Certain pieces of art stay with you forever, like the hum of a tuning fork. Typically, such pieces are the invention of a solo genius like Rembrandt or Picasso. We associate them with contemplative solitude and silence. However, one art piece which had a profound impact on me was made by a whole cooperative. A group of collaborators from Austria and Croatia worked with thousands of feet of clear packing tape to create a complex of airborne tunnels stretching across an expansive exhibit hall. The translucent set of interconnected tunnels, like something made by a giant silkworm, picked up light from high windows, glowing as if they were a vast network of fluorescent tubes floating overhead. Even better, they were strong enough that people could ascend a custom-made staircase and climb right into them, crawling through the air, suspended 10 or 15 feet above the concrete floor.
Rarely have I seen people—not just children but full-grown adults—as happy as the ones who came back down those makeshift stairs. Rarely have I felt more happy myself, than after my wife and I had removed our shoes and car keys and crawled into that airy, light-filled warren, easing along the twisted corridors of light, with the muffled voices of viewers commenting from below.
My wife and I parted ways at a fork in the interconnected tunnels then came back together at another fork, face-to-face in the white shimmering light, and she was lovely there, in her giddy delight. Any fatigue or guardedness was gone as she grinned in sheer amazement. I could see, in her eyes, what I was feeling. Total enchantment.
But why? Why was this odd aerial invention so compelling?
Some of the pleasure, I surmise, was due to a return to childhood. We were like kids who were getting to float through their first amusement-park tunnel, simply fascinated by the sheer novelty of what we experienced. Plus, the tunnels were big enough to make us feel small again. They dwarfed us, bringing back the awe of experiencing something much larger than ourselves.
Some of the pleasure also came from the ephemeral beauty of the gossamer material. Nothing but long strands of clear packing tape, layer after layer. Who would have guessed?
But there is another, harder-to-define dimension to this remembered pleasure. I see now, looking back, that much of the delight was due to having simply shared the experience. My wife’s smile echoed my own. My happiness reinforced hers. The two of us were in complete agreement about something we both instinctively loved.
Encounters with art can be amazing no matter who is around. However, I am convinced that they get magnified if shared with someone who is deeply known and cared for. When such a person sees what you are seeing and echoes it back, then suddenly it is twice as remarkable. It rises to another level, as if lifted from speech to song.
Fifteen years have passed, and more will pass I’m sure, but Cathleen and I will keep on remembering that transcendent, glowing piece made by a whole troupe of interweaving artists who sang it into being, giving it brief, glimmering shape, lifted up in the air like a bridge of astonished sighs. It was a temporary installation, but it has become permanent for us.