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Richard Torchia

Spiral Story

Put the best object you know next to the Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls, the Red Woods. The big things always win.

Walter De Maria, “The Importance of Natural Disasters”, 1960

Following a now-classic strategy of recording a particular process through all of its consequences, Hristina Ivanoska and Yane Calovski assingned themselves the task of traveling in a route conforming to the shape of a spiral through their native Macedonia. Nature and Social Studies: Spiral Trip, the multilayered work generated by this charge, first conceived in 2000, continues to unfold. Starting from Izvor, the geographic midpoint of the country, and proceeding to Skopje, its cultural and political hub, Ivanoska and Calovski proposed to make this journey in seven consecutive days, employing any means necessary. Harnessing the forward drive stored in this elemental form to animate their journey through a territory, tempered at the time by political and social flux, the team performed the spiral as a physical drawing. Humble in its material essence, it is monumental in its scope.

By proposing, enacting, and chronicling their Spiral Trip, Ivanoska and Calovski extend a generation of conceptual and performance works in which the artist becomes an instrument for both inscribing and recording marks on the surface of the earth. These range from what might be regarded as perhaps the earliest of such propositions, La Monte Young’s Draw a straight line and follow it (1960), to Richard Long’s documented walks in remote landscapes (begun in 1967), Douglas Huebler’s Urban Location Pieces (initiated in 1968), and the more recent projects of Francis Alÿs.1 All of these works are characterized by restrictive instructions counterpoised by a bodily and mental freedom. They also function as methods for generating visual material that documents the prescribed activity in some concrete and legible manner. All the details of the process, no matter how random or ephemeral, gain relevance from the overall context established by the concept. Despite its conceptual framework, then, we could say, borrowing a phrase from Robert Smithson, that the work is “clogget with matter,” 2 a disparate mass of substance and circumstance that is remixed and newly ordered by the rotation of the spiral.

Ivanoska and Calovski have known each other since high school and have established decisive but continually evolving investigations. Ivanoska (b. 1974) has built her practice around a desire to provide ways for individuals to act against established roles defined by conventional social and political regimes, frequently placing the viewer within a system of multiple perceptual positions. She carefully dismantles and restores forms, texts, and images within public settings, continuing her investigations of urban and nomadic cultural traditions.3 Calovski (b. 1973), on the other hand, has been guilty of what curator Maia Damianovic recently referred to as “formal delinquency.” 4 His critically engaged, context-based practice could be characterized by its tolerance for uncertainty and openness to public reception. Comfortably moving between various media, he applies intense engagement with collaborators to question the materiality of the art object and the accepted dynamics of the live, public action. We could say that in realizing Spiral Trip, a work in which chaos and chance provoke purity and logic, the two artists define their own empirical, collaborative process.

Blanket (2000-2001), the team’s first collaborative work – a prototype garment to be worn by two persons simultaneously – was designed to animate the body in any environment.5 Intended for multiple applications that range from pleasure to trauma, it is a paradoxical piece of clothing that protects as it exposes, shielding its users while making them vulnerable at the same time. In its insistence on the communication and intimacy between any two persons who wear it, Blanket seems a fitting precursors to the dynamic that defines Spiral Trip.

After months of preparations, Ivanoska and Calovski departed Izvor on May 14 and returned to Skopje on May 20, 2002, extending a 73-kilometer drive that would ordinarily take an hour into a weeklong road trip covering more than 800 kilometers. By “seizing the spiral,” 6 they give their idea what Immanuel Kant referred to as “purposeful form” and that freedom from “all arbitrary constraints” found in nature.7 Their resourceful application of this primary structure also distinguishes their project with unusual opportunities to reflect on the concept of narrative as it relates to the geometry of travel and the temporal dimension of drawing.

The spiral has memory built into it. Travelers proceeding along a straight line from point to point in one direction cannot retrace their route without going backwards. Voyagers moving in one continuous direction along a coil however, especially if they make more than one rotation, receive continuous opportunities to reconsider their course without retracing their steps. Following the path of a helix, travelers are always leaving and returning at the same time. The spiral’s powerful graphic identity emphasizes the shape of the path itself over any particular location along the route. As a result, every point on the way becomes significant. The road becomes the place.

