Steve Tobin: The Event Itself is the Only Truth

“The true underground is where the power flows. That’s the best kept secret of our time…Power flows under the surface, far beneath the level you and I live on.” – Don DeLillo, Great Jones Street

Matzoth House, 1998. 1,500 bronze castings of Matzoth wafers, 9 x 8 x 6 ft.

If there is a controlling artistic passion revealed in Steve Tobin’s sculpture, it is the exploration of power. This pursuit of power is not for political or dogmatic ends, but for conceptual and artistic ones. Tobin highlights the unseen, ignored, or undervalued forces that drive and shape nature and the stellar, cataclysmic events that create universes.

Power is invisible, so Tobin must show the ends rather than the means. He accomplishes this by inventing and refining the tools and techniques needed to gain an advantage over the invisible, to uproot from the underground, to capture the impact of an explosion. He has harnessed liquid media like bronze, wax, and glass, because their duality parallels the dual nature of power: means and ends, liquid and solid, slickly elusive and brutally physical. The result is what Tobin refers to as “bringing art and artifact together,” a fragment of his own imagination realized as a work of art. Tobin envisions someone stumbling upon and pondering such a work hundreds of years from now as an archaeological curiosity. And he contemplates how a bronze termite hill might survive an ice age or be transformed during a volcanic event.

Matzoth House, 1998. 1,500 bronze castings of Matzoth wafers, 9 x 8 x 6 ft.

Tobin’s deference to an unforeseeable future of undeniably deconstructionist forces is due in part to his grounding in science and theoretical mathematics. He earned a B.S. degree from Tulane University in 1978, and although he simultaneously studied glass and ceramics, his fascination with the scientific world, particularly as it related to his feeling for nature, became the foundation upon which he ultimately built his art career.

Tobin’s issues, although presented formally in the language of sculpture, are more deeply rooted in philosophy and theoretical science than in art or art history. By its own nature, his work is out of step with current art trends, presenting a kind of separatist’s viewpoint. Physicist and superstring theorist Brian Greene, author of The Elegant Universe, recently observed during a studio visit that Tobin’s exploded clay pieces function as celestial maps of equivalent galaxies. In Tobin’s words, “Science, art, and philosophy are all attempting to define the universe and man’s relationship to it. The differences are just a matter of language and syntax.”

Robert Hughes has commented that Americans have a tendency to “make things up as they go along.” Tobin himself is not a very political creature, but if there is a political dimension to his art, it is a kind of homemade anarchism, according to Malatesta’s famous definition of anarchism as “propaganda by deed.” Tobin combines the disciplined techniques of science and technology with a chaotic work style that might be defined as “the event itself is the only truth.”

Sunflower, 2000. Welded steel fireworks-launching tubes, 9 x 9 x 8 ft.

Tobin’s studio occupies a hollow in rural Pennsylvania, about an hour’s drive from Philadelphia. The workshops are in a barn and a series of detached buildings dotted over 13 acres; humming and metallic sounds emerge from the constant work of a dozen or so studio assistants (from countries as far apart as Japan, Africa, and Russia) who participate in the execution of Tobin’s monumental sculptures. It is interesting to note that not one of the many artworks in his sculpture garden, in the various detached buildings that comprise his studio compound, or in the 200-year-old farmhouse where he lives are commissioned works. While many are destined for private and corporate collections or museum and gallery exhibitions, all were conceived, executed, and financed by the artist in a relentlessly visionary fashion. Created without regard as to how they might ultimately be marketed, many of the huge sculptural projects leave the artist walking on the financial edge.

