Oculus: Dead Sea/Oil Field

Artist Statement


A fundamental basis of this project is an on-going involvement in the use of fire and its relationship to imagery, expressed in the form of specially configured kiln or furnace structures, and how the ideas those images represent can be explored and activated.  The images found in this project, an environmental tableau staged as a sub-sea floor crude oil reservoir and two eyeball-like bathysphere kilns are elements in a story played out in a pyropyschic even one evening in Arvada, Colorado. The event in an attempt for the "characters" to address their own existential nature and, in turn, reflect on the human condition.


The development of a deep sea oil reservoir as the scene of activity in this work comes from a concern with the source of heat (propane) used to fire the bathysphere images and its origin in the earth as a hydrocarbon-rich fossil fuel.  This fuel is carbon and hydrogen fused together by ancient chemical bonds (from an ancient sun and distilled deep and long in the earth) that are broken and reformed into new compounds while energy is being released  in the process of combustion.  This process gives these events a life they could not have in any other way: an intense, luminous, trance-like transfiguration (a return to the ancient climate?) during the evening of the firing that has been described elsewhere:


"...a firing can approach an irrational point, the verge of losing control, a metaphor is suggested of the unconscious in a primitive or vulnerable state where time becomes emotion, chemistry spirit and matter theater." (Roloff, J., Artery Magazine, Feb-Mar., 1983)


The concern with the fuel, explored in conjunction with the image of the eye or "Oculus," goes back to a recent work, Oculus: Emerson, Beebe/Seas of Salt, Chains of Carbon.  In this piece, two six-foot in diameter, spherical greenhouse "eyes" of steel and glass were thought of as devices to symbolically probe and reveal the ancient, marine environment in which the oil originated.  The eyeball image come initially from a quote by R. W. Emerson in his essay Nature:


"Standing on the bare ground, - my head bathed by the blythe air, and uplifted into infinite space, - all mean egotism vanishes.  I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God."


In this earlier "Oculus" piece, Emerson's eyeball, and its role as a definitive symbol of 19th century transcendentalism, seemed an ideal device to use in this initial investigation of the fossil fuel question.  This image also corresponded to another interest: that of the bathysphere, William Beebe's pioneering deep-sea diving, eye-like sphere used to probe the depths of the sea.  The bathysphere descending into the abyss or (metaphorically) the unconscious, provided the psychological and mortal counterpoint of this inquiry and the other 'eye' of a natural, symmetrical system.


For the project Oculus: Dead Sea/Oil Field, seeking a more intense, emotive relationship to the organic fuels from the depths of the earth, a narrative adventure of two mythic bathyspheres of fire - one more solid, 'ancient,' petrified, made of earth materials, abandoned, a relic of a past expedition and another alive, "virgin," ethereal, "suspended" from above, searching the scene, engaged in a current expedition in a quest for its origins and its older, sunken counterpart - were imagined for the site in Colorado.


The scene: a small lake in the midst of a gently undulating terrain, the two bathyspheres near the water's edge (the "virgin" element suspended out over the water), surrounded by an array of seven, forty-foot tall 'oil drill-rig' poles coated with tar on their lower half and encrusted with salt, sea shells and earth on their upper half, penetrating the ground surface an randomly placed as if from an abandoned oil field.  The tar/shell line of the poles delineating the ceiling of an over-head rock dome beneath the sea floor (conceivably filled with crude oil) and the stage where the event takes place.


The night firing of the two bathyspheres serves to activate the images, ossify the abandoned 'ancient' sphere and illuminate the sub-abyssal scene.  With the firing, and the two expeditions condensed into one even, the kiln/bathyspheres have returned to the source of their own life-blood.


The day following the firing found the 'ancient' bathysphere entropically fused, fissured and partially collapsed; the 'virgin' (no longer) bathysphere ha its insulating blanket removed and its heat weathered farm and lava, heat-sink bottom molten, remaining skeleton-like a the shore of the lake.


In considering this return to origins, one might think back in time to the photosynthesis of the Paleozoic sunlight that captured the carbon in the tree leaf or floating algae mass that was to become the hydrocarbons and distilled sun fragments in the oil-reservoirs of the world.  Going even further back, on may speculate on the earth itself somehow condensing from solar gasses into a prototype of its present solid/liquid/gas form.  And in this environment, how a lineage of chemical/metaphorical reactions (also of solar fragments), began and passed up through the Paleozoic, Mesozoic and Cenozoic to the present, where the builders of the bathyspheres (all of solar fragments), are transforming (through ignition) a material that is little different (as solar fragments) from that material in and of their own veins.


This text is included in the catalog, 51 Million B.T.U.'s and is derived from an essay by the artist and an interview with Nan Hill, PhD candidate, History of Art Department, U. C. Berkeley.


John Roloff, 1988-89