SFMOMA’s ‘Field Conditions’ examines perception

Lebbeus Woods/Courtesy
Lebbeus Woods, Conflict Space 3, 2006; crayon and acrylic on linen; 74 x 120 in. (187.96 x 304.8 cm); Collection SFMOMA, purchase through a gift of anonymous donors and the Accessions Committee Fund; © Lebbeus Woods

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The modern environment is akin to chaos. Cities are now nearly defined by the massive billboards and glaring lights that distort their buildings. According to architect Stan Allen’s essay “Field Conditions,” places that were once familiar, organized and definite no longer exist. Amid modernization and globalization, our established culture and neatly arranged attributions have “been eroded by the onrush of media, consumer culture, and telecommunications.”

To deal with this new world in which both our institutional, political structures and our physical, architectural structures are being dismantled and deemed illegitimate, the lens through which we view our world can no longer be modern but must be postmodern. Instead of relying on the common, Allen argues that we must remain critical to understand the multiplicity of identities that surround us and create fluid conditions that can provide for these identities.

Inspired by Allen’s essay, SFMOMA’s “Field Conditions” exhibit — which, incidentally, features one of Allen’s works — attempts to replicate this idea, imagining a world where a single glance produces multiple images, where one input results in an endless amount of outputs. Both his essay and the exhibition argue the possibility of a new reality in which the “field conditions are bottom-up phenomena, defined not by overarching geometrical schemas but by intricate local connections.”

As an exploration of perspective, the exhibit’s entrance is deceptively simple, with black and white artwork plainly pasted against stark, white walls. But a closer look will quickly introduce the show’s premise — optical illusions, the destruction of what we knew as space and the creation of its own space. The artwork tampers with our rules of perception and leaves us with alternative ways of perceiving the world. From celestial prints to depth-inducing portals, each piece can be viewed from multiple angles and depths, reflecting Allen’s idea of the deconstruction of formal architectural space for spaces that allow for individual improvisation.

The next part of the exhibit goes beyond the frames of typical artwork and instead spans an entire room. The floor is randomly checkered with black and white tiles, resembling a pixelated game reality. Overhead, spinning lights dislocate the inhabitants of the space even further. The haphazardness of the room ensures a unique experience for every viewer and yet contradicts itself in the similarity of its moments. As a field condition meant to include and expand, this part of the exhibition reveals the challenges in approaching postmodern theory. The room, by nature of what’s possible within it, already limits the vast possibilities of reality.

The final moments of the exhibition display architectural sketches and visualizations produced by computer algorithms, which both depict the rapidly changing modern landscape. Among the sketches is prominent architect Daniel Libeskind’s “Micromegas” series, which challenges the disciplined form of classical architectural sketches and transforms them into art by pushing the limits of perception — they present chaos and turmoil, conditions more authentic to humanity and nature.

What “Field Conditions” presents is more accurate depictions of the entropy of reality. The exhibition promotes and attempts a new spatial architecture that incorporates modern technology and the changing dynamics of society. The “loose fit” proposed aims to include multiple identities through individual appropriation of space and offers a compelling solution for a rapidly transforming and increasingly diverse world in which shapes, elements and institutions hold little meaning. However, at times, the disorder seems forced as artists seek to straddle the inevitable geometry of their disciplines and the messiness of reality. The inherent contradiction compels an acknowledgement of the cleavages between theory and implementation and yet simultaneously poses the question of whether ideal field conditions are ever possible within a frame.

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