joshua neustein texts
The Message In The Ashes: An Installation Work By Joshua Neustein
by Arthur C. Danto

To give unto them beauty for ashes,
the oil of joy for mourning,
The garment of praise for the
spirit of heaviness.

Isaiah, Ixi,3.

Galleries are dedicated spaces, governed by a complex set of conventions which define the relationship in which works of art are intended to stand to those who enter the gallery to be in their presence. These relationships have standardly been with paintings or with sculptures, objects of high visual interest which visitors come to look at and to enjoy, but the gallery itself, which makes these experiences possible, is generally not itself a further object of aesthetic scrutiny or pleasure, and, lest it distract from the interest of the objects it makes accessible, it aspires to a certain neutrality in this regard. The architectural expression of neutrality is the well-known "white cube," uniformly illuminated and emptied of everything but its emptiness. As a space it should carry no meanings beyond those implied by its dedication. It is pure symbolic nothingness, like the blank page or the silent space of the concert chamber. But even when the gallery has its own architectural identity, as when the museum which contains it is a structure which did not originate as a museum but rather as a palace or some other official structure, the neutrality is achieved through the fact that the gallery forms no part of the meaning of the works it contains. It is not something to which those works refer. This means that the works themselves have a sort of metaphysical portability. They carry their references and meanings with them, wherever they are shown, and are altogether self-contained.

It is not internal to the concept of art that works of art be metaphysically portable, but the overall effect of the museum as an institution, and the gallery as dedicated space, has been to treat them as if they were. An altarpiece, for example, refers to the kind of space for which it was made - a chapel say - and has as part of its meaning that the figures it represents are to be worshipped. Veronese's Wedding Feast at Cana, now in the Louvre, referred to the fact that it was sited in a refectory, and that clerics, eating in its presence, where in tacit communion with the feasting figures in the painting, and in the presence of Jesus, responsible for the miracle of food and wine. Caravaggio's Madonna of the Rosary, now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, refers internally to the space of a chapel in which the figures praying are part of the group kneeling at the feet of Saint Dominik. Both are powerful beautiful paintings, but the relationships they imply are vastly more meaningful and essentially more important than those compassed by aesthetic delectation. But the conventions of the gallery space exclude our eating in the presence of the one, or falling to our knees in acknowledgment of the vision shown in the other. When the forces of Napoleon tore Veronese's masterpiece from the refectory walls and carted it to Paris, it became, like Cassandra in ancient tales, a symbol of military might and victory, stripped of its powers and reduced to an object of delectation. And so with Caravaggio's great work, whose intended site has been forgotten. It is a triumph of the Napoleonic gesture that these and other works have been deprived of their essential meaning, forced to conform to the iron commandments of the art gallery, and to be related to only under the conventions that govern our relationship to visually interesting objects. Aesthetic philosophy has defined them as objects of pure disinterested perception.

The Southeastern Center of Contemporary Art could have easily have organized an instructive exhibition of Joshua Neustein in its spacious Potter Gallery by arraying drawings, models and sculptural works along its walls and in display cases or on bases, together with wall texts explaining what one was looking at.. That indeed is the standard form in which an artist's work is exhibited, and it would be altogether consistent with this format that the exhibition travel from venue to venue, with no differences other than those imposed by local architectural circumstance and particular curatorial taste. One cannot of course overestimate the extent to which these differences impact upon our experience of the works displayed: seeing Brancusi's sculptures at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, to cite a recent example, proved palpably different from seeing them at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Admittedly, various strategies of display and illumination in both venues were calculated to enhance our experience of the work, but these would not, except in the eyes of professionals, call attention to themselves, and would respect the principle of neutrality entailed by the concept of the gallery as dedicated space.. So neither site formed part either of the meaning or the reference of Brancusi's works, which retained their metaphysical portability and could be set up in any suitably dedicated space. And so it would be were the Potter Gallery simply one venue for the aggregated works of Joshua Neustein.

Neustein's work, Light on the Ashes, renounces this format by renouncing metaphysical portability. It is installed in the gallery, but in a very different way from that in which works are customarily hung or placed in galleries, for it seeks an internal relationship to the space and indeed to the site in which the museum containing the gallery is located. The internal relationship means that the work is not in the space the way an object is in a box: it incorporates the space into itself in such a way that one does not enter the gallery to experience an art work separate and detachable from it - one enters the art work itself, which incorporates the space as part of what it is. The space, one might say, has been rededicated, and is now - since work and space are, for the life-time of the exhibition - as inseparable from the work as body is from soul. "I am not in my body the way a pilot is in a ship," Descartes declares at the end of his great meditation on first metaphysical principles. Here, the work is not simply in the space - the space is in the work. The presence of the work transforms the space into a property of itself, vesting it with a meaning internal to the work, which sacrifices its portability to achieve this intimacy. One cannot thus experience work and space separately from one another. One can only dismantle the work, returning the space to its original dedication.

