Cristobal Gabarron’s Enlightened Universe by Donald Kuspit
Commemorating the 70th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations, Cristobal Gabarron has created a sculptural installation in which seventy life-size figures, each representing one year in which the United Nations has been in existence, circle a globe representing Mother Earth, more broadly and grandly, the cosmos. The small figures dance like children around the huge globe, their linked hands signaling their purposeful unity. One is reminded of celebrants dancing around a Maypole; the figures resonate with joie de vivre, as their festive colors suggest. To use the sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies’s distinction, they form an organic community rather than an anonymous society. Two-dimensional silhouettes, their flatness and abstractness indicate their modernist character. Composed of fluid planes, variously shaped and sized, they seem eccentrically cubist and covertly surreal. The upright figures seem like mirages in a desert. The work was in fact installed in the desert-like space—a field of sand--of Central Park’s Rumsey Playing Field, confirming its playfulness.
It is site-specific: the central globe echoes the shape of the dome in the distance behind it as well as the circular shape of the playing field. Circular geometry is an aesthetic constant of the piece: the figures form a continuously moving—suavely forceful--curve. Each over-determined figure—at once a symbol of a different year, different nation, and different person—is a sort of petite perception in a curvilinear continuum, grandly spiraling into illimitable space. New figures can join the United Nations, suggesting that it will last forever, and that humanity will at last form a harmonious whole. The idealism built into Gabarron’s masterpiece is startling considering the reality of nations at odds—to put it politely--with each other.
Seen in bright sunlight, the flat shadows of the figures seem to bind them to the earth, even as their lively colors raise them above it, turning to the sun like the leaves of growing plants. Indeed, the figures seem to grow before one’s eyes as their colors catch the light, suggesting that human beings thrive when they are in cordial relationship with each other—when they connect for the common good. They do so when they enter the “sphere of light”—the globe, existing in majestic isolation like the life-giving sun. There is a mystical, even Platonic element to Gabarron’s sculpture: it is meant to lead us out of the cave of darkness into the light of understanding—understanding of each other, leading us to live and move together like the “harmony of the spheres.” Gabarron’s globe has a diameter of 6,371 millimeters, indicating that it is a scaled down model of the earth, which has a radius of 6,371 kilometers (3,949 miles), but it is also like the sun, for its mirror surface emanates light in the course of reflecting it.
The mirror is faceted into modular units, breaking the light into nuanced fragments, intensifying and concentrating perception. The sphere is subtly minimalist—the systematically faceted surface is in effect a gigantic grid--even as it is ingeniously maximalist, for the light makes it seem larger than it is, so that it all but completely overwhelms the figures, implying that their lives depend on it. Gabarron’s sculpture is an oddly open-ended dialectic of aesthetic opposites: the geometric globe, with its self-contradictory geometry, and the gesture-like, expressionistic figures. It is a contradiction in terms, an aesthetically sophisticated paradox. The open-endedness of the piece underscores the open-endedness of the perpetually moving line of changing figures—figures can be added, suggesting that the project of uniting nations and people is ongoing and unfinished, that is, incomplete, perhaps unavoidably incomplete: an impossible however hopeful project. But then Gabarron’s sculpture is interactive: the spectator is invited to participate in it—to see himself or herself reflected in some facet of the great mirror, and thus be enlightened, however partially, and, above all, to identify with the colorful figures and thus become, however vicariously, one of them, another link in the living chain of human being. With that, the spectator completes the work—unites with it in empathic engagement with the figures, and is thus enlightened.
Professor Emeritus of Art and Philosophy at Stony Brook University of New York.
Critic and independent curator