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Pre-order our book YOU ARE AN ARTIST (which includes new assignments!) here: This week we're talking about your Desktop Monuments! Your responses to Lee Boroson's assignment to capture the feeling of monumentality with miniature models have been fantastic -- keep submitting your responses with #theartassignment!

Watch the original assignment:

Featured in this video:
Erin Carlson:
unnestedmatryoshka: /
minnesbeta: /
Paralian -

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(PBS Digital Logo)

Sarah: Hey, everybody.  Today, I'm gonna share with you my favorite responses to Lee Boroson's assignment, which is to create a desktop monument.  He explained it this way.  

Lee: Go on the Internet and find images of a natural setting, tourist destination, someplace that you've never been to, perhaps that you'd like to go to, that you know something about or you know very little about, and use that as the basis to create your own desktop monument.  

Sarah: So for me the key take away was to create a monument based not on what you think the place looks like, but what it feels like, and you guys really gave me some feels with this one.

(The Art Assignment intro)

Sarah: The first is by yes4poe, and it's fittingly titled Canyon.  It's paper cutouts made into a photo collage, and they say in the description that it's Matisse influenced.  I thought the Matisse reference was right on here, not because of the obvious fact that he did a lot of paper cutouts, but because he was a master of color, and I love the way color is used here, and I think it's perfectly valid to imagine one's experience of being at the Grand Canyon as being dominated by overwhelming color.  Like, color is not just a visual sensation, but can be something that invades and intrudes upon other senses as well.

Erin Carlson also approached the Grand Canyon as a site, specifically this photo, and gave their work the title Canyon of Influence.  Erin says, "I've wanted to see the Grand Canyon for years not just for its grand size and dramatic colors, but because of the geological history revealed in its walls.  I've always been enchanted by the idea that something as formless as water could carve away rock and reveal so much history.  I wanted to show that same experience of something small revealing history as it progressed in relation to my writing.  My writing not only reveals my history, but carries with it small pieces of everything that came before it, like sediment in a river."  With this one, you see how relative scale is.  There's a sense of monumentality even though it's just a stack of books on a desk.  I'm reminded of the photography of James Casebere, who makes these really intricate table-sized models that he then photographs.  They have this expansive, convincing sense of space even though they're just these small reconstructions.  

lyriclorelei took a similar approach to the same subject, based on this image and it's a stack of all the notebooks they used while getting a Master's degree, with the oldest ones at the bottom and the current and final semesters at the top.  They say, "How this stack has grown with every semester reminded me of sedimentary layers that build up in rocks over time.  I hope that when I do make it to the Grand Canyon that I will be overwhelmed with the sense of the passage of time."  This one has a similar sense of monumentality, and with both of these, I'm reminded of the power and presence of books as objects.  Of course we learned this with Nina Katchadourian's Sorted Books assignment, but we see again how books can have such incredible presence, not just as sculptural objects, but almost like they're human subjects when they're being photographed.  They contain multitudes, just like a person in a portrait, and we had a comment on the assignment video that resonates strongly with the way this one communicates the passage of time.  LJM792 studied geology and had the following to say, "I love that Lee searches for accuracy in his installations with the same focus with which someone creating a scientific model might also use.  Their pursuits are fairly similar, but while a scientist is trying to recreate the exact physics or the chemistry of a thing, Lee is trying to recreate its impact, the experience of it, its emotional or tactile ambiance, if you will."  

And that tactile ambiance is exactly what drew me to the next response by Tessa, based on this image of a mangrove forest in Marrdja, near Cape Tribulation in Australia. She used a variety of different kinds of tape to create this sculpture with the sticky sides facing out, imagining this to be the way the swampland feels. Tessa claims the overall aesthetic isn't quite what she had in mind, but I really respect that she prioritized the tactility of this sculpture over the visuals. There's a terrible bias in arts to looks, and with this response the visuals were delightfully incidental. 