One way Neustein achieves this transformation of the space is by the tremendous chandelier which is suspended at a negligible distance from the 'floor,' rather than, as is common with such fixtures, at a negligible distance from the 'ceiling.' I surround these terms - as I would surround the word 'walls' - with single quotes, to mark the fact that these components of a room have themselves been transformed through the space having been folded into the structure of the work. What had been the floor is now something else, an expanse of indeterminate dimensions holding a map of Salem - the site of the museum - at a certain point in Salem's history. The map is enlarged so that its drawn streets have become paths which constrain the visitors' movements through the space, very much as if one were walking through the city itself: one does not, after all, walk through buildings to get from one street to another. The work internalizes the complex geometry of its own site at a defining moment of its history: It is specific to its own site, as Veronese's Cana is specific to the refectory whose space it glorifies and completes. The 'ceiling' is there only to mark the conventionally appropriate location of the chandelier, which instead is at the same level as we are, dislocating us spatially as the map dislocates us in terms of scale.

In a way, the logic of the work is like that of a dream in which we look across and down at a fixture intended to be seen from below, and tower above the landscape tike Gulliver mincing along Lilliputian streets.

Neustein has transformed the Potter Gallery into a bubble of dream-space in which we are encapsulated, as when we dream about ourselves moving through worlds which displace the relationships which define the waking world. We look across and down at a fixture intended to be seen from below, and tower above the landscape like Gulliver mincing along Lilliputian streets. The Potter Gallery is a high room, 28 feet from floor to ceiling. It is as well an ample room, with a floor space of 4000 square feet. Under artistic transformation, the space is indeterminately high, the way the sky is, and indeterminately large, its boundaries like the edge of the dream- field, circumscribe a space without being part of it. That conduces to its dream-likeness.

Let me attempt to distinguish "transformation" from "transfiguration", using for this purpose the presence of chandeliers. There is a chandelier, familiar to anyone who has studied the history of art, in Jan van Eyck's Arnofini Wedding, in no way is van Eyck's chandelier as opulently ornamental as the Baroque fixture Neustein had fabricated for this work, but luxurious enough for its time, and displaying a high degree of artisanship in its facture. It is of fiercely polished brass, and, like Neustein's chandelier, it seems to have moved into a lower register of its already low room, so that one feels that it is in the same space as the connubial pair, making, as it were, a third, bestowing light upon them rather than merely illuminating the space in which they stand. In truth, it hardly illuminates at all, since it holds only a single candle where there are holders for eight, and bright daylight, sufficient to illuminate the room by itself, streams amply in through the window.

These two anomalies can, of course be given naturalistic explanations - that the lit single candle is central to a ceremony in which a sacrament intersects with the law, no matter how bright the atmosphere. It can testify to a practice in Flanders in the Fifteenth century, as the room's expensive furnishings inform us of the scheme of interior decoration suited to members of a merchant aristocracy: look at the bride's elaborate and costly gown! But in fact, according to a famous article devoted to this painting by Erwin Panofsky, the single lit candle "symbol of the all-seeing wisdom of God" - transfigures a mere domestic interior into "a room hallowed by sacramental associations." Needless to say, this could be true of the actual bridal chamber as much as of the painted one, and what Panofsky is anxious to establish is that, in actuality or in art, we are dealing with "a transfigured reality. " It is a transfigured reality when it exists, as it were, on two planes at once, architectural and symbolic. According to Panofsky, "the symbols are chosen and placed in such a way that what is possibly meant to express an allegorical meaning, at the same time perfectly 'fits' into a landscape or an interior apparently taken from life." So in this remarkable work, in Panofsky's view, "medieval symbolism and modern realism are so perfectly reconciled that the former has become inherent in the latter."

The concept of transfiguration has had a great importance for me in thinking through cases in modern art in which a work of art so resembles an ordinary object that the question becomes acute as to where the difference between them is to be located, since it is inscrutable to visual perception. The perceptual textures of both are sufficiently indiscernible that one could easily suppose, while looking at the artwork, that one were merely regarding a quite ordinary thing. Similarly, in the Arnolfini Wedding, one might simply look at the depiction of a room and admire it for its realism, when in truth the ordinary objects arrayed within it carry so powerful a symbolic weight that that room is transfigured into a space that is quite special.