Having settled on the form of a spiral for their trip, Ivanoska and Calovski accepted the reference to Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970) as a touchstone. Streching 1, 500 feet into Utah’s Great Salt Lake, this monumental work was constructed of black basalt rocks gathered directly from its site. Built during a period when Smithson was unaware that the water level was unusually low, the work has been submerged beneath the lake for most of its 33-year lifespan.8 Despite, if it not because of, its disappearance – coupled with the graphic aerial views of the work taken shortly after its completion – Spiral Jetty has become the most emblematic of earthworks. Perhaps more than any other twentieth-century masterpiece, it is has been experienced more as a reproduction than as a physically apprehended sculpture. In the sweep of Ivanoska and Calovski’s Spiral Trip, Smithson’s Jetty takes its place within an elaborate network of references to other reproductions that function as signposts and footnotes to their lives as individuals, artists, and citizens. In their hands, the Jetty becomes a prototype, an active model as well as a method to elicit a fictive experience of a particular space. This approach also reflects the logic of the modeling exercises assigned in the “Nature and Social Studies” course they studied in primary school and from which the project takes part of its title.

Walter De Maria’s The New York Earth Room (1977) becomes another generative template in Ivanoska and Calovski’s arc of allusions. Maintained by the Dia Center for the Arts (which purchased Spiral Jetty in 2000) De Maria’s 127, 300 kilos of soil is on permanent view as an “interior earth sculpture” in a 335-square metre Soho gallery space.9 Despite its colossal proportions, visitors to the Earth Room are often surprised to find that it can only be viewed from a small foyer from which photographer John Cliett’s iconic image of the work was captured. Like Spiral Jetty, it, too, has more currency as a reproduction.

During their trip, Ivanoska and Calovski developed the design for a large-scale, topographic representation of Macedonia that would fill a gallery in a manner analogous to De Maria’s installation. By so directly referencing the Jetty and the Earth Room – as well as the reciprocity reflected between a drowned pier in a remote, Southwest desert and a permanent earthwork on public view in Manhatten – Ivanoska and Calovski also appropriate Smithson’s dialectic of “site” and “Non-site.” 10 This complementary relationship is reiterated by the points of origin (site) and destination (Non-Site) that determine Spiral Trip. By employing the spiral as a method of research and discovery, the spinning form itself becomes a kind of site that “unlike the Non-Site, throws you out of the fringes” 11 to a place of abstract dimensions. The spiral, then, is “a map that will take you somewhere, but when you get there you won’t really know where you are.” 12 This dialectic also creates compelling connections across time and space between Smithson’s project in Utah and that of Ivanoska and Calovski in Macedonia.13

The New York Earth Room also functions as an instrumental link between divergent sites and practices. Not only is it a faithful abstraction of the territory over which Ivanoska and Calovski traveled but at 335 square centimetres and 1, 273 kilos, this cardboard model re-creates the scale and weight of De Maria’s work at a precise ratio of 1: 100.14 Free of any grandiose associations that the use of actual soil might have established, their brown paper earth room becomes a kind of tabula rasa. Overwhelming in its presence, the handcrafted construction nevertheless maintains the modesty characteristic of an assignment from the “Nature and Social Studies” course. In an effort to impart practical lessons about making accurate measurements, for instance, such exercises might propose drawing a “detailed map of your neighborhood” or studying the “relative heights of the hills and mountains surrounding your home.” Yet, despite this model’s mathematical expression of the terrain, its physical immediacy transforms it from a mental image of the region into something for the body.

Made of steps that visitors can climb and descend, the cardboard tiers become a platform that encourages conscious spectatorship and unhurried daydreaming. It is surprisingly resilient and impressionable, receiving and recording the weight of every visitor. Dirt from the streets outside makes direct contact with the sculpture, adding yet another layer to this play between site and Non-Site. In this context, viewers in Skopje were offered generous access to Ivanoska and Calovski’s borrowed landscape, contact denied by the glass barriers of De Maria’s New York Earth Room. At the same time, however, Ivanoska and Calovski manage to reframe the longing elicited by such physical restraint. The figures populating the six colored pencil drawings mounted on the walls around the room, viewed from the elevated prospect of the sculpture, seem suspended in the depths of an elusive distance. The literal and figurative gap between the three-dimensional cardboard model and the drawings activates the narrative depicted in the rendered scenes.

This series of speculative works, which show Ivanoska and Calovski in hypothetical scenarios within the territory designated by the equally speculative spiral, were executed in advance of the trip. They confirm their belief in drawing not only as a method of abstract movement but as a form of intervention. Charged with apprehension and the terror of palpable dangers, they lend a performative edge to the project reflected in works by Abramovic & Ulay, Montano & Hsieh, and many others who once allowed the possibility of bodily injury and mental strain to enter their scripted performances.15

Ivanoska and Calovski knew that any extensive ride across Macedonia would require passing through regions where they would be at risk, particularly in those restricted areas in the northwest where the armed conflict between government forces and Albanian terrorist formations surfaced in 2001. Conceived sic months ahead of the trip, the drawings would serve not only as emotional and preparatory studies but as a possible surrogate for the actual journey itself. Born of a frustration with inertia, they emerged as a call to action.

