Thursday, December 01, 2011


Frost was right when he wrote that nothing gold can stay. Artist Patrick Dougherty recently installed, with some assistance from Wash U art and architecture students, an enchanting sculpture near Forsyth and Skinker. It's absolutely fantastic, like something straight out of Arabian Nights. And it will not exist in two years.

"I make temporary works, and my sculptures, like the sticks they are made from, have a natural life cycle," Dougherty has said. "Ultimately all the sticks fall prey to the woodchipper and are reduced to compost."

I find this frank peace with impermanence both alluring and disconcerting. As much as I like to make things, write things, tat things, a good part of the satisfaction comes from the work's physical or digital here-to-stay quality. Hitting save, holding a fresh set of prints, sending a handmade item off to someone you know will treasure it many years, clicking the shutter--I kind of relish those comforting rituals. Of course, that sense of permanence is ultimately illusory; even Steinberg Hall (at left in pic) is subject to wear and decay over time. But what must it take to build such beautiful work, all the while certain that it cannot last?

As I wandered through the structures this week, one of the students who helped with the project was passing through as well. He explained a bit about the process, how sturdier saplings act as beams supporting the smaller brush materials that wind 20 feet up into the air.

"It's a lot of sticks," he said.

I paused to snap a phone pic as I left, not sure that I should, because a picture sticks around a lot longer than Dougherty's amazing work and seems somehow inappropriate. (An additional underlying issue is that taking photographs in general often feels to me a little compromised, like there is far too big a debt owed to that which fills the frame to frame it as my own. Still, I find it irresistible.)

Dust to dust, ashes to ashes. A stubborn part of me resists it, but I think Dougherty, and Frost, get it right. This, too, will pass.

"That it will never come again is what makes life so sweet." -Dickinson