An art gallery could in this respect be transfigured if it were possible to experience it as an art gallery, without recognizing that it had become another kind of space. In Neustein's installation, the gallery has been not transfigured but transformed, in the sense that while one doubtless knows, in experiencing the work, that it is an art gallery, this knowledge is external to the experience of the work itself. It has been metamorphosed into a space of a different order, leaving its identity as a dedicated space behind, rather in the way the stage is transformed into the plain before Troy, or the wall before Thebes, or into a street in Verona, or into the ramparts in Elsinore. And the dramatically lowered chandelier is the main engine of this transformation.

It is part of the language of furniture that chandeliers declare that the room they dominate to be public spaces. Their light is celebratory; they belong in ballrooms, in salons, in spaces of official reception. In dining rooms, the faceted crystal of their ornaments catch the flames of candles set beneath them, and reflect in the stemware and polished plate; They sparkle in sympathy with brilliant conversation and scintillating wine. They transform everyone caught in their illumination into creatures of light, raised for this occasion to an exalted level of being, completing, like a singular accessory, the elaborate gowns, the radiant complexions, the dazzling jewels or medals or tiaras.

The chandelier in Neustein's work is an opulence of cut crystal and faceted beads effulgent pendants and swags of inter-reflected light, which by rights belongs to the upper part of the room it glorifies, where it would define a luminescent center, the way the great chandelier does in Adolf Menzel's 1852 painting of Flute Concerto of Frederich the Great at Sans Souci in which the virtuoso monarch is shown, in powdered wig, performing for a distinguished company in a mirrored salon, which reflects and re-reflects its dazzle. "I only did it to paint the chandelier," Menzel said, but it is clear that the chandelier is a metaphor and a compliment to Frederick as the embodiment of enlightenment. The audience is bathed in the chandelier's (and the monarch's) light, which creates an ambient darkness around the favored personages - an outer darkness for those distant from the music and the noble presence. Menzel has elaborated a set of symbols that relate to the role of chandeliers in life, and presents us with a transfigured reality quite as much as does Jan van Eyck A chandelier performs the same tranfigurative role, with whatever success, in a photograph of a reception at the White House in Andy Warhol's book America Warhol, with his singular pitch for symbolism, created a work (1976-1986) consisting of four identical photographs, stitched together with threads, of a set of chandeliers. There are chandeliers embedded in black paint in a number of works by Ross Bleckner, such as his elegiac painting, Fallen Summer (1988). The chandelier in these works is a symbol of hope, as light always is, but at the same time a sign for that aspect of the human condition which occasions hope, namely its inherent and inseparable tragedy. It is the order of hope Saint Paul has specifically in mind when it forms for him, with faith and charity, a triad of what theologians designated "supernatural" virtues, to distinguish them from the "natural" virtues of classical moral philosophy.

The first mystery of Neustein's installation is that he has retained the symbolic connotations of the chandelier but lowered it, dramatically, so that it sits just above the ground, like a burning bush, so that there is no way for us to stand beneath it. The chandelier defines the visual center of the area the visitor traverses upon entering the space, and there can be little doubt that it defines the moral center of the space itself. It radiates an aura of just the sorts of meanings the chandelier conveys in van Eyck and in Bleckner, or in Warhol. We enter from the sort of outer darkness Menzel painted so marvelously, and, because we have entered the work - because we do not stand outside it as in the standard gallery experience - we ourselves are "put in a new light," which it is up to us to interpret. The position of the chandelier implies, I believe, that the light in which we are put is indeed new. We are drawn to the light - not a possibility if the light is above us and out of reach and we have to make our way to it by tracing the paths of the map-scape, as if a maze. The experience, at a metaphorical level is clear}y intended to be transformative.

