Maze, 1972. Wood, 6 x 32ft diameter. Originally sited near New Kingston, PA (destroyed in 1974)

Alice Aycock: Systems of Energy

Alice Aycock was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Sculpture Center in 2018. For a full list of Lifetime Achievement Award recipients, click here.

Alice Aycock’s recent works bristle with an iconic energy. Curving tendrils of aluminum in dynamic repetition, like Futurist force lines freed from the canvas, erupt from the earth with propulsive power. Rising 20 feet in the air, Devil Whirls (2017) is named for a dust devil, an upwardly rotating column of hot air rising through cooler air that creates a vortex in which the two are kept in balance as a stable system. Swept up into the whirlwind’s coils, the viewer ricochets to and fro within the skeins, twirling around an anchoring pole wrenched at its center by the force.

Like many of Aycock’s works over the course of her decades-long career, Devil Whirls is inspired by science. Part of the recent “Turbulence” series, along with Twister Again and Untitled Cyclone, it captures a precarious moment of powerful energy in motion. Turbulence, described by theoretical physicist Richard Feynman as the most important unsolved problem of classical physics, is irregular motion, like gusts and lulls in the wind, or secondary motion caused by eddies in fluid. Kayakers may think of a rapid or “hole” where the visible current suggests one kind of motion, while a very different, unpredictable movement may be roiling underneath. Associated with the prevailing pattern of flow rather than a substance, turbulence is one of many “flow regimes” in the physics of fluid dynamics, which examines systems in motion.

Gottfried Leibniz (1646–1716), the philosophical father of systems theory, defined energy as vis viva, or living force. Vital, organic energy, always in the process of becoming, is, in fact, a thread that runs through all of Aycock’s work. Her early projects were inspired by systems theory, particularly the concept of open systems codified by Austrian American biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy in the 1930s, which centers on exchanges of energy and information among biological organisms and their environment. Like other artists of her generation, including Hans Haacke and Martha Rosler, Aycock embraced open systems associated with life, growth, and change as a counterforce to closed systems like entropy, associated by the counterculture with a Cold War “technological society” that prized efficiency and scientific control. While closed systems evoked lumbering industrial machinery grinding to a stop, open systems centered on the organized growth and complexity of bodies, societies, and ecosystems. Aycock’s early land works incorporated the body of the viewer, who was meant to comprehend the work phenomenologically, gradually accumulating and processing sensory information (phenomena) while moving through the structures. 

The Machine that Makes the World, 1979. Steel, wood, steel doors, pulleys, and revolving drum. 8 x 12.13 x 38 ft.

Maze (1972), a non-functional architectural construction built on open farmland in Pennsylvania, was Aycock’s first major work, completed after her MA thesis “An Incomplete Examination of the Highway Network/ User/Perceiver System(s).” Conceived as an open system, Maze encompassed an unfolding exchange between an apperceptive participant and a fixed structure of six-foot-tall, narrow passageways that simultaneously constricted and accommodated movement. The contingency of this relationship and the phenomenological process of gradual discovery created a continuous creative interchange between the body and its environment. Open systems embrace phenomenology and accept as a given the phenom – enological notion that cognition results from perceptual experience, which means that consciousness derives from and affects bodily experience. Aycock’s foregrounding of phenomenology is consistent with the feminist position that the body and mind mutually construct a gendered consciousness formed through embodied experience. 

