Marie retired from the Argonne National Laboratory a number of years before our visit but stays busy by hosting tours of the facilities. When we arrived, she greeted us with enthusiasm. She was joined by her husband Robert, a current employee of Argonne, and they were both eager to share the anomaly on campus. We weren’t there to tour the nanoparticle lab or the electrical energy storage grid. We asked Marie how often someone requests a visit to the Dan Graham pavilion. She replied without hesitation, “Literally never.”
There isn’t a trace of Graham’s first outdoor site-specific sculpture, installed in 1982, on the Argonne National Laboratory website. I first heard about the piece when I was working at the Renaissance Society, where we had shown the Model for Pavilion/Sculpture for Argonne (1978-81) in his solo exhibition Selected Works in 1981 and had published an accompanying catalog 1. The Art Institute of Chicago purchased the model and the Pavilion/Sculpture for Argonne had been realized at the federal facility shortly after the exhibition in 1982. I was always curious. I emailed firstname.lastname@example.org, just asking for a photo or information about the sculpture and its location on the Laboratory campus. I connected with an employee from the Communications, Education and Public Affairs Department who sent a very direct, and simple email, “The pavilion is located near our cafeteria. If you would like a better photo, I would be happy to send one to you.” with an attached PDF of an Argonne ‘internal publication’ from 1982. After several further email exchanges over the course of two weeks, and the agreement of Marie to meet us during off-hours, the tour was booked for a Sunday evening in early August. By then a particular tone had been set by the employee asking if I was a U.S. citizen, for my age, if I had a valid driver’s license, and what state I was from since “there are five jurisdictions where [a] driver’s license is not accepted at a federal facility.”2 The last email was concluded with a final requirement, “Everyone must wear flat, closed-toe shoes.”
Off Interstate 55, about twenty-five miles south of Chicago, in Lemont, Illinois is the largest engineering and science research facility in the Midwest. Founded in 1942, Argonne National Laboratory was initiated under the direction of Enrico Fermi to create the world’s first self-sustaining nuclear reaction. This as part of what is now known as the Manhattan Project that was housed underneath the bleachers at the University of Chicago’s football field. After successfully producing the world’s first nuclear reactor in 1943 and subsequently deemed unsafe, the laboratory relocated outside of Chicago, to Lemont in the late 1940s. Today it sits amongst the Argonne National Forest of the Cook County Forest Preserve renamed as the Red Gate Woods. Congress ended funding to the majority of nuclear research in 1994, in turn, the Laboratory shifted focus to specialized fields within physics, chemical sciences, and metallurgy.3 The Laboratory is impressive—an industrial, governmental campus appropriately in the middle of nowhere—ominous in its ambiguity, signage, and security protocol. The architecture of the facility shifts between dated, traditional brick buildings and more recent expansions, notably the Program Support Facility building, designed by Helmut Jahn4. Our guest passes, featuring name and citizenship, didn’t feel temporary. The entrance security checkpoint questioned all of the passengers, and an approved Argonne employee escorted us at all times.
The Laboratory campus was desolate. On a Sunday evening, around 6 pm, geese zig-zagged uninterrupted across emptied parking lots and sections of grass dividing access roads and employee footpaths. We followed Marie and her husband’s Jeep Cherokee to a lot situated, just as my first correspondence had noted, next to the cafeteria. There the sculpture was—sitting on a large triangular section of grass on one of the small slopes in the landscape. From where we parked, it looked like an oversized bus stop in the distance; simultaneously out of place, yet echoing its surroundings, fitting in its placement. The sculpture looked lonely and on an island, waiting to be activated. The structure had a square foundation, laid with what seemed like stone tile, divided across the diagonal by a transparent plane. A stainless steel frame held the walls of the pavilion in place, some of which were mirrored, transparent, or opaque, or absent altogether.
Marie proudly mentioned that the facilities crew had mowed the grass around the base of the pavilion and the sculpture had been “wiped down” in anticipation of our visit. Even with the recent facelift, the sculpture had aged. Rust creeped out at the seams, slight warping and oxidation spots appeared throughout. Around the piece were patches of dead grass, no doubt from years of zig-zagging geese. It was as if the sculpture hadn’t been touched in over thirty years and Marie was confident that it hadn’t. As if Graham had unveiled the sculpture in 1982, someone published the activity in the ‘internal publication,’ and everyone moved on 5. It felt like a relic of a past administration that had weathered into a new aesthetic, nearing post-industrial. Contrary to the pristine surfaces and clean lines of most of the Graham pavilions you might find in galleries and museums, this one felt honest in its age and materiality. As we moved through the structure, it felt more approachable, more embedded in the site, its blemishes making it relatable. There was yet another layer to the work, in its imperfection and isolation. The selfish part of me liked that it felt placed there just for us. We had been persistent in seeking out this thing. It felt special and rare and worth the hassle. I’m not sure if it was the remote nature of the work or the intimacy formed between viewer and artwork in small audiences, but I felt lucky.
