Agnes Martin and Sol Lewitt. As you move your head back and forth, you’ll see the grid moving through and around your head. And then when you look back at me moving through it, I’m activating it just by my movement. In this work you ask, am I looking at the haze? Or am I looking at the light? The water or the fire? You start to realize that they are impossible to separate.
Lise: You’re seeing both at once.
David: If I took the haze out of here, you wouldn’t see the light. There’d be nothing to see except on the wall on the back, you’d see a flat edge. There would be nothing in the middle. You can’t see the light without some element floating in space. And you don’t ever see the dust, or the haze, without the light. I find that to be an interesting dialectic between these two worlds.
Lise: Again, it’s the illusion of visible and the invisible. Just because we don’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not there. It’s just the conditions for seeing it aren’t there. And we often misconstrue what we see. This goes back to what we were saying about the past, present, and future. And by creating the conditions to see them in Time Mirror III, they take on a meaning.
David: So much of my work is trying to create physical experiences that interrupt our over-learned, automatic response system to the world around us. I’m using things that we might encounter in a dream or in nature, and offering an otherworldly moment to see with new eyes. It’s hard to do in a beautiful way. It’s easier to do that by pushing buttons and creating grotesque things, and to freak you out. The world we live in right now is so much about polarity—us versus them. What happens when you make room for both/and?
[Still standing inside Architecture of Light.]
Lise: Oh, it’s that pyramid feeling again. The experience of being inside and in the center of the base of a pyramid.
David: Again, no sound in here. Many artists create electronic sounds to go with this kind of work.
Lise: You don’t need it. You’ve got the hum of the projector and the haze machine. This blue light is very soothing.
David Haskins: There’s a dreamlike nature to it too. The show has a lot to do with life and death. Where We Meet has figures emerging from the void, going back to it. Time Mirror III has the sense of being present to the self, as you attend to it in the past, present and future. In Architecture of Light we’re dealing with something that’s ineffable. Near-death experiences reference light all the time. What is beyond this? Light is a force that our senses can grasp. It’s physical, and yet it’s not. It blinds and illuminates.
Lise: On a physiological level, too, light and water are absolutely essential to life.
[We leave the main museum building and go to the McCormick House designed by Mies van der Rohe to see Ascension / Descension, the fourth work in Polarity. The work fills the main room of the iconic glass house with mirrors on the floor and ceiling. It is the most viscerally disorienting of the four works.]
David: Here we have the polarity of sky and earth repeating. You’re seeing into all these different layers of the sky, and it’s very surreal. And it almost feels like if you could crawl down there and go through that window, you could walk up into another museum.
Lise: The number of dimensions seems to increase exponentially the longer I look into the mirrors.
David: And if you look out the window, it doesn’t seem that we’re looking at the actual museum. What you’re looking at is so confusing.
Lise: It looks tripled, quadrupled.
David: It’s like another world over there. And it doesn’t make any sense how that could happen. We know what mirrors do, but that’s another level of reflection. It’s taking the reflection down there, which we see clearly, and flipping it all the way up there. And if we could stand back further, it would happen again and again. That’s why we see the sky and the earth over and over and over, each repeating endlessly. If you look in the dirt down there, you can see us in that first layer of dirt. It almost looks like we’re looking at someone else down there. When do you get to look at yourself from on top of yourself back down on yourself in real time without any kind of technology? It’s like an out-of-body experience.
Lise: And again, very dreamlike. Like in a dream when you’re flying, and can you look down and see yourself.
David: My parents were just here yesterday, and they could barely walk on the mirrors. They were absolutely terrified. They did eventually, but it took them a long time to get the feel for it. Their brains are telling them, I’m going to die if I take another step. I’m going to fall to my death. Other people walk right out on it.
Lise: What are some of the features of the McCormick House that inspired Ascension / Descension?