Terra Incognita for Sappho (2017), a drawing of continents inscribed with Greek text floating over a planetary orb, pays homage to the archaic poet counted among the canon of nine lyric poets in Hellenistic times, most of whose work and insights into the human condition have since been lost. Inspired by scraps of papyrus found in a trash dump in Egypt, authenticated as rare examples of Sappho’s verse, and sold at Christies in 2011, Aycock re-created the fragments as land masses that hover over coaxial circles emanating from a molten core within the earth, visible as if by x-ray. The planet is anchored through the center by gridded scaffolding–a radio tower, slightly skewed like a Constructivist axonometric drawing, over which hovers a tele – communications satellite that appears to emit Sappho’s still resonant sentiments. Aycock says of the fragments, “She’s talking about feelings that we would want to talk about. They are poems written by a woman about love. Period. They are by a person born 3,000 years ago whose work was almost lost. I was thinking, ‘What is it like to be a woman?’ We don’t know who we are. Culture has told us who we are for thousands of years, but we don’t [really] know. We certainly don’t know how to love. It’s an uncharted territory. But particularly as a woman what does it mean to love anyone, to love your child, to be disappointed?” Terra Incognita refers to the dearth of explication of women’s experience, which is human experience. Aycock amplifies Sappho’s poetry through an information system, a network of radio waves, to the universe, celebrating deep human insight, however fragmentary, that reaches us across the ages. 

Hoop-la, 2014. Powder coated aluminum and steel, 19 x 17 x 24

The garden, a cultivated ecosystem and potent utopian symbol, is another recurring, and related, theme in Aycock’s work. As Suzaan Boettger has argued in Earthworks: Art and the Landscape of the Sixties (2003), modern ecology–defined as the relation of biological organisms to one another and to their physical surroundings– owes its theoretical underpinnings to systems theory. Aycock’s drawing The Dance Garden Containing Magic Diagrams (1988), effectively a plan for a garden, makes the association clear. Sinuous, linear passageways, like those of Maze, also evoke the ribbons of Devil Whirls, but tipped with arrows suggesting directional movement and intermingled with mystical symbols. Seeking space for a real garden, Aycock bought a house in the Hamptons some 20 years ago and laid out the design herself according to war strategies. As she says, “I’m a gardener, it’s my only other hobby besides making art.” 

The slender, vibrantly colored spindles in one of the sculptures from her multipart Passion/Passiflora Incarnation (Coral Gables, Florida, 2016) extend toward the sun in a rainbow burst as if releasing their pollen into the atmosphere. Resting on rickety stems within a circular pool, the flower does not transmute life-giving water; instead, it is a cybernetic organism whose mechanical segmented limbs, like an insect’s, struggle to support its own weight. Another form features a circular, yellow “receptacle,” the thickened part of the stem to which the flower organs are attached, mirroring a silver spacecraft marked by concentric circles. Working in her garden, Aycock noticed that passionflowers resemble satellites: “They look like something sci-fi. In science fiction of the ’30s and ’40s, people were imagining what aliens looked like. You have these big spider robotic arms.” The uncanny juxtaposition of the organic and the mechanized in this work also evokes the unforeseen dangers that result from human manipulation of nature. As Aycock says, “We start doing these things, and the consequences are out of our control.” Following the tradition of an Edenic paradise lost, Aycock presents the garden as a metaphor for human innocence and folly.

Terra Incognito for Sappho, 2017. Digital inkjet print on watercolor paper, 57.25 x 97.75 in.

Her concern with our misunderstanding of the forces that we unleash is also evident in the “Miraculating Machines” series from the 1980s in which sprawling complexes replete with intricate mechanical parts defy function. The Miraculating Machine in the Garden (Tower of the Winds), at Douglass Library, Rutgers University (1980), among her first works to incorporate industrial technologies, was inspired by old furnaces. Nestled in a low-walled garden, the enormous structure of steel, Plexiglas, neon, and piping foregrounds the ideological contradiction of supplanting the pastoral garden with industrial technology as noted by Leo Marx. In contrast to the popular conception of science as cumulative and progressive, Miraculating Machine in the Garden acknowledges the often-bumbling nature of scientific and technological advancement. “Tower of the Winds” refers to the “luminiferous ether,” an invisible substance enveloping all of space, believed until the late 19th century to be the medium through which light waves traveled; the notion was finally debunked by the Michelson and Morley experiment of 1887 and later by Einstein’s theory of relativity. 