Much of the tension that distinguishes the series comes from the use of a spare and exacting graphic approach to depict the conflict between the personal and the universal. The literal representation of guerilla warfare, for instance, is inflected to address the relationship between the two protagonists. Precisely outlined in pencil accented with the spare application of color, the style of the drawings suggests printing techniques found in schoolbooks of the 1970s. The artists combine a cool, descriptive confidence with a urgency ideally suited for depicting themselves in bizarre tableaux that include roadside ambushes, personal confrontations, and other incongruous activities.16 Multiplied and dispersed across these pages like animated figures “on a mission,” 17 Ivanoska and Calovski assume the personae of both fugitives and vigilantes, pursued and pursuing. Remaining clearly identifiable as themselves, they are also careful to allow their characters, sometimes masked or seen from behind, to read as neutral, anonymous figures onto which viewers might project their own fears and longings in a climate of mounting political confusion.

The drawings refer specifically to the singular dynamic between the two protagonists shouldering the strain of war in their own backyard. One shows the pair, Calovski armed with a rifle, fleeing into the labyrinth of the wilderness. Neatly packed behind them are portable, collapsible house units that recall the artists’ Blanket and the need to mobilize at a moment’s notice. Another depicts a “before and after” scene in which Ivanoska, naked on a chair, grasps and then releases a rope tied to Calovski’s foot. Loaded with psychological ambiguities addressing interpersonal relationships, these and other situations address larger contradictions inherent in any sociopolitical dependency exposed by civil war.

Ivanoska and Calovski are careful not to render the region as the idyllic paradise of mountain views, lake shore visitas, and urban squares dotted with monuments celebrating a cultural heritage they once absorbed in their “Nature and Social Studies” class (and illustrated in the photographs they eventually took during their trip). Instead, they depict an abused terrain littered with overturned cars and hidden menace. In the only image that shows the couple in a moment of repose and reflection, the distinctive outline of a mosque, camouflaged by a tangle of tree limbs, lurks in the distance as yet another emblem of anxiety. The artist’s transcription of this once-benign landscape as a terrain of terror marks the end of the civic childhood of a country previously regarded as an “oasis of peace in the Balkans.” Their drawings register the shock of a nation forced into a conscious, political maturity.

The series was realized near the end of 2001 in Saratoga Springs, New York. As Ivanoska and Calovski worked, they listened incessantly to the music of Scottish pop band Belle & Sebastian whose CDs were the only recordings they took with them on their week-long trip five months later. Inspired by late 1960s and early ‘70s influences, this affecting and often euphoric pop contributes to the atmosphere of temporal references that envelopes Spiral Trip. In contrast to the intense physical presence demanded by their progress along every mile of the spiral, “mentally,” says Calovski, “we allowed ourselves to be absent.” 18 The music encouraged a form of cultivated daydreaming that colored the artists’ experience of every detail. “You let some band take you away somehow and you fantasize while being in the presence of various things found along the route – a modernist monument, broken statues, factories, cows, streams, kids by the lake, desolate towns. The names of the places we documented mean nothing to us now. It is better to let the territory stay a little formless and allow its identity to merge with the one we brought to it.” 19

Driving along the spiral while listening continually to Belle & Sebastian became a way for the artists to absorb and reclaim the territory on their own subjective terms. Tapping the power of music to encode the frame their experience, Ivanoska and Calovski then used the compilation to play it back for an audience in Skopje. Their decision to install the music in the gallery as an “intuitive audioguide” (a move that echoes Marcel Proust’s use of music to trigger “involuntary memory”), creates an immediate transference between the private interior of their vehicle and the public exhibition space.

Reverberating around the room, the songs of Belle & Sebastian also provide a fluid soundtrack for a suite of otherwise silent video loops projected onto a sheet of paper identical to that used for the drawings. Those brief passages, each fading to white, depict ephemeral and playful fragments of the everyday as experienced on the road. One intimate sequence shows Ivanoska in a hotel room just as she is waking up. Another depicts a group of children gathered on a pier at Lake Dojran. In the most magical sequence in the suite, a wild mare tends to her newborn foal rolling on the forest floor as the sun sets behind them. Shot with a hendheld recorded, the footage is full of the feeling of “sweet leisure and the serendipity of spontaneous awe.” 20 A sense of expectation mixes with an awareness of the fading memory of the previous scene. Winding and rewinding itself, the looping magnetic tape repeats the form of the coil and the unique opportunities it offers for anticipation and déjà vu.