*****Let us now concentrate on the street- map of Salem, North Carolina, as it was drawn in 1839, seventy-three years after the first trees were cleared from its intended site in the midst of Wachovia - an area named after Wachau, the ancient seat of the Zinsendorf family in Austria, in tribute to Nicholas Lewis, Count Zinzendorf, benefactor and guide to members of what came to be known as the Moravian Church. Protestant forces had been defeated in Moravia in the Thirty Years War, and the victorious Catholics undertook to extirpate Protestantism as a religious practice, forcing its adherents to flee or to convert. The Moravian fellowship - the Unitas Fratorum - could scarce}y resubmit to the hierarchy of Catholic authority, since its members were dedicated to reenacting in their own lives what they perceived as the lost simplicity of Christian life in Apostolic times, and to treat the Bible as the single authority on questions of life and faith. By opening his vast estates in Saxony to the Moravians in 1722, Count Zinzendorf had made it possible for those who succeeded in slipping across the border to form a settlement based on these o nur.1irwnr The Moravian settlement in Saxony became a beacon and a model for like minded Christians elsewhere, and it was Count Zinzendorfs inspiration that it should be exported to the New World, where haven might be found from the continuing religious turmoil of Europe, and a base established for evangelical Jssions among the Native Americans. Salem was to be just such a haven and base of missionary operations, a she ordained, in the view of the Moravian Goveming Board in Saxony, by Jesus Christ himself. Indeed Jesus was regarded not only as the Savior, but as the chief Elder of the ideal community of "brothers and sisters" which Salem was intended to be. The principles streets and squares were systematically laid out in February, 1766.

The streets of Salem, in Neustein's map, are pathways through ashes, but how the ashes are to be interpreted is the second mystery of the work. Like the chandelier, ashes constitute an evocative rather than a precise symbol. The artist for wavered for some time between using what he termed "common clay" - the actual soil of the region - rather than the end-product of burned local vegetation- tobacco plants, hickory wood, cotton, stubble -- any kind of the region." Clay and ashes alike have both a metaphoric power and specific references to the site and history of Salem, but the alternative titles, "Light over Ashes" or "Light over Common Clay" imply different meanings for the substance in which the map is traced. My sense is that the artist made the right choice, for though the actual soil proved suited to the manufacture of the bricks and tiles from which the town's permanent dwellings were made, the idea of rising from the ashes connects the founding of a city with the history of persecution: Jan Huss was after all burned at the stake. Either way, the two dominant symbols - the chandelier and the map - are knotted together in terms of nationalist heritage and possible religious history. The chandelier is specifically Bohemian glass, and Bohemia together with Moravia was the soil which nourished the Unitas Fratrum. Since the Baroque was the style of the Catholic Counter-Reformation, it might just be thinkable that the Baroque-Bohemian style of the chandelier emblematizes Catholicism as the map drawn either in ashes or in common clay emblematizes Protestantism. This makes room for an ambiguity as to how to interpret the cast letters - the third component of the work - which Neustein has scattered over the surface and covered with ashes in such a way that their shape remains visible. Are the letters, half buried in the "soil" driven underground by the lamp or do they rise from the soil to be in its presence? In an earlier proposal, Neustein refers to the carpet of ashes as a "seed-bed" which assigns to the letters the role of seeds. One of the leading exiles from Moravia, Bishop Johan Amos Comenius, expressed the hope that, despite the bitter repression, there might lie a "hidden seed" in the forests of Moravian from which a rebirth of Unitas might come. That happened, of course, in Saxony and then in North Carolina, so it might be possible to interpret the letters, buried but half visible, as the "hidden seed".

The complex symbolism of chandelier, ashes, and letters ought not to be treated merely as a code to be deciphered. Each evokes an aura of meanings, which overlap and interpenetrate to form an atmosphere of intersecting themes. Moreover, the meaning of the work cannot merely have to do with the circumstances of Salem's founding in the Eighteenth century: it must have somehow speak t us today, and have something to do with our own lives. One feels that the contrast between, on the one hand) the ashes and the map-site of Salem, symbolizing the possibility of the pure and simple life, and, on the other, the crystal opulence of the great chandelier, must hold the key to this work. But it very difficult to find the key, if only because of the extreme ambiguity of the chandelier and ash-field as symbols. The chandelier implies hierarchy, power, and domination. Historically it emblematizes the Counter-Reformation and the Holy Roman Empire, and the Latin liturgy. The map inscribed in ashes emblematizes a community of equals, passive resistance, the Protestant Reformation, and vernacular languages which make the Bible's authority accessible to all who can read. But at the same time the lamp is what Wordsworth describes as "the celestial light" which is lowered to the level of "every common sight," as if, as in Christian cosmology, God mingled his luminescence with the soil and ashes of human flesh infused history with eternity to achieve salvation for us through enfleshment and this tremendous drama is being enacted in Salem, the New Jerusalem.

After all, the distribution of the letters is at its densest in the area of greatest illumination, just under the light. Not just we, who enter the work are drawn to the light: being drawn to the light is enacted by "the hidden seed." The letters physically imply that there is some meaning beneath the ashes, which the light attempts to draw out. The letters, ashes, and lamp reenact in a way our own effort to uncover - to unveil - the meaning of the work we are experiencing.

