Remember when. Remember how. Richard Tuttle's "Relative to Our Society"
Posted by Terri on August 3, 2011 - 3:09pm
Categories: On the Walls

A yellow light bulb, soon to become obsolete, casts a dull glow that faintly washes the once white, now jaundiced wall.

One, two, three, four, five, maybe six, small, milky-white light bulbs line up horizontally with one out of step.

Red. Red. Red. A red stick branching out and straight down as if looking for water. Another red branch in relation to the small, milky bulbs. And again a red stick, bringing to mind a red wheelbarrow and a white chicken, or something like that. There’s also my grandmother’s little red hatchet given to a black-eyed girl at an early age, before the world knew better.

A chain hangs. A presence, doubled up and cool, leaving its trace and moving on. My heart beats solid and swift, enjoying the absence and the desire that it left behind. The thought becomes a feeling, moving to my throat and then to my core. Saliva gathers and forms white clouds stuffed in cloud compartments.

How do you make a shape without a name and make something heavy behave as if it is weightless? Puncture the shape with countless holes. Let it breathe without sinking it. Have it touch down on twin points. Make contact, but no commitment.

Plugged in and lit up.

Made for one viewer at a time.

That’s how I remember it.

In recalling, revisiting, and reconsidering Richard Tuttle’s Relative to Our Society, 1990, recently reinstalled in the Modern’s galleries, I was drawn to the concept, “no ideas but in things.” This profound little quip of the early twentieth century American poetry movement—imagism—relates to my initial encounter with Tuttle’s sculpture. Looking carefully and naming the elements, those that could be named, it seemed clear to me that meaning in this sculpture is in the materials, the parts, the things. With every individual element maintaining its own identity, Relative to Our Society speaks to the modernist/imagist poet William Carlos Williams’s claim that a poem “must be real, not ‘realism,’ but a reality itself.” I remember sitting for as much as an hour, drawing every detail, every connection of this piece when it was first installed about five years ago. My pencil followed where it went in and where it came out, learning it as I looked. I thought I was committing the piece to memory, but I wasn’t because it resists being known in that way, in a single memory. I thought that to memorize it was to conquer it, to own it, to display it as a trophy—a lifeless trophy hanging in the brain, collecting dust along with other such trophies. I’m glad I was wrong. I’m glad that Relative to Our Society defies memory, making it forever new.