The spiral is evoked once again in the panoramic presentation of a series of color photographs taken during the trip. Uncaptioned, unframed, and affixed to the wall with the same hardware used for the drawings, the large prints suggest dorm room decor. They also allude to those posters hung in tourist bureaus that attempt to reduce entire countries to single images. Captured from vantage points along the route, “each of the photographs,” remark the artists, “s a trace. But they are insignificant to markings. There are no markings, there is only our registered presence.” 21 In the end, the viewer’s underlying knowledge of the path from which they were taken becomes the “text” that identifies photographs that range widely in subject matter, tone, and style.

One print depicts a graffiti rendering of two anime-style superheroes cropped so tightly as to remove any trace of context. The photograph reads like a painting transferred directly to the wall. A similar strategy is used in three photos of a modernist war memorial resembling what Ivanoska and Calovski described as “a space shuttle or something that commemorates utopian idealism and the sacrifices of real people.” 22 Designed and constructed in the 1970s when it was popular to commission ambitious structures to honor regional soldiers killed in World War II, this particular monument, like so many others, never lived up to its promise. The two artists perceived the building – now rarely visited – as a “new ruin.” 23 This interpretation echoes Smithson’s concept of “ruins in reverse,” idealistic structures that were, for him, like “memory traces of an abandoned set of futures.” 24

The eccentric building suggest both landscape and animal – a limestone cliff and a large, beached whale come easily to mind. The artists photographed each other lying on its skin-like roof, gazing up at the sun. In these pictures they are isolated by open grounds of white, non unlike the way they rendered themselves in the drawings. The space in which they are portrayed is as virtual as it is actual. They could not be in a more specific location, technically speaking, and yet they appear to be nowhere at all. Together, they occupy a place between earth and the cosmos, order and entropy, one and the other.

By presenting their work in different venues and offering numerous versions of their travelogue, Ivanoska and Calovski provide a multiplicity of positions for their viewers. They also invite us to locate singular coordinates between these sites that we, too, can claim as our own. As such, their project offers a place of both reflection and engagement that strives to reconcile what we are told with a model for finding out for ourselves. This is perhaps most clearly registered by the difference between the ironic melodrama of the works done in advance of the trip and the pastoral, sometimes melancholy tone of the documentary photographs and videos made en route. Although the artists never encountered the violence or aggression anticipated by the drawings, the anxiety and urgency they felt were both tangible and transforming. Pushing themselves through these thresholds, they arrived at a place of experience inside themselves.

In the end, Ivanoska and Calovski not only traveled north, south, east, and west but from center to center. Their process suggests a new paradigm not only for “activity in space” 25 but also for recognizing every moment along the way as critical. Analogous to the activity of stirring a large pot filled with radically diverse ingredients, the project reconstitutes their prior knowledge and current experience into an unprecedental unity that confirms that “who we are makes a lot of sense and how we perceive the world makes us who we are.” 26

 

 


 

NOTES

1 Many of the works of composer La Monte Young were simple tasks open to interpretation. Draw a straight line and follow it was an instruction to artist Robert Morris. Richard Long’s A Line Made by Walking (1967) followed an instruction to “walk back and forth until the grass is trodden into an evident line.” It is one the earliest examples of an ongoing practice documented by photographs and marked maps. For his Windham Piece (1968), Douglas Huebler drew a hexagon on a map of Putney, Vermont, and went to each f the five designated points to take a photograph. The resulting work is comprised of the photographs and samples of dirt from each of the locations. The paseous (strolls) of Francis Alÿs mark his passage between carefully selected points of departure and arrival. For The Leak, a walk through Săo Paulo in 1995, he carried a can of paint punctured with a hole that left a delicate trace of his route on the pavement.

2 Robert Smithson, from an interview with P. A. Norvell (1969), originally published in Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966-1972, edited by Lucy R. Lippard. (Berkley: University of California Press, 1973), 89. The full quote is as follows: “My work is impure; it is clogget with escape from the mind. The two are in a constant collision course. You might say that my work is like an artistic disaster. It is a quiet catastrophe of mind and matter.”

3 Ivanoska’s recent work Homelessness As Home (2002-2003) consists of a series of computer-manipulated drawings that were recently presented as a video animation in Compiler, a DVD magazine whose inaugural issue was entitled “The Emancipatory Politics of Art.” She remains motivated “by the need to question civic freedoms and our capacity for survival, the desire to escape in a time of danger vs. the need to confront the reality that surround you.” Ivanoska, in conversation with the author, 2003.