For Aycock, the garden represents a space of freedom and discovery, another kind of open system. In a 2007 interview, she discussed the importance of the garden as a separate space of liberating exploration and contemplation: “My grandmother had a garden. It was a world. You could move on the paths and tell stories. It became a universe.” The fuchsia neon sine wave atop Miraculating Machine in the Garden echoes a Feynman diagram of the possible behavior of subatomic particles. An electron and positron collide, producing a photon, rendered as an oscillating blue curve. Directional arrows indicate the trajectory of the particles, with the positron moving backward in time and the electron moving forward. The notion of movement through time, evident in the mathematics of quantum physics, is extremely important for Aycock; her works often juxtapose past and future with the present to question the notion that Western society has achieved unequivocal linear progress. The particle’s theoretical ability to traverse past and present can be likened to the freedom of the garden path, as in the trajectory of the paths in Dance Garden

Twister Again, 2017. Powder coated aluminum, 15.16 x 15.58 x 13.49 ft.

Every technological development holds within itself a precarious blend of the potential for advancement and the possibility of danger. Coming of age during the Cold War, Aycock understood the threat posed by nuclear power as well as its benefits. She grew up close to Three Mile Island near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, which saw the most significant nuclear accident in U.S. history. Miraculating Machine: The Charmed Circle, whose curved metal chutes and ribbons evoke board games based on chance and roller coasters that provoke both thrill and fear, was modeled on a circular particle accelerator like the one built at Chicago’s Fermilab in the 1960s. An earlier work, The Machine that Makes the World (1979), was prompted by the announcement of an international collaboration to build a “world machine,” a particle accelerator 30 miles in circumference, larger than any previously built, to detect whether neutrino particles have mass. The neutrino, once believed to be mass-less, can pass through normal matter with a very small probability of detection, hence its nickname, the ghost particle. In a 1986 interview describing another machine work, Aycock commented, “Sometimes I visualize myself being not a human being, but more like a particle that can move through the wall.” Here, Aycock once again emphasizes freedom of movement, this time through the indeterminate, “freefloating” quantum particle. 

Indeterminacy is also inherent in Hoop-La (2014), which consists of arcing gestural strands like the loose tendril unraveling at the base of Devil Whirls and the meandering coils of Charmed Circle. One of seven monumental powder coated aluminum and fiberglass sculptures from Park Avenue Paper Chase, commissioned for New York City’s Park Avenue, Hoop-La leaps upward with a calligraphic flourish and plunges steeply, terrifyingly, to earth. Smaller, repeating metal ribbons, like layers of flower petals nestled one inside the other, resemble miniature versions of Maze, raised from the ground as if by hurricane-force winds. Despite their organic forms, the coils end abruptly with a razor’s edge, betraying the rigidity of their material and suggesting danger. 

The Miraculating Machine in the Garden (Tower of the Winds), 1980. Glass, concrete, steel, sheet metal, copper, neon light, and vegetation, approx. 30 x 30 x 20 ft.

While recent works like Hoop-La and Devil Whirls are not physically participatory like Maze, they catapult viewers into an imagined sense of mercurial movement, prompting a similar sense of euphoria and peril. Overwhelming in scale, the repeating, curvilinear lines create patterns of motion, a flow regime, traversed by the eye. The complexity of such works is only possible with computer-aided design (CAD) programs. Art historian Robert Hobbs has noted that CAD enables Aycock to see her designs at various scales and from different vantage points, but it has a conceptual influence as well. The computer allows her to visualize the geometries of flow dynamics, reposition the forms in space, and print them threedimensionally. In many ways, these are three-dimensional versions of Leonardo’s drawings of the properties of water, considered the first studies in fluid dynamics. A touchstone for Aycock, Leonardo’s water studies are rooted in a fascination with the power of water, as well as in a fear of a great deluge. Always based in open systems– the flux of wind and water, information networks, the arterial systems of the body– Aycock’s works continue to evoke a sense of existential suspension. Great acts require great risk, but action, a sense of becoming, enables transformation, which promises freedom. 

Christine Filippone is Associate Professor of Art History and Coordinator of Women’s and Gender Studies at Millersville University of Pennsylvania.

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