David: Two things came to mind when I was asked to do an installation in the house. This is one of Mies’s most grounded structures. The ceiling is only eight feet high. Skycube was about the relationship between Mies and the sky. He brought us into the sky with the first skyscrapers made of glass. I thought it would be fitting to bring the sky down to him.
For this work, I want to continue to bring the sky into this space. With polarity as the theme of the show, here we have walls of sky, and walls of earth. Also, this house is based on the original steel and glass design of Mies’s first skyscraper, Promontory Apartments in Hyde Park. But Promontory Apartments isn’t like this because they couldn’t afford to build that design. Since he never got to do that design as a skyscraper, I thought wouldn’t it be nice to bring the skyscraper to the house.
The other polarity in Mies’s architectural forms is between verticality and horizontality. The Federal Plaza, Post Office is a beautiful horizontal space, Crown Hall, this home, and the Farnsworth House. I thought, what if I could really highlight the horizontality of his ranch house in half the house, and then take the other half, and highlight the verticality of his skyscrapers? We put feelers out and Robert Kleinschmidt agreed to curate the other wing of the house to give a sense of how it was originally inhabited.
Lise: The column or pole of light in the middle of the room feels integral to the piece. Why did you put it there?
David: I really wanted to hold the layers together with something singular. Using the house as a metaphor for the body, I’m again exploring the polarity of the multiplicity and the singularity of the self. What’s inside of us, as human people, is way bigger than our exterior frame. Our interiority extends way beyond our exteriority. When we first see and enter this house it seems so small. Then all these layers unfold. That’s how we are as humans. The light pole is a singular object with an ephemeral presence since you can’t hold light. And it’s in a shape of a tube, where everything else is rectilinear.
Lise: The light pole in this space brings to mind the cosmological or mythological concept of the axis mundi. It’s the axis running through the center of the world connecting heaven and earth.
David: The title, Ascension / Descension imbues the work with the Biblical language of heaven and hell, of great moments and low moments, wonderful times and hard times.
Lise: Or flying and mountain climbing. For Hindus, the axis mundi is Mount Meru.
David: There is no height or depth in Ascension / Descension where this light is not present. You can see many of me. And I see many of you. But you can’t see many of yourself.
Lise: In fact, it’s funny, when I’m trying to look down further into the reflections I keep getting in my own way.
David: Isn’t that life right there? I keep getting in my own way. That should be the T-shirt of life.
Lise: I can try to peek around myself, but there’s not much I can see.
David: That’s beautiful metaphor for life with others. We need each other to understand ourselves. I can only see these other perspectives of you, and you can only see those of me. This is the conversational nature of reality that the philosopher and poet David Whyte writes about.
Lise: The bent reflections on the windows are starting to really come out.
David: This only starts happening at night.
Lise: The number of artists using mirrors to proliferate dimensions and evoke infinity seems to be multiplying. At 2018 Expo Chicago, Iván Navarro’s Back to Square One was magnetic. Antony Gormley’s Infinite Cube at the Smart Museum is another crowd pleaser. Some of these works the viewer is on the outside looking in. The immersive character of Ascension / Descension creates a more destabilizing experience.
David: Yayoi Kusama is another amazing artist who works with infinity rooms. Many people have worked with infinity rooms. I was very hesitant to do this piece because we’re having mirror fever right now in the art world. I went forward with it because of the architectural, historical narrative. McCormick House also makes it possible to bring nature in with the mirrors on the floor and ceiling, allowing me to continue the sky/earth conversation I began with Skycube in 2015.
Lise: Walking on the mirrors is especially captivating. It feels more compelling to look down than up.
David: You stay there, and I’ll stand here. Now look up. Can you see me?
Lise: Yes, but I can’t tell what plane you’re on.
David: It looks like I’m up on a ledge.
Lise: Now it looks like you’re jumping off the ledge.
David: My parents screamed when I did that. When you look down and I look up, we see different layers. We need each other to see them. Ascension / Descension is my attempt to create a non-dual space—and the pole of light holds together all its layers.
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