A crunch on the ground, wavelets in a pool, a reflection here, a cast shadow there—the effects of ambient light, air, and sound perform integral roles in Lee Ufan’s subtle drama of stone and steel, the star being space itself. For the first time in the Hirshhorn’s 45-year history, an artist has been given the 4.3-acre outdoor plaza to explore and reinvent. Lee’s response, a sequence of 10 site-specific sculptures, delivers an exhilarating experience. Not only does “Open Dimension,” which remains on view through September 13, 2020, inspire fresh insight into the museum’s Brutalist cylindrical design and our relation to nature, but it also triggers heightened awareness as the body navigates unforeseen connections and alignments.
Lee’s practice can be traced in part to Mono-ha, the influential mid-century movement in Japan of which he was a primary theoretician. Unlike much postwar art-making, Mono-ha favored the mediation of existing objects over the creation of new ones to reveal “the world as it is,” in Lee’s words, and achieve understanding through emotion and perception as well as thought. The unassuming materials at the Hirshhorn, including found boulders, steel (for Lee, “a solidified form of components extracted from stone”), gravel, and water, are composed into simple, yet transformative works in which each component retains its distinctive character even as it becomes part of a larger whole. Activated by such dynamics as void and mass, found and altered, near and far, inner and outer, these works interact directly with their sites and set the viewer off in all directions.
Lee’s immersive scenes unfold like constellations whose full meaning eludes rational definition. All part of his ongoing “Relatum” series, they are distinguished by their subtitles. Box Garden—a steel basin with blackened water on which a pair of stone sentinels seems to float—marks a threshold between the museum’s concrete plaza and the National Mall. From there, in the northeast corner’s grassy court, earth and sky meet in Ring and Stone: a single stone and a polished steel band encircling a patch of grass merge into a standing steel band swaying gently with the wind, anchored by a stone. At the southeast corner, Horizontal and Vertical plays out on a bed of white-painted gravel. A nod to Kenneth Snelson’s Needle Tower (which previously held this location), Lee’s steel needle soars up from an open steel ring offset by two carefully placed stones.
The tall, freestanding steel coil of Come In, which hugs the building, beckons viewers into its interior with reflections of the surrounding niche and the plaza. Open Corner makes contact with its niche at the top and bottom, the steel arch nimbly responding to the Hirshhorn’s circular shell, while its stone partner leads back toward the perimeter wall. There, the two-part Step by Step bridges the concrete plaza and the raised grass court. On the plaza, a stone sits at the base of a sloping steel plate that rises over the low retaining wall. The pair on the court above reverses the position; the stone, nestled under a second steel slope, only becomes visible from the side and back.
In the southwest corner, Position—a rectangular steel plate bearing an off-center stone—engages the angles of the perimeter wall while drawing attention to the subtle slope of the grass bed. Up close, the plate becomes an aerial landscape of rusted scratches and clusters of tiny, flame-like marks. On a white gravel bed in the adjacent court, Phenomenon emphasizes diagonals by juxtaposing two sets of paired stones and stainless steel cylinders. In one pair, the stone upholds a gently curved cylinder; in the other, the stone sits by itself to the side of a straight, supine cylinder. Completing the western side, Dialogue riffs on the idea of reflection and shadow. As in Step by Step, two stones straddle the retaining wall. This time, they rest on an oblong of white gravel, their cast shadows illusionistically painted a dark brown.
A perceptual tour de force of spatial complexities, Fountain Plaza completes the sequence inside the museum’s central plaza. Eleven sheets of metal, each mirrored on one side, create a maze around the fountain with their radiating spokes and two entry points. Reflections dazzle and at times disorient with an interplay of real and invented forms, while seams and edges demarcate an ever-shifting terrain of concrete and water. “Open Dimension” builds through a series of cumulative epiphanies that impart a sense of sublime interdependence and graceful beauty. As Lee notes, “By limiting one’s self to the minimum, one allows the maximum interaction with the world.”