4 Maia Damianovic, independent curator, in conversation with Calovski about his recent work Tommy Rot (the sublime violence of truth), commissioned for the exhibition “To Actuality,” at the AR/GE Kunst, in Bolzano, Italy, 2002. The project is a series of performative actions that conflate the immediate reality of public scenes, a scripted film narrative, media coverage, and the sociopolitics of Bolzano into a series of works that take their form in video, photography, journalistic texts, and radio and television broadcasts.

5 Blanket (2000-2001) was first presented in the exhibition “Perfect Match,” curated by Suzana Milevska, as part of  “Capital and Gender-International Project for Art and Theory,” Museum of the City of Skopje (2001).

6 In his 1972 essay “The Spiral Jetty,” Smithson wrote: “Here is a reinforcement and prolongation of spiral that reverberates up and down space and time. So it is that one ceases to consider art in terms of an ‘object.’ The fluctuating resonances reject ‘objective criticism,’ because that would stifle the generative power of both visual and auditory scale. Not to say that one resorts to ‘subjective concepts,’ but rather that one apprehends what is around one’s eyes and ears, no matter how stable or fugitive. One seizes the spiral, and the spiral becomes a seizure.” Reprinted in Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1996).

7 Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, 1790: “The purposefulness of the form must appear just as free of all arbitrary constraints of rules as if it were a product of pure nature.”

8 Because of a drought in the American Southwest that lowered the water level of the Great Salt Lake to its lowest point in years, Spiral Jetty became visible again in August 2002.

9 De Maria is primarily recognized for his permanent work The Lightning Field (1971). Located in West Central, New Mexico, it is also owned and maintained by Dia. He made three versions of his Earth Room. The project in Manhattan is the only one extant.

10 “Non-site” was a term Smithson coined to describe samples of earth collected from his designated sites, usually locations damaged by industry. These accumulations of gravel and rocks were transported to the gallery, frequently accompanied by maps and photographs of the area from which they were taken. In his introduction to the 1996 edition of  Smithson’s Collected Writings, Jack Flam explains: “The Non-Site to some degree brings the site from the geographical, psychological, and social margins to a ‘center’-be it the artist’s studio, an art gallery, or a page of a book.”

11 Robert Smithson, quoted in “Discussions with Heizer, Oppenheim, Smithson” Avalanche 1 (Fall 1970).

12 Ibid.

13 For instance, Smithson’s sculpture takes its name from a local myth of a whirlpool at the bottom of this dead lake of salt water. Izvor, the origin of Spiral Trip, takes its name from a word that means “place where the fresh water comes.”

14 De Maria’s New York Earth Room consists of 127, 300 kilograms of soil filling 335 square metre of gallery space. Calovski and Ivanoska’s cardboard model covers approximately 335 square centimetre and weighs approximately 1, 273 kilograms (over one ton).

15 Linda Montano and Teching Hsieh are recognized for their feats of endurance and intense engagement with everyday life. Among the most important projects they completed was a collaborative, yearlong work begun July 4, 1983. Their statement read: “We will stay together for one year and never be alone. We will be in the same room at the same time, when we are inside. We will be tied together at the waist with an eight-foot rope. We will never touch each other during the year.” The work suggests a specific reference to one of the six large-scale drawings by Ivanoska and Calovski. Together, both the drawing and the performance by Montano & Hsieh make compelling comments on the nature of artistic collaboration.

16 Among the scenes depicted is a masked, male figure feeding red meat to a dog beneath a tree over which a helicopter hovers. This helicopter represents another point of confluence between Spiral Jetty and Spiral Trip. Early in the discussions between Calovski and Ivanoska, their project was to incorporate a copter ride over Macedonia for purpose of filming the spiral. In his 1972 essay “The Spiral Jetty,” Smithson shares detailed impressions of filming his earthwork from a helicopter for the documentary he made about the project: “The sound of the helicopter motor became a primal groan echoing the tenuous aerial views. Was I but a shadow in a plastic bubble hovering in a place outside mind and body?” Ironically, Smithson perished in a plane crash in Texas one year later (on July 20, 1973) while he and a photographer were documenting the final, stacked-out form of what was to be his last work, Amerillo Ramp.

17 Hristina Ivanoska and Yane Calovski, in conversation with the author, June 2002.

18 Ibid.

19 Ibid.

20 Ibid.

21 Ibid.

22 Ibid.

23 Ibid.

24 Robert Smithson, “A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey” (1967), in Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings (Berkley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1996), 72.

25 Ivanoska and Calovski, initial proposal for Nature and Social Studies: Spiral Trip, September 2000.

26 Ivanoska and Calovski, in conversation with the author, August 2002.

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