Lowry Burgess was one of the most complex contemporary artists you may never have heard of. A fellow at the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at MIT for 25 years, professor in the Studio for Interrelated Media (SIM) at MassArt, and co-founder of the Studio for Creative Inquiry at Carnegie Mellon University, he traveled the world making and investing objects into the earth. His seminal work, The Quiet Axis, is his corpus—a collection of projects all tied together through a mapping of what may be the largest work of art ever made by an individual artist. Burgess’s work has been to space and back with NASA and is scattered across the globe in mysterious places. His objects and ideas are rooted in human consciousness, partially of this world but inhabiting our universe and beyond. MoonArk, with SpaceX, will launch in 2021, to be deposited on the dark side of the moon for an eternity.
My friendship with Burgess began when we were colleagues at Carnegie Mellon teaching in the School of Art. We shared similar interests in storytelling and metal casting. Whenever I ran an iron pour at the Carrie Furnaces in Pittsburgh, Burgess, who saw iron as a foundation of life, would give me a sculpture to cast. He would show up with his lawn chair or wheelchair and sit as close as possible. I cast many pieces for him in his later years.
This interview comes from a conversation we had just before he died in February 2020. He was a tremendous soul, a true educator and vital purveyor of oral knowledge connected to folklore, myth, and spirituality—knowledge both earthly and terrestrial in its scope.
Joshua Reiman: I am amazed at the range and detail of your work, which covers everything from mythology to alchemy, poetry, and sculpture. How did you embark on this adventure?
Lowry Burgess: My inspiration comes from a sense of seizure—a seizure of something way beyond myself. I was opened up to a massive, impossible task. An example of this would be when I went to Afghanistan to create the holographic lake under the Bamiyan Buddhas. I had a vision in 1968 during the Tet offensive of the Vietnam War. Because I had studied the anthropology and history of Southeast Asia, I had an enormous respect for these cultures, and I felt helpless and depressed. What could I do to make a difference? I looked toward the sunset and had a vision of a lake of water lilies hovering in the air. It was not of the earth, just a sloping up within the air. I thought, “Ok, I’ll do that, I will make that.”
JR: What pulls you geographically to all of the places in The Quiet Axis?
LB: I had studied the Buddhas in Bamiyan. When I had this vision, the Buddha was there, and when I went to the site, it was what I had seen, but in reality, and that is where I put the lake. It turns out that the astronomy of my vision was absolutely correct. Bamiyan is the top of an equilateral triangle sitting on the ecliptic plane. It was the beginning of something way more profound than its original intent.
JR: Are you still working on The Quiet Axis?
LB: Oh yes.
JR: Can you tell me about the line or connectivity of the places where you’ve worked for this project?
LB: It’s a line through the center of the earth. If you take the earth in the ecliptic plane, the angle of the line is from Easter Island to Bamiyan and out into space toward the space beneath which are the Clouds of Magellan and then toward a particular star in the large cloud. Then to the north toward Andromeda, the nearest big galaxy. My most recent work was to send a sonic hologram of The Gate into Infinity, which you cast in iron, from the large radio telescope in Dwingeloo, the Netherlands. We sent it toward Andromeda three years ago, so now it’s about a trillion miles from earth, which is about one light year away, but it’s got a way to go.
JR: Most people can only grasp what is around them. They can only handle what their hands can hold. What makes you able to think and then create to no end?
LB: It has a lot to do with the 1960s, the frustrations I had with the war and the protests that were so ineffective. In a cosmic sense, war is lethal and unethical. It alienated me from the planet. It pushed me up to the stars. It told me, you don’t know where you are in the cosmos. So, I started to do some excavation. The first thing I did was to make three-dimensional star maps. I began practicing journeying into the stars. I had a lot of dreams where I left this earth and went out into space. I went out to the edge of the stars and found myself in my own heart. The love of the heart is the breath of the whole cosmos.
JR: How important are lore, storytelling, and written language to your work? Mircea Eliade and Joseph Campbell have ideas about eternal stories and magical moments in time. What eternal stories do you see after all these years?
LB: Language is an enormous creative structure. It goes back to the ancient stories from Egypt and Sumeria, up into Biblical stories and the divine names and light. The ultimate light is darkness, the light beyond light, and it goes beyond there.
JR: I’m interested in the objects you have created and the massive amount of culture and history invested within them.
LB: Let’s return to our mutual iron obsession. Every sacred site in the world that I have investigated deeply is seated directly over very large iron deposits. Iron is always near the sacred. And in these places, sacred water also exists, the chalybeate water, which contains iron salts and flows in places where water shall not be. From the serpent mounds to Delphi, these waters are present. Iron is directly related to communication with the divine—whether it is Apollo or Christ or the mother goddess, iron is everywhere in every culture. At the end, the universe devolves into particles of iron moving sublimely away from each other. The infinity of iron is at the end of time. This material occupies an amazing temporal and transcendental reality. My first iron castings were done with iron from the bogs of Pawtucket, the same iron that Native Americans would find on the surface.
JR: Can you tell me about your type of alchemy and the distilling of elemental essences? I remember seeing various elements on your dining room table, including the blood of artists, pigments, waters, and pollens.
LB: The infinities. I began this alchemy through grinding pigment to make paint in art school. In that direct process, I understood the close relationship between artwork and materiality. It was a real pain in the ass, and it really affected me. There is always a deeper set of roots in the materials we use. I started with an aromatherapist and made a sap of 44 trees. I sent it to outer space and then invested it in a rock at the deCordova Museum. The waters I collected were from the mouths of 18 of the world’s great rivers and 18 other sacred waters from glaciers, geysers, and other sources—a full phenomenology of 36 waters—and I distilled them down on the surface of the Dead Sea into one pure water. That was the water in Boundless Cubic Lunar Aperture, which went around the world 80 times with a NASA mission. Water hears the world as it flows by.
I collected the scents of 52 flowers from around the world, each representing a specific species. I cast the cup and the marriage plate from the 12 noble metals. I collected blood from 33 artists. The mixture was made and a drop of it will be in the MoonArk and sit on the surface of the moon for millions of years.
JR: So, is everything you do part of the same project—The Quiet Axis?
JR: Who is this work for?
LB: In my belief, I am placing the work for consciousness in general. I place footprints in the dust. This allows the future to know someone has been there before. This is a telepathic idea, an eternal zone, an enactment of spirit. These are the infinities.
JR: If someone asks you what The Quiet Axis is about, how do you distill the message?
LB: It is about a great love and compassion for all of life, not just on earth. The whole cosmos is life. Life is the fundamental program, everything arrives from there.
JR: Your work has always seemed to me about more than life; it is about a higher presence of being. I keep coming back to the fact that art once doubled as a recording of life, religion, and culture. Now it is about the self and identity.
LB: Art has become narcissistic. It is fashion. The Quiet Axis runs through everything. This axis is the sun.
JR: How would you like to be seen as an artist?
LB: As part of visionary history. In the tradition of a spiritual domain. Its physicality is masked.