Museum of Fine Arts, Springfield, MA
by Sue Scott
“All things are numbers,” said Pythagoras of Samos (6th c. B.C.) who believed, along with his followers, that the world was better understood through mathematics. It was through a close observation of music, astronomy, and mathematics, that the Pythagoreans determined all relationships could be reduced to mathematical equations. Stringed instruments produce harmonic tones when the ratios of vibrating strings are whole numbers; Greek temples achieve their classic beauty precisely because they are based on mathematical formulas. The psyche grasps that the basis for this beauty and harmony is order, even if the conscious mind remains unaware.
This same underlying sense of order and harmony is present in David Teeple’s installation In Reflection. Upon entering the room viewers are greeted by a long, narrow field of glass tanks arranged 3 across, 21 deep. The elongated form resonates harmoniously with the long, narrow shape of the room. The tanks are identical; each is filled to the exact same level with clear water. Teeple wanted to create a piece that countered the hectic pace of the modern day world. And indeed, the clean lines and Zen-like repetition of the forms invite contemplation.
For the curious viewer, they also invite investigation. Why tanks? Why this size and number, and why this configuration? Clues for answering the conundrum are imbedded in the piece.
At the bottom of each tank is a mirror image of the exact space occupied above on the ceiling. The ceiling is actually a skylight composed of frosted glass and rich, wood-toned mullions. It may take viewers a few moments grasp this connection, but when they do the effect is intriguing. A first thought may be that the tanks are filled with Lucite and the image is etched on the surface. When one realizes that the tanks are filled with water, the mind’s eye next envisions a mirror at the bottom of the tank. But the viewer’s presence is not recorded or reflected in the water, as it would be with a mirror. As the mind wanders over these possibilities, it settles on the only logical explanation: at the bottom of each tank is a photograph of the ceiling. Now it is established. The piece is not only situated within the environment, the two are inexorably linked. Glass ceilings, glass tanks. Square windows, square tanks.
There is a subtext of linkage as well. When he first began the project, Teeple noticed that each large windowpane was divided into 9 sections. Taking this number as his departure point, he decided to group the tanks in sections of 9, echoing the 9 windowpanes above. As plans for the piece progressed, the number 9 became more and more central in a way that Teeple had not anticipated. There are 63 tanks, a 1:7 ratio. The stand is 18 inches and the tank is 9 inches, a 1:2 and 1:1 ratio respectively. The piece is 72 inched wide (7+2=9) and 558 inches deep (5+5+8=18 and 1+8=9) and 9 inches divide the tanks from one another on each side.
Does it matter that the number 9 is so pivotal to this piece? The Pythagoreans would say yes, maintaining the visual harmony is a direct result of its mathematical equations. It is interesting that Teeple, who was searching for a way to make the piece harmonious and contemplative, arrived at the solution intuitively. For although the number 9 served as a departure point, the subsequent use of the number came during the process of planning and model making.
Conceptually, there are other considerations that are equally as or more important for Teeple. For the past six years, the use of water has been a significant element of his work. His vessel series explored notions of the containment, use, and movement, of water. Other pieces have compared relationships of systems-the similarity of branches of a tree to branches of a river system, for example. And for the past five years, he has used tanks in a variety of ways-freestanding, attached to the wall, and placed outdoors in water- to investigate his personal relationship to the environment.
The body of work most closely related to this project was a series of tanks that incorporated photographs of the surface of water. The surface of any body of water, no matter how large or small, is a visual record of what has transpired below the surface. Photographing water’s surface is one way of making the unseen seen. Like the photographs of the skylight, these water photographs were sandwiched between glass at the bottom of the tank. Seen from a certain point of view, the photographs appeared to be floating on the surface. Thus, the real surface of a small body of water was overlaid with the image of a larger body of water, one that actually exists in nature. By juxtaposing the two, Teeple brings into question notions of perception and reality.
Water is a fascinating and elusive material for a sculptor to use. It is one of the four basic elements. Unlike traditional materials of bronze, stone, or steel, it is malleable and transparent. Whereas most sculpture occupies a static moment in time, water is about movement and change. It is rich in metaphor. In dreams, water is thought to represent the subconscious. Three quarters of the earth is covered in water, and the human body is mostly fluid. By using transparent glass tanks as the container for this water, Teeple most effectively exploits and controls water’s inherent characteristics of movement, translucency, and the ability to reflect and refract light.
In addition to Teeple’s interest in mathematics, several variant factors figure into his philosophy. The mantra-like repetition of identical glass tanks across the room has its roots in a number of disciplines. A musician as well as a visual artist, Teeple is drawn to serial music where a repetition of tone is said to evoke a meditative response in listeners. One can also see the influence of minimal artists, particularly Carl Andre, whose steel plates, placed geometrically across the floor, are as much about the reduction of form as they are about symmetry and repetition. But this is where Teeple differs from the minimalists, for his interest lies not in reducing form for the sake of reducing form. His is more the literary device of the poet, compressing form in the spirit of succinctness.
Because he is so linked to the environment and nature, one is tempted to draw a correlation between Teeple and earth artists such as Michael Heizer or Robert Smithson. And this may be true in cases where Teeple buried tanks in the sand or floated them in a river. (It is particularly related because the only record of these events is through photographs.) But unlike these artists who actually manipulated the earth, or in other ways used natural resources as their medium, Teeple’s interest seems to be more about an interaction with and awareness of the environment.
This installation In Reflection is an important progression in these explorations of the environment. While it continues Teeple’s interest in site-specific work, this piece differs because it is not only specific to the place, it in part recreates it. That is, it reflects not what is within, but what is without. Because it replicates the ceiling (rather than a non-specific body of water as the earlier tank pieces did), its success depends on the viewer’s recognition of this replication. Thus the dialogue is not only between the piece and the room, but between the piece, the room, and the viewer. The viewer becomes the third essential ingredient in the dialogue.
Though succinctness has been a major goal, Teeple recently has become interested in adding a conceptual complexity to his work that will enable him to comment on politics, science, and the human condition. In Reflection may be the jumping off point for creating these works that become progressively complex but remain visually pure.
This piece is a perfect example of where Teeple is heading. Its Zen-like simplicity belies its complexity. To create In Reflection involved myriad steps of written plans, site visits, model making, and an intense photographic event to insure the photographs in the tanks matched their ceiling twin both in color and placement. Each tank is hand-made and the stands are custom designed. Orchestrating an event that required the involvement of dozens of people shifted Teeple’s role from artist to architect, and for what Teeple has planned for the future, that may be just where he wants to be.
Sue Scott is an independent art dealer and curator and owned the Sue Scott Gallery in NYC. She was adjunct curator of Contemporary Art at the Orlando Museum of Art in Florida. Sue has authored and co-authored several books and has written extensively for national publications including Art News, and Art and Antiques. She currently lives in New York City.