Robert lrwin, Part II, Excursis: Homage to the Square,1998. Mixed media, installation view

Robert Irwin

Excursus: Homaae to the Square

Dia Center for the Arts

New York

“You had to have been there.” This hackneyed expression is particularly suited to describe Robert lrwin’s site-specific installation at Dia Center for the Arts. A description and photographs can convey only slightly the total experience of actually being in the work. Unlike many current installations, there’s no emphasis on social, political, or psychological content, no words to read or monitors to face. lt doesn’t assault you with a conglomeration of objects or overwhelm you with sights and sounds; you might even think at first, that there s not much there. This rather quiet piece is about the joy of heightened experience. Entirely dependent on the presence of viewers, it is Participatory, providing viewers with the opportunity to become more aware as they move through its spaces. The work also changes over time through a felicitous combination of phenomena controlled by the artist and those provoked by chance.

lrwin’s Excursus: Homage to the Square is the second Part of an exhibition that began in spring 1998 with Prologue: x 18. The title for the second Part refers to the famous series of paintings by Josef Albers, classic examples of the effects of color placement on perception in two-dimensional optical space. lrwin has carried this exploration of color perception into the third dimension. The word “excursus” denotes a supplemental dissertation added to a work, a wandering off, a digression. lrwin’s title implies an addition to, as well as homage to Albers’s study, and also a supplement to his own first part of the installation,
carrying the viewer on a visual excursion.

For Prologue, lrwin divided Dia’s entire third-floor space into 18 square chambers whose walls were covered with fine mesh scrims and lit with natural light, plus vertical fluorescent fixtures on the east and west walls of each room. For Excursus, he has retained the scrim-walled rooms, adding fluorescent lights on the other two walls of each room and covering all the fixtures in each room with a single color of theatrical gel. The gels each have a band of darker color at eye level, making the different colored light in each room even more palpable.

The lrwin installation plays with our perception of colored light as three-dimensional space in square rooms. Viewers experience space as subtly changing colored light as they move from room to room. The quality of the light is mysterious, even mystical. Natural light filters through from the large front and back windows of the Dia space, filling the outside chambers with some natural light as well as colored light. As one moves to the somewhat darker center of the installation, the natural light grows fainter, increasing the perception of individual color in each chamber and one’s appreciation of the juxtaposition of the color-filled rooms.

The configuration of the installation appears irregular, somewhat random, but at the same time carefully planned. lt feels like a maze; each chamber has at least two doorways leading to other rooms. Viewers can choose from a multitude of possible paths through the Piece. The open doorways line up visually so that one can see clearly through the space at certain points. The scrims always allow one to see through the ceiling into several other rooms, which become fainter as they go off into the distance.

The Dia Center is an ideal setting for this work, and the extended duration of its exhibitions lends itself to projects like lrwin’s, which deal with the experience of things that are in constant change. For lrwin this longer exhibition Period (a full year) made it Possible to do two variations with the same basic structure-an exciting opportunity to expand on an idea. The longer exhibition time also allows viewers to come back and see this piece time and again-to experience it at different times of the day and in different seasons with varying weather and light conditions. I was there first on a cold gray day in December, and then again on a sunny day in March. The piece was magnificent, but dramatically different each time. Even the different audience at each encounter contributed to a unique experience. lrwin’s masterly orchestration of space is all about altering and heightening perception and offers something different to each viewer at each encounter.

-Jane lngram Allen