Considering Jonathan Borofsky’s “Walking to the Sky”

walkingdallas-1_1100
Jonathan Borofsky
Walking to the Sky, 2005

In my last post, I suggested that Jonathan Borofsky’s counting and keeping of a dream record might be seen in terms of ancient Jewish scribal practice, and that doing so provides a context for reading his later work with religious implications for our own day. In this post, I will consider his “Walking to the Sky” along these lines.

“Walking to the Sky” was the third in a series after “Man Walking to the Sky” and “Woman Walking to the Sky.” Apparently, the idea for the first piece came from a story Borofsky’s dad told him as a child. He explains: “When I was six years old, I used to sit on my father’s knee, and he would tell me stories about a friendly giant who lived in the sky…. my father and I used to go up to the sky and visit with this friendly giant every day.”[1]

While the piece is typically read as “a compelling tribute to the power of our aspirations and the resilience of the human spirit,”[2] I fail to follow the argument to this conclusion. In fact, I think that the more natural reading is wholly other, and this for at least four reasons:

1. The typical reading goes against the reading of Borofsky’s counting and dreaming that I suggested in my last post.
2. The typical reading goes against my own experience of the work which left me with a sense of God’s nearness (moving from “there” to “here,” i.e., immanence) and accessibility (moving from “here” to “there,” i.e., transcendence).
3. In relation to these works, it has been noted that “As a child, Borofsky was fascinated by the philosophical title of a Paul Gauguin painting, ‘Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?’” Borofsky continues: “I’m still involved with the same question myself. Maybe the sculpture represents every one of us being involved in the same question, in the deepest sense.”[3] Clearly, Borofsky is dealing with more than “the power of our aspirations and the resilience of the human spirit.” These are metaphysical questions.
4. The story recounted above has more to do with visiting “this friendly giant” than “aspirations and the resilience of the human spirit;” that is to say, it has less to do with pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps and more to do with the possibility of access.

CIMG0727_1100A potential objection might be Borofsky’s making much of the pole ending in the work,[4] but from the perspective of the ground, the pole appears to go on forever, a sort of “highway between heaven and earth.”[5] This is Jacob’s ladder, a ladder-to-heaven in contemporary form.

As an example of this motif, Borofsky’s “Walking to the Sky” differs from Georgia O’Keeffe’s “Ladder to the Moon” (1958), a ladder floating in midair, completely inaccessible. And even if it were accessible, where might we go? Certainly not to the moon. To climb O’Keeffe’s ladder is to journey with Sisyphus. For, having reached the last rung, we step out into nothingness and fall back to the ground.

puryear_ladder2
Martin Puryear
Ladder for Booker T. Washington, 1996

More like Borofsky’s “Walking to the Sky” is Martin Puryear’s “Ladder for Booker T. Washington” (1996). While Puryear’s “Ladder,” like O’Keeffe’s, floats in midair, the first rung is only three feet or so from the floor, preserving the possibility of ascent. And yet the ladder is “not easily ascended.” The rungs, after all, narrow to a mere 1.25 inches at the top, making an actual ascent impossible. So too Borofsky’s “Walking to the Sky.” But that might be to take things too literally.  Certainly Borofsky and Puryear never intended for anyone to actually climb their works. And yet their forced perspective invites ascent, even if only imagined, begging Gauguin’s metaphysical question.

It seems that when confronted with the possibility of imagined ascent and its literal impossibility, we might receive these works, as symbols; not of “the power of our aspirations and the resilience of the human spirit,” but as means of grace and a sort of between.

Christopher R. Brewer is pursuing a PhD with David Brown and he is exploring the possibility of an imaginative natural theology.  Along these lines, he is the founder and director of  gospel through shared experience as well as the editor and publisher of Art that Tells the Story


[1] Online: http://www.borofsky.com/pastwork/public/manwalkingtothesky%5Bgermany%5D/index.html
[2] Online: http://www.nashersculpturecenter.org/object.aspx?ObjectID=1347
[3] Online: http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/news/art/2009/07/148_33617.html
[4] Jonathan Borofsky, “Jonathan Borofsky and Udo Kittelmann: A Conversation,” in Kittelmann, ed., Jonathan Borofsky, 83; cf. Rosenthal, “Jonathan Borofsky’s Modes of Working,” in Rosenthal, ed., Jonathan Borofsky, 14.
[5] David Brown, God and Enchantment of Place (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 247-248.

Image Credits: Jonathan Borofsky and Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth [used under fair use policy]

Author

  • Christopher R. Brewer (PhD, St Andrews) is a Program Officer of the Templeton Religion Trust, Nassau, The Bahamas. He has edited or co-edited six volumes, including Art that Tells the Story which was named one of Hearts & Minds Best Books of 2011. He is now working on a book for Zondervan Academic provisionally titled Understanding Natural Theology, and an additional edited volume (for Routledge). His current research has mostly to do with questions at the intersection of theology, philosophy, and contemporary visual art, but also includes Anglican ecumenism.

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4 Comments

  1. says: Raymond Morehouse

    You write that “Clearly, Borofsky is dealing with more than “the power of our aspirations and the resilience of the human spirit.” These are metaphysical questions.”

    It seems that your final sentence offers an explanation for the first claim, but could not both be true?