A tour through the sculpture garden reveals a startling array of works from the artist’s past and present in diverse media, all vitally unified through Tobin’s devotion to organic subject matter. There are the shelters, including Tepee (1992), a shining 25-foot-high tepee constructed of industrial waste (medical glass tubing) mounted on a steel frame. The white glass refracts sun- and moonlight so brilliantly that it leaves a searing impression on the retina after even a short viewing period. Adobe (1994) is a beehive-shaped structure made entirely of 1,000 surplus M-60 bullet-resistant tank windows, products of the vast cold-war era military-industrial complex. Art critic Nancy Princenthal describes the interior of the work: “Like the inside of a tank, (it) creates a position of sheltered aggression.” Adobe celebrates the industrial process that created these wonderful windows while simultaneously recognizing the failure (and implicit horror) of the military side of the equation.

Bone Wall (detail), 2000. 2,000 cast bronze buffalo bones and bones, 60 x 12 x 6 ft.

Another shelter, Matzoth House, composed of cast bronze Matzoth wafers, is quite emphatically about the conflict between spirit and body. Critic John Perreault has described the effect: “Light revivifies unleavened bread and its sacred meaning.” Inside, pricked by splintered beams of daylight, you feel the weight (but you can’t see the image) of a spiritual force that is somewhere outside. Outside, the gilded structure represents all things golden: the golden calf, the beauty of the physical. Tobin’s point is that the body houses the spirit. Matzoth House answers the riddle that Henry James once posed, “When it becomes the thing it’s guilty; when it doesn’t become guilty it doesn’t become the thing.”

Sprouting among the shelters are a dozen of the towering bronze Termite Hills for which Tobin is perhaps best known, as well as I-beam sculptures constructed from materials salvaged from a dumpsite at the local Bethlehem Steel Factory. The Paddle and Tube pieces, also made from industrial waste, create a new vocabulary of natural forms, including Sunflower, Chrysanthemum, and Mushroom. These are fused from discarded steel tubes that were formerly used to launch fireworks displays, and Tobin has designed the sculptures so that fireworks can still be set off from the hundreds of tubes. The Bone pieces include archways, balls, and walls made of bronzed cow and buffalo bones. Inside the barn are entire series from Tobin’s previous life as one of the most innovative artists working with glass.

Forest Floor, 1998. Earth cast into bronze, view of installation at the Brocton Museum.

Tobin’s most significant body of work is the Earth Bronze Trilogy, consisting of the Forest Floor pieces, Termite Hills, and the exposed Roots. Like a set of three connected novels, each explores a different aspect of the ground under our feet. The whole point is to play with the surface of the earth as if it were a permeable membrane, like a sheet of water: to take us underground, to float us for an instant on the surface, to pull the stuff underground up through the soil and elevate it. Tobin could have chosen to construct each of these series from the original materials: wood, dirt, and leaves, like the Land or Earth artists, including Andy Goldsworthy. Robert Smithson captured the poetry of this approach when he remarked that “instead of putting a work of art on some land, some land is put into the work of art.”

Tobin instead developed a process of casting and replacing natural materials with bronze. He can take any one of those rain-covered leaves from a tree next to the barn and produce a bronze cast no thicker than that leaf. He likes the monumental associations of bronze, and it could be said that he stands Smithson’s statement on its head, making it: “Some art is inserted into the land.” Tobin fills the natural form with the substance of art. He describes it as: “The removal of one, the replacement with another, so you can see what is missing.”

African Termite Hills, 2000. Bronze, 11 and 4 ft. high. View of the works as installed at the American Museum of Natural History, New York.

The Forest Floor bronzes (shown at O.K. Harris Gallery and the Brocton Museum in 1998) address one of Tobin’s central objectives: to refocus our vision on those things we overlook, usually through over-familiarity. By casting the detritus of the ground, and by then raising the castings up to a vertical position, he turns them into doorways back to the earth. The scent of death upon the land hangs heavy over this work, but perhaps no heavier than it does in a cathedral, where time immemorial has mellowed sorrow and replaced it with melancholy.