The pavilion beautifully mirrors the activity within the offices and laboratories at Argonne. What better context for an artwork that is about intellectual interrogation, curiosity, and inquiry, than at the center of a research facility? Sited on a patch of grass situated between parking lots at a federal institution, the work takes on a different tone. I think of Graham’s approach as that of a scientist. Not only in method, but in curiosity as well. The surroundings of Graham’s pavilion at Argonne, and the reflections framed by the structure echo this pursuit, in form and function. Though, as it stood vacantly, the campus void of human activity on a Sunday evening, there was a solitude to its placement. Can the pavilions be activated without a participant?6 I had always thought of Graham’s practice, and the pavilions specifically, as functioning as a means of complicating the role between performer and audience, re-evaluating a participant’s perception of subject and object, active and passive. Typically, the materials of the pavilion fade from focus, the content of the sculpture becoming one’s reflection or the disembodying effect of its distortion. In the case of this pavilion, the stainless steel frame, each panel of the structure, the floor, and even the foundation came startlingly into focus.
With its age and circumstance, the pavilion at Argonne operates differently. There is an industrial element, not only because of the visual aging of the materials but also because of the business-park-like surroundings. I found myself wanting to look at the pavilion from a distance just as much as at my own reflection inside the space. I moved from its interior to the exterior, then even further back, seeing the full structure in space, the pavilion became a large-scale sculpture, not quite as architectural as other pavilions. Acknowledging the landscape, the weather, and the role that time plays becomes an essential element of the work. Outside of a white cube, the piece flourishes. I felt grounded at the pavilion at Argonne, by first noticing the erosion of the materials, then seeing imperfections in the facades. Standing still with the distant movement of geese, the piece flanked by street lamps and footpaths the sense of participation becomes entirely different. Without a body present, the quietness of the work and the surroundings are heightened.
At the end of our visit, we thanked Marie and Robert and took some final pictures. Before we pulled away, I looked across the access road that separated our parking lot from the pavilion. What I love about this piece is that it doesn’t need people. Beyond my own participation, the pavilion works simply by being in the world. It doesn’t need human interaction. “Literally never” is okay. Sitting almost forgotten next to the cafeteria at the Argonne National Laboratory might be the ideal circumstance. The sun passing overhead creating shadows from the open segments in the facade are as much engagement with the sculpture as a person stepping in and seeing themselves. The wind and the rain activate the artwork. The passing cars activate the artwork. The geese zig-zagging in the distance activate the artwork.
- Recently reprinted by Greene Naftali Gallery. See Dan Graham: Buildings and Signs, Reprint, Greene Naftali, New York 2016.
- Those jurisdictions are American Samoa, Louisiana, Minnesota, New Hampshire, and New York
- It is interesting to note that the director of Argonne National Laboratory at the time of Dan Graham’s commission was Walter E. Massey, current chancellor of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
- The budget for Argonne Program Support Facility (1982) produced the funding, via a percent-for-art program, for the acquisition of the Dan Graham artwork.
- What were the security clearances at Argonne in 1982? At what point was the vast majority of the public discouraged from coming to see this artwork? Is it strategic on the part of the administration to not publish any information regarding the sculpture on their website? The maquette for the piece is in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago, a fact that might signify its importance in the artist’s career—surely someone an art historian, critic, scholar, slightly curious and motivated fan of his work, must have sought it out in the past 30 years? I think about the logistics, time, and energy needed to provide background checks, instructions, and laminated visitor badges to large art tour groups, college class visits, or others interested.
- I’d like to see it amongst the employees arriving at the facility on a Monday morning, swirling with activity around it. I’d like to see the reflection of the cars pulling into the parking lots, refractions of employees taking the shortcut across the grass to the cafeteria. Do employees know what it is? Do they wonder? Do colleagues meet there for lunch on a nice afternoon? Maybe use it as a secluded area for non-work-related phone calls? Does a scientist drive by, notice the variations on transparent and reflective material, wonder about his or her velocity and movement around the object and question the purpose and impact of this structure on campus? If so, that’s great. If not, I think that’s okay too.