How to explain and understand Tavares Strachan’s The Distance Between What We Have and What We Want (2005-2006), a work that involves elements of natural phenomena, engineering prowess, sociohistorical context, and the artist’s own intention for the piece? Perhaps the answer doesn’t remain static and exact like the ice of the piece but rather flows from perspective to perspective, allowing Strachan’s work to unfold (rather than contain) several meanings based upon the artist’s mediation, the artist’s technical intervention and the intervention’s level of artifice, the natural authenticity of the work’s elements, the transformation experienced by said elements, and the flow of significance achieved among the artist, the piece, the environment, and the audience.
The Distance Between… required a process beyond the piece itself not only to create it but also to give it meanings. As detailed by Edward Shanken in Art and Electronic Media, Strachan worked alongside experts to extract and store a 4.5-ton cube of ice from the Arctic, which was then kept inside a special glass-and-metal insulated vitrine with solar-powered refrigeration that allowed the ice to be displayed safely even out in the open in a tropical environment—precisely the conditions of the Bahamas for its first exhibition in Nassau in July of 2006.
At first, the mere sight of an enormous block of ice sitting in the middle of a tropical locale and the heat of the sun could be understood as magical (when not taking into full consideration the engineering behind it making it possible). From that perspective, The Distance Between… echoes of the ice brought by the circus to the fictional town of Macondo in the first pages of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967)—and that ice would become a motive of wonderment and symbol of both natural magic and human triumph for the novel’s lead character Aureliano Buendia. Similarly, The Distance Between… achieves precisely the same: to awe the audience simply because of the contrast of witnessing arctic ice in the tropics—a natural impossibility that was made an artificial reality due to the mediation of the artist and the engineering team supporting his technical intervention to bring and preserve the ice in the hot outdoors.
Yet another reading of The Distance Between… could derive from a more technological perspective: that of a piece of “transductive art” as proposed by Robert Mallary in Computer Sculpture: Six Levels of Cybernetics (1969), for it transforms types of energy as part of its artistic proposition, specifically converting solar energy into electricity in order to accomplish its artistic and technical purpose of refrigerating ice in the Bermuda heat. That may be reminiscent of Jean Dupuy’s Hearts Beat Dust (1968), which transformed the biochemical and kinetic energy of a person’s blood flow into a rendition in a form of dust “dancing” to that beat on a membrane, thus making that transformation and artifice integral parts of the work of art itself. The work of art itself is a flow system (as defined by Adrian Bejan in Design in Nature ) for both the energy it requires to function and the meanings it generates from the questions and propositions it manifests.
Despite the semiotic parallels between the aforementioned pieces and The Distance Between…, Strachan’s work stands out as more “open”; not for its lack of a final narrative, though, but rather “open” in the sense in which “the form of the work of art gains its aesthetic validity precisely in proportion to the number of different perspectives from which it can be viewed and understood” (Eco, p. 3). As mentioned before, Strachan mediated a technical relevance, a sociohistorical relevance, a cultural relevance, and a natural authenticity relevance, all which derive from the perspectives of the artist, the audience, and the circumstances represented—and due to that mediation, the meaning transforms from perspective to perspective, unfolding rather than becoming contained by the work of art.
For instance, from the technical and cultural perspectives, The Distance Between… could be understood in the terms of Ortega y Gasset’s criticism of “technique” in his Meditations on the Technique (1939): the existence of the ice amidst the tropical environment serves as more proof of the triumph of the human will and wit when carving their own space in the natural world. True to human nature, Strachan created his art with a remarkable manifestation of human engineering that manipulated natural chaos to establish his own order—unmelted ice existing in the tropical outdoors.
However, from a sociohistorical perspective, the unbeaten ice of The Distance Between… manifests as an accomplishment made possible by modernity and globalization (indeed one of the explicit intentions of Strachan). In the past, transporting ice from the Arctic to the Bahamas alone would’ve constituted a task of Herculean proportions, both because of technical difficulties and political issues, while keeping the ice from melting by using the power of the sun would’ve been considered a divine miracle or witchcraft. But in the globalized and modernized world, The Distance Between… can exist not only as an artistic expression of rather mundane processes (e.g. transportation, refrigeration, solar power) but also as a tourist attraction (quite a modern concept) and as a sort of critique about the same globalization and exploitation of the natural world that make it possible in the first place.
These suggested semiotic perspectives for The Distance Between… bring to the forefront one important aspect of “open” works: interconnected participation of all the elements in the process creating meaning, from the artist and the work of art to the environment and the audience. In the words of Martin Heidegger in Poetry, Language, Thought (1971), appreciating and understanding a work of art requires “standing within the openness of beings that happens in the work. This ‘standing-within’… is knowing…. Preserving the work does reduce people to their private experiences, but brings them into affiliation with the truth happening in the work” (Heidegger p.63-66). In other words, meaning in art is “poetic” (from the Greek poesis: to make)—meaning is made and brought out into the open by the flow of experiences involving the work, the creator, the spectators and critics, the era, the society, the process it entailed, and the environment it inhabits.
Ultimately, The Distance Between… ought to represent a plethora of meanings. Whereas the arctic ice in Strachan’s art may be frozen solid and static, its significance transforms more like the water and the energy that constitute The Distance Between… and that flow from perspective to perspective as time progresses and people and places expand the experience of it.
Eco, Umberto. The Open Work. Cambridge, Massachusetts. 1989.
Garcia Marquez, Gabriel. One Hundred Years of Solitude. Mexico. 1967.
Heidegger, Martin. Poetry, Language, Thought. New York, New York. 1971.
Mallary, Robert. Computer Sculpture: Six Levels of Cybernetics. 1969.
Ortega y Gasset, Jose. Meditation on the technique. Madrid, Spain. 1939.
Shanken, Edward A. Art and Electronic Media. New York, New York. 2009.
Dallas, Texas. January 2016.