Another response that I thought captured a "tactile" and emotional ambience was this one by Unnestedmatryoshka imagining the surface of the Moon. They said, "When they first landed on the Moon, they weren't sure how solid the ground would be. I mean, you know it is a solid, but how solid is it? To me that is like a little kid standing at the edge of a ball pit thinking, 'The adults told me I'd be okay if I stepped into this, but it looks like it is just going to swallow me whole." There's a really beautiful mystery to these images and I appreciate the way that the artist has paid such attention to the lighting to give these everyday items a sense of strangeness and wonder. The artist also made a fantastic video where you can hear the crunch of the balls as the camera navigates the surface. I remember so vividly what it feels like to be that kid on the edge of the ball pit and I'm immediately transported to that feeling of excitement slash fear.

There's a similar aura of mystery in a response by Kiley of the Northern Lights based on this image. Kiley created a tiny little desktop model and created these images which have a kind of magical intimacy that I really enjoyed. It's not nearly as dramatic as the source image, but for me that doesn't really matter. For my own imagination of the Northern Lights, I guess that there are plenty of times before, during, and after the wildly photogenic moments that have a feel closer to what Kiley depicts. Kiley used candles and flashlights to create the lighting effects here, and it reminds me of some of the earlier precursors to cinema like the Magic Lantern, a seventeeth century invention that projected images from painted glass slides. Early iterations of these were lit by candles or oil lamps whose flickering flames caused the image to animate. 

We live in an age of an embarrassing abundance of technology, but here I'm reminded of how relatively crude mechanisms can achieve magical effects. In this and in a number of other responses, the artist has included a kind of reveal shot of the set up. And while I'm hesitant to pull back the curtain on this one, I think knowing the miniature nature of the model does contribute to the magic.

Returning to another joy of childhood, I'm reminded of the feeling of peering into a little shoe box diorama, or playing with a dollhouse, or marveling at the galleries of miniatures at the Art Institute of Chicago. The tiny scale contributes to my sense of wonder by making me feel kind of contained and safe, but also opening up to a potentially limitless universe of imaginative play.

I've saved my favorite one for last, and this one comes from Minnesbeta. She has created was she calls "A little nebula on my desk using two mirrors, wool, and glass beads." She says it turns out a bit too symmetric to be a bit of chaotic space, but that it sits more easily on her desk this way. She also made a video to show how her world was created. I was immediately reminded of 1960s and 70s works by Robert Smithson who used mirrors to create an infinity effect in a similar way. And I thought Smithson's conception of sight and non-sight was particularly relevant here, where the sight is what's out in a natural landscape and the non-sight is bringing that landscape into the space of a gallery. Or you could think about the mirrored infinity rooms of Yayoi Kusama, who since the sixties has used similar techniques to create whole worlds in contained spaces which viewers are invited to walk in and be enveloped by. 

When trying to imagine or represent something as vast and unimaginable as the universe, I appreciate how Minnesbeta's response acknowledges and reflects that endlessness. What this response and what all of the really good responses to this assignment do for me, is make me think about what a monument is in the first place.

If you think about some of the most famous, most successful monuments like Maya Lin's amazing Vietnam War memorial, it's not a direct correlation to what the war or anyone who participated in it looked like, but what perhaps it might feel like. It's a heavy, dark gash in the landscape that bears the names of the Americans lost in the war. And whose mirrored surface reflects the image of what's around it and who's looking at it. I don't see any reason why a representational sculpture of soldiers would be more affective at calling to mind or commemorating such a horrific series of events. 

I like how Lee Boroson described his artwork as attempts to turn an effect into a kind of thing. In the comments Paralian says, "His work seems to me like poetry in sculpture form, portraying whatever subject more accurately by consciously avoiding direct description.'" And that's what this assignment gets at so well. That there are myriad ways to describe things beyond the visual. Of course that's part of it, but it's just one part. And great artists tend to understand that. 

Thank you so much for responding to this assignment, and if you weren't mentioned that doesn't mean what you made wasn't great. We're experimenting with the format of these Highlights videos, and I'm trying out discussing fewer responses but in more depth. What do you think? Let's talk about it in the comments. 

Oh and don't forget to keep making desktop monuments! We'll keep looking out for them and sharing them on our Tumblr. 

(Exit Music)