The chandelier is not, as might have been expected, centered over the "commons" of Salem, even if it does define the space's visual center. It is, rather, at one of the town's boundaries, as if marking a boundary in its own rigt4 between the town and the wilderness out of which it is carved. The undifferentiated wilderness spreads endlessly outward: the walls of the space in which the work is installed do not mark real boundaries - the wilderness is after all not a rectangular area - which is a further mark of the difference between the space of the work and the space of the gallery. The Stadtplan is like a grid stamped onto the Wachovian clay, implying, in its regularity, that sense of well-orderliness which defined the life of the founders. The Moravians were aesthetically sensitive: "The proportions of the houses are good, and with their regular placing and their tile roofs, they make a not unpleasing appearance," an eyewitness wrote in 1768. The form of life was austere but not ascetic. There was music, there was cheer, there was the sense of fulfilling Providence through founding a city, whether one saw this as rising from the ashes of history or through the imposition of a rational order onto the soil of wilderness. But whether through interpretation we can impose a rational order on the work as a whole is another question. Everything - the lamp, the ashes, the letters - is multiply ambiguous and powerfully symbolic. Furthermore, it must be remembered that we are not external to the work we then seek to rationalize. We complete the work by entering it and making it our own. But each of us must complete it in a different way. And - who knows? - this may say something about using the Bible as the final authority for morality and truth. The readers complete the Bible by interpretation, and each interpretation is individual.

In the initial formulation of his proposal, Joshua Neustein wrote "I shall look for testimony, for witnesses that will take possession of my piece. Maybe I shall discover a portion of my own missing history. Something that modifies belonging. Something belonging to me." Well, the chandelier may be read as a fixture which evolves from the candelabrum, hanging rather than sitting, fixed rather than portable, as dwellings become permanent (like the brick and tiles houses of Salem) rather than temporary, like tents, or Salem's first timbered cabins.

There is a famous candelabrum in the Bible, one which a curiously finicky God orders Moses to construct. It is a very ornate candelabrum for what after alt was a desert people, but it was to be placed in a sanctuary fit for God, and to represent an offering and a sacrifice on the part of the children of Israel "that I might dwell among them." Perhaps light and God are sufficiently one that where there is light there is God. The candelabrum was to be made of pure gold, and God specifies its structure in remarkable detail

Of beaten work shall the candlestick be made: his shaft and his branches, his bowls, his snobs, his flowers, shall be of the same. And six branches shall come out of the sides of it: three branches oif the candlestick out of the one side, and three branches of the candlestick out of the other side: Three bowls made like unto almonds, with a knob and a flower in one branch; and three bowls made like almonds in the other branch, with a knob and a flower: so in the six branches that come out of the candlestick. And in the candlestick shall be four bowls made lie unto almonds, with their knobs and flowers.And there shall be a knob under two branches of the same, and a knob under two branches of the same, according to the six branches that proceed out of the candlestick. Their knobs and branches shall be of the same: all it shalt be one beaten work of pure gold. And thou shall make the seven lamps thereof: and they shalt tight the tamps thereof, that they may give light against it.

The specification goes on, and God commands that Moses follow a pattern which had been shown him during the time he had been with God on the mount for "forty days and forty nights" it is clear that God means for the sanctuary to be a replica of his own dwelling

There were ten candelabra in the First Temple, but only one in the Second Temple, to imply a continuity with the tabernacle Moses built, and shaped to conform with the description in Exodus. This was taken to Rome upon the destruction of Jerusalem, and housed in the Temple of Vespasian. We can still see it carried as a trophy on the Arch of Titus, as a symbol of the defeat and destruction of the Israelites. It is the emblem of dwelling, and of Diaspora. When one conjoins this potent symbol with the reflection that "Salem" is an ancient and poetic name for Jerusalem - the emblematic capital of what was for so long for the wandering the lost homeland, how should an Israeli artist not belong, and how should this not be a piece of his own missing history? Home and history, loss and recovery oppression & overcoming, light and human darkness, beauty and ashes, politics and return, the darkness of Europe and America as the New Jerusalem: These are among the themes enacted here. The rest must be found by each who engages with the work.

Arthur C. Danto

Professor (Emeritus Dept. Philosophy) Columbia University, art critic to The Nation since 1984 — This essay also appeared in Joshua Neustein: Light On The Ashes, SECCA, North Carolina 1996, and Unnatural Wonders, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005.