In the Termite Hills bronzes, Tobin sought to stress that the “insect is something more than a thing that we step on.” From the perspective of a termite these monuments are larger than the pyramids. By converting the earthen structures to bronze, Tobin made them transportable and monumental. And when they begin to appear on the streets of Manhattan, they should evoke a fresh sense of wonder, particularly given their juxtaposition with one of the best-known skylines in the world and their multicultural connotation (Tobin galvanized an entire village in Ghana, Africa, in order to bring the project into fruition). As John Perreault wrote: “The sculptures he presents are alien. They are not statues. There is also not a hint of cubism or minimalism. They shock.” Tobin plans to amplify the shock when he returns to Ghana to build kilns around, and then fire, the abandoned termite hills: “The direct earth as art, with my transformation by fire.”

Root. Bronze, 15 x 20 ft.

When Tobin excavated the earth to get at the entire root structure of a dead oak tree on his property, his objective was to make the unseen realm of roots visible. One Root piece measures 25 feet high and 45 feet in diameter. It is not an exact replica of the underground root network, because as painstakingly as the roots were removed, some were damaged in the process. The natural structure, from the trunk down to the most delicate tendrils, was cast in bronze and then reassembled like the reconstruction of a dinosaur skeleton, with some pieces inevitably missing. A smaller Root, measuring 10 feet high and 10 feet in diameter is currently on exhibition as part of the Vancouver International Sculpture Project, along with sculptures by Louise Nevelson, Frank Stella, Ellsworth Kelly, and others.

A partial list of Tobin’s artworks in multiple media, series, and scales would include (besides those already discussed) the blown-glass Cocoons (1984–90), some 15 feet tall, presently on exhibition at the Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, New York; the Waterglass rivers and waterfalls (1983–present), the largest 100 feet long; the cast glass Doors and Torsos (1990–93); various Shelters; installations, including the Retretti Caves in Finland (1993); the small surreal Toys and Shoes (1993–present); and the ceramic Exploded Clay (1999–present) sculptures, some now too large to fit through the studio door, that the artist also calls Bang Pots.

Doors, 1993. Cast glass, 3–7 feet high. View of works as installed in Tobin’s studio.

This diversity sounds a theme advanced by other artists during the last 15 years: that art should be free to seek the form appropriate to the concept, regardless of material, style, or subject. For example, Charles Ray moves effortlessly from Ink Box (1986)—a Plexiglas cube filled with ink to resemble a minimal sculpture—to the more recent nude sculptures of himself. Tobin’s anarchistic approach also shares a superficial resemblance to the British “Sensation” sculptors like Damien Hirst (a tiger shark in formaldehyde, the sliced cows and pigs intended to shock the audience) and Rachel Whiteread (rooms or an entire house cast in concrete). The controversy Whiteread elicited was described by Iain Sinclair in language worthy of an Oregon Anarchist (the group that disrupted the Seattle World Trade Organization meetings): “…her project would fuse all the loose wires of potential catastrophe. House, seen from across the field, was a giant plug, feeding current into the madness of the city.”

Waterglass, 1993. Discarded glass tubes, 80 x 25 x 60 ft. View of work as installed at the Palm Beach Museum.

Tobin inverts Whiteread’s process, preferring to cast the exteriors of things, leaving the interiors unseen, or seen only through veils of color and fractures of glass, as in the Doors series. But the sense of shock remains: viewers caught off guard by his giant Waterglass waterfall, either in a New York City museum or in the context of an ancient barn, wonder how such a mammoth flow of water can be so silent—until they discover that it is frozen and then recognize that the water is, in fact, made of thousands of strands of glass fibers.

Tobin and the “Sensation” artists take to heart Ralph Waldo Emerson’s statement that “people wish to be settled; only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.” But where some of the new British artists employ an ironic or sarcastic approach as a means of capturing public attention, Tobin works through wonders intended to create an atmosphere of speculation, doubt, and surprise. His is a more romantic appreciation of the immense intricacy of nature, one that links him to artists like Fred Tomaselli, whose Lands End collages (1997–98) look like illustrations of birds but are made from cutouts from mail order catalogs; or Roxy Paine, whose sculpture Crop (1997–98) is a study of complexity that follows the life cycle of the poppy all the way through to its role in the drug culture.

