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38  |   C U C K O O
Wall sculpture, 2002
Collage, printed and coated paper on wood, gold leaf
207 x 153 x 8.1 cm.


If one takes the measurements of the wall sculpture CUCKOO, in centimeters, and computes the sum—or the sum of the sums—of each individual dimension’s digits, time and again, the result will prove to be the number nine. (The sum of the sum of all the one-, two-, and three-digit terms of the Fibonacci Series in PSALTER I is also nine, as are those of the measurements in I PURITANI, as well as of a good number of the other works discussed above and below. )

The gilded strip of wood, for instance, which spans the horizontal diagonal of the piece’s large, red square, forming the hypotenuse of two identical isosceles triangles, is 153 cm long: 1 + 5 + 3 = 9; in section, it measures 1.8 x 1.8 cm, that is, 3.24 cm²: 1 + 8 = 9 and 3 + 2 + 4 = 9; and its volume in cm³ is 495.72, a number of which the sum of the sum of the digits is taken as follows : 4 + 9 + 5 + 7 + 2 = 27 → 2 + 7 = 9.

Each of the four sides of the red square measures 108 cm: 1 + 0 + 8 = 9; and the sum of the sum of the digits of the square’s area can be computed in a similar manner : 108 x 108 cm = 11,664 cm², that is, 1 + 1 + 6 + 6 + 4 = 18 1 + 8 = 9; as can that of the area of each of the isosceles triangles that form its halves, 5,832 cm²: 5 + 8 + 3 + 2 = 18 1 + 8 = 9—and so on and so forth, throughout the entire piece. This circumstance is a more or less peripheral curiosity—a result of the fact that our decimal numeral system is a scale of notation based on the powers of ten; if, for example, the same measurements were to be expressed using a nonary, or base-nine, scale, a similar phenomenon with the number eight would be observable. Together with the piece’s conspicuously gilded, central “measuring stick,” it serves to emphasize that much of CUCKOO has to do with measurement, measure, and scale, whereby the eponymous bird also plays a major rôle.

While bearing a not inconsiderable resemblance to the form of a traditional cuckoo clock, the basic form of the piece is actually that of a chick with its grey-striped plumage and the bright red, gaping maw it presents when crying and begging to be fed. As a so-called brood parasite, the cuckoo begins life in the nest of unsuspecting song birds, where its biological mother—having closely observed her victims’ nest-building procedures—has taken advantage of an unguarded moment to deposit her egg. Having thus unwittingly become foster parents to the young cuckoo, the host birds brood the alien egg and, once the chick has emerged, raise it as their own, after—an inborn instinctual reflex, this—it has pushed the parent birds’ natural offspring, as eggs or hatchlings, out of the nest to their certain death.

Because the (often much smaller) host birds apparently judge the feeding needs of their brood not according to the actual number of hungry baby birds in the nest, but rather by the total expanse of wide-open mouths on display and the intensity of their cries for food, the nestling cuckoo makes use of its huge beak and strong voice to simulate an entire nestful of young birds, in order to be assured an adequate supply of nourishment. Hatched from an egg that its biological mother has matched (by virtue of some sort of avian voodoo) in size and color to those of its involuntary hosts, the enormous baby cuckoo  is a grotesque sight: overfilling the nest and waited upon by its tiny caretakers, who are hard pressed to fulfill the demands of their charge's appetites.

These aspects of the cuckoo’s life—its being embarrassingly outsized; the insatiability of its childish need and greed; the ruthless lack of consideration it demonstrates in its young life—are what I wish to address when I call my work CUCKOO a self-portrait. (In no way do I wish, or mean, to suggest that I landed as a “cuckoo’s egg” in the wrong nest ! ) I’ve already described the Raumwerk-cum-Edition I PURITANI ( 1983 ) as a “ ‘portrait of the artist’ reduced to ratio, proportion, and simple numerical combinations,” and although it and CUCKOO are fundamentally so different as far as medium and scale are concerned, the two works nonetheless exhibit more than just one similarity. I’ll quote here from my original description of the earlier piece in The Consolation of Art, and allow the reader to draw his or her own conclusions about their relationship :

[This] ‘spatial work’ … was based on the relationship exhibited by the proportions of a remarkable turn-of-the-(last)-century industrial space, which at the time was serving as an art gallery, to those of the human form and harmonic division. […] The width of this skylight (running in the east-west axis) times four produced a large rectangle, which was projected onto the hexagonal terracotta tiles of the floor, its form outlined with ten oblong strips of linoleum of the same color, each measuring 180 by 45 centimeters. The area of the rectangle thus described was the same as that of the sailcloth a sail-maker had used to make all twelve of the “sails” (each measuring 270 by 135 centimeters) that were hung in two rows to the left and right, i.e., to the north and south of the skylight. This area was in the same ratio to that of the entire floor as the area of the white rectangle painted on each of the sails (180 by 45 centimeters, like the linoleum ones) was to that of the sail itself. From the small loudspeaker of a cassette deck issued the sound of an endless timpani roll—this, a quotation (if a simple timpani roll may be considered as such) from the introduction to Vicenzo Bellini’s I Puritani—which, like the daylight, filled the room with what might just as well have been a mechanical rumble issuing from the blades of the ventilator-fan that rotated aimlessly in the updraft at the western end of the skylight.

Rectangles measuring 180 by 45 centimeters (thus nearly reproducing my height and breadth) were the basic elements of the Raumwerk I PURITANI : painted on the “sails,” they marked the twelve years I had, at the time, lived in Berlin; while as lengths of linoleum arranged on the floor, they stood for the ten generations which lie between me and those of my English ancestors that migrated to the New World, about the time of John Donne’s death, in the early seventeenth century.

The poster for I PURITANI measured 100 by 70 centimeters, and was printed with black letters on the same deep-red, coated bookbinding paper with which the boxes of the accompanying edition were covered. Twenty years later, I used the selfsame paper to prepare the rectangular “snippets” with which I collaged the surface of the red square for CUCKOO. On it, as well as on the large greyish and small black rectangles of the piece, those snippets are arranged in rows, each 4.5 centimeters wide.


Since 1980, I must surely have cut and pasted at least 200,000 small, rectangular pieces of paper for works such as the diptych and a triptych READING BETWEEN THE LINES (1981) ; the two panels AT THE ROUND EARTHS IMAGIN’D CORNERS, each 180 by 270 centimeters (1982) ; the thirteen panels of PHASEN’s, each 162 by 162 centimeters (1983/1984) ; the five panels of EARTH AIR FIRE WATER AETHER, each 100 by 100 centimeters ( 1992 ) ; and most recently the twelve panels of MAKING US WORD, each 75 by 60 centimeters (2001), as well as LIGHT, 180 by 45 centimeters (2002). One definition of the verb to cuckoo is, after all, “to repeat monotonously.”

In closing, it remains to briefly address the Constructivist strains that are so clearly audible in CUCKOO—even above the familiar, haunting bird calls. Kazimir Malevich’s black and red squares are for me, as for countless others, genuine icons and true idols: ciphers of the profoundly human and the artificial, imprints and images of the life of the mind—spiritual, heroic, and infinitely moving.