    For instance, for a secular humanist the power and resilience of the human spirit might be the greatest, and indeed perhaps only, foundation of reality. If the piece is read as a testimony to such an ideology it could be read explicitly as representing “anti-grace”, that is, the rejection of the necessity of God or even the necessity of “another.”

    It seems to me that there are two contexts necessary for understanding this sculpture. The first is within the intentionality and worldview of Borofsky. This, I think, is indispensable in the final analysis. He himself said of the piece, “It’s a symbol of all of humanity. All of us are connected together and walking to an unknown future.” This seems at odds with Jacob’s Ladder: a symbol of connection with God based on unalterable promise, though perhaps he has more to say on the issue.

    The second is the physical context of the sculpture itself. For instance, hypothetically, three identical installations at the NASA headquarters, the Ayn Rand Institute, and the Billy Graham Library would invoke very different interpretations. Unfortunately the actual installation sites are far less interesting… but none of these sites (a sculpture garden, a university, and in front of a Chinese HVAC manufacturer) seem to support your interpretation, though perhaps they are not at odds with it either.

    Your interpretation is certainly possible, and even compelling, but is it valid in light of intentionality and context? Is this even the right question to be asking?

    1. says: Christopher R. Brewer

      Raymond, thanks. Just to be sure that I understand, you seem to be asking/saying several things: 1) Could not both (i.e., resilience/metaphysical) be true? 2) Two contexts are necessary for understanding this sculpture (i.e., intentionality/worldview and physical context). 3) Is your interpretation valid?

      It’s unclear to me whether or not your final sentence is related to the third bit, or if it constitutes a fourth and separate comment/question. Perhaps you could clarify that for me. In the meantime, allow me to respond to the three questions/comments summarized above.

      Regarding the possibility of both being true, yes, certainly. I never said that my reading was the only possible one. I only said that it seems more natural, and then in the section you cited, that it seems as though, from the story that Borofsky shared (i.e., the friendly giant, and I suppose we could add to that his fascination with Gauguin’s painting/question as well), that there’s more to it than human resilience. Neither of these claims are exclusive.

      Regarding the interpretive framework that you suggested, these two might be part of getting at a meaning, but there’s certainly more to it than the intent of the artist and physical location. In fact, I’ve argued for my reading based upon at least three and perhaps four additional considerations: his earlier work, this particular work’s origination, metaphysical questions in the air, and my own experience of the work. Regarding intent/worldview, the reading that I’ve provided would, as I’ve argued, be the more natural reading and this for two reasons: 1) the idea for the piece came from a story that his dad used to tell him about a friendly giant in the sky, and 2) as a child he was fascinated with Gauguin’s question. The former might be read as speaking to intent, and the latter, if not to worldview, then certainly worldview-ish questions (here I couldn’t help thinking of James Sire’s The Universe Next Door). Then, regarding physical location, perhaps, but I’m not so sure. These works are not site specific, and what’s more, they don’t exactly appear against a backdrop. They are, after all, oriented “to the Sky” (a skydrop?) and so an argument could be made that the site is, more or less, irrelevant so long as the sky above is open. In any case, the counter argument that you’ve advanced isn’t exactly a defeater so much as an exclusivity defeater, and as I’ve already mentioned, I nowhere argued for this being the only possible reading, only the more natural one. Add to that, the additional considerations (i.e., early work, origin of this particular work, etc.) and even if the work’s physical context worked against my reading, and I would restate my own experience of the work as argument that it does not, these other considerations might easily outweigh the work’s placement. And, it seems strange to leave this until last, but what of the object itself? My reading is certainly consistent with the object itself, particularly when compared to another, similar work such as “Humanity in Motion” – http://www.borofsky.com/index.php?album=humanityinmotion – a piece that would, to my mind, lend itself more easily to a resilience reading.

      Finalyl regarding the third point (i.e., is my interpretation valid), I’m a bit confused. You began by asking if both might not be possible and concluded by suggesting that my reading might not, in fact, be possible. A strange turn it seems to me. In any case, I would stand by my reading, as a possible and perhaps even the more natural reading, for the reasons I’ve already stated: his earlier work, this particular work’s origination, metaphysical questions in the air, my own experience of the work, and comparison with later, similar work.

  2. says: Jim Watkins

    Chris, thanks for this very interesting post, and to drawing my attention to Borofsky’s “Walking into the Sky.” In addition to O’Keefe and Puryear, it would be interesting to compare Borofsky’s piece to Joel Sheesley’s ladders. For example, check out this painting called “Going Up”: http://www.joelsheesley.com/current(09)5.htm

    He has a number of ladder and puddle paintings, and they seem to be asking the sort of metaphysical questions you are asking in this post.

    1. says: Christopher R. Brewer

      Jim, thanks. I’ve seen Sheesley’s ladder and puddle paintings before. The latter remind me a bit of a favorite Escher woodcut print. Ladders, and references to the Jacob’s Ladder motif, are, as you know, quite common. My friend Rick Beerhorst uses ladders in his work as well (here for instance: http://www.etsy.com/uk/listing/93453755/ladder-series-number-four?ref=shop_home_active). That said, Rick’s ladders have to do with community building, something more along the lines of the resilience reading previously discussed, albeit a graced resilience reading. In any case, thanks for reminding me of Sheesley’s work!

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