Water Column, 2000. Glass capillary tubes, 40 x 20 x 20 ft.

Tobin’s most substantial divergence from contemporary art is in his attitude toward the commodification of artworks, the capitalist alchemy that seems capable of packaging anything spiritual or cultural and transforming it into a commodity that can be sold. The critique of consumer culture that is implicit in advanced art, at least since Warhol, has proceeded mostly through a satirical recognition of the emptiness and lifelessness of consumer culture and its objects. In many contemporary artworks, the material of the art plays a decidedly secondary role to the concept, as if a firewall has been erected between the spiritual and the material to keep the one from infecting the other.

Even so, Tobin revels in the solid presence of objects. He is on easy terms with the industrial processes that allow cultural artifacts to be produced. Mostly, he revels in the life of objects, admiring an artist like Henry Moore for his attitude that “a work can have in it a pent-up energy, an intense life of its own, independent of the object it may represent.” Both Matzoth House and Adobe speak to this issue.

Tobin’s latest foray has been a radical exploration of the architectural form and its relationship to a power event, the explosion. He has found a way to embed a small explosive charge inside a large chunk of raw clay, roughly cubic in shape. After detonation the exploded forms are fired in a kiln, usually along with several fragments that have been ejected from these freshly minted clay volcanoes. The chemical traces from the explosive create a lovely fluctuating metallic glaze of silvery blue grays. These are extremely beautiful objects, but upon closer scrutiny we wonder: What is the point? Are they artworks? Are they some sort of demonstration of natural forces? Tobin suggests that “in the ceramics my colors or glazes all come from bits of bronze dust and glass dust from the grinding areas of my studio, or from the explosives themselves—they are all colored by the explosion. This is important to me because if I used traditional ceramic glazes the work would fall under the shadow of the history of every piece of glazed ceramic ever done. The explosion and the fire that created the Exploded Clay colors directly tell the story of event of creation. The galaxy-like markings on the interiors of the Exploded Clay resemble the appearance of the universe after the big bang explosion.” Chaos has turned to wonder. Standing in front of an exploded clay form inspires the same kind of wonder one feels when gazing into the exploded sky.

Exploded Clay, 2000. Sequence of photographs detailing the process.

Recently, there has been an attempt to revive the stature of the “wonder” (a rock that looks like a duck, a side of beef that glows in the dark), which since the enlightenment has been mostly confined to the realm of circuses and natural history museums. As Lorraine Daston and Katharine Park write in Wonders and the Order of Nature: 1150-1750: “It was the mutual imitation of art and nature that was wondrous, not the objects in themselves…Most wondrous of all were objects so ambiguous that spectators could not decide whether they were works of art or works of nature.” The authors note that the vocabulary of wonder in the Middle Ages had a “unified profile,” and that the words for passion and objects were closely related, “signaling the tight links between subjective experience and objective referents.”

Tobin has proven a master at creating wonders and at using these wonders to sidestep the issue of beauty in art. His works are not beautiful, but they are wonderful in that antique sense of being “passionate objects” that confuse us about their origins. The intensity of this confusion is the engine of Tobin’s brand of anarchism. And his anarchic art is largely there to jolt us into seeing the results of power: insect power, explosive actions, the terror of dreams. Tobin creates memorials to power and monuments to creative forces.

In the wake of the Earth Bronze Trilogy, Tobin is planning his next project, Sandcastles. He will install a “beach” in his studio where life-size sandcastles will be constructed and then turned into bronze: “Making permanent those things that are fleeting, solidifying dreams.” Like the Termite Mounds, Sandcastles will be structures of the ground that, once bronzed, will become permanent fortresses against the reclaiming forces of nature. At least until the next ice age comes along to test Tobin’s mettle.

William Warmus is a writer and contributing editor of Glass. He has also recently acted as advisor to the estate of Clement Greenberg during the acquisition of the Greenberg collection by the Portland Museum of Art.