The Art of Lava Flow
What you have to keep reminding yourself, as you watch the flames reflected in his black face shield, is that this man thinks of himself as a landscape artist. Not the kind that paints landscapes, but a sculptor—inspired by the planet’s own tectonic techniques—casting forms out of molten rock.
A professor in Syracuse University’s college of Visual and Performing Arts, Bob Wysocki is also a Judith Seinfeld fellow, a distinction awarded to recognize “passion for excellence, creativity, and originality in academic or artistic fields.” The originality thing is well-covered. Wysocki is the only person in the world to have conducted controlled pours of several tons of molten rock. To do that he has built the tools and developed the techniques that give rise to a new forms of expression, but this artistic exploration is also serious science that has attracted collaborators from the top universities in the world.
In one four-day stretch in November of 2013, Wysocki poured lava for two research teams. First, he released lava onto sand for Dr. Sara Seeger of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and a colleague from China. A few days later, Wysocki made two pours into a custom-built water tank for Dr. Ben Edwards and his graduate students, volcanologists from Dickenson College.
Wysocki grew up on a prune farm in northern California in the shadow of Mount Lassen, one of two volcanoes in the lower 48 states to have erupted in the 20th century. As a boy, he became fascinated by the interface forms between wild nature—the volcano-formed foothills of the Cascade range—and the ‘managed’ nature of a working farm. As he grew into an artist, he remained interested in the forms that emerge naturally when two different ‘densities’ are forced together. That interest in interfacing forms became an obsession when Wysocki encountered the nature-sculpted sand dunes in the Sonoran desert.
“I taught at UNLV for a few years, and every time we went to visit my mom, my wife and I would drive by the Amargosa sand dunes. I would stop the car and just look at them. About the tenth time I did that my very patient wife finally asked what I was up to. I told her this was a magnificent form, but there was no way to honestly capture it. It couldn’t just be photographed or painted and retain the transient presence. And so she said ‘You’ll just have to make your own sand dune then.’”
That response sent Wysocki simultaneously back to his boyhood fascination and into uncharted artistic territory. He embarked on a series of experiments in the art of land forms, leading to an exhibit of living, moving dunes in the Huntington Beach Art Center gallery in California When he joined the faculty at Syracuse, he returned to thinking about molten rock and the art of volcanic forces.
The lava, when he pours it, is surprisingly light. Not bright—it is, but that’s hardly a surprise—it’s almost airy. Nothing prepares you for seeing and standing so close to liquid rock. Seeing lava flow is a sudden and vivid trip to a primordial past.
When it’s dormant, Wysocki’s ‘volcano’ doesn’t warrant a second look from the commuters that pass it every day. Sitting next to big parking lot in a gap between buildings along Comstock Road on Syracuse University’s south campus, the kiln looks like the offspring of a water works and a barbecue smoker. It’s actually an industrial crucible connected to an intricate set of pipes and tanks, and is the brainchild of a mad scientist with an art degree. Naturally, it attracts other scientists.
The MIT researchers who visited last November were testing experimental equipment that measures the full-spectrum of radiant energy—heat, light and other emanations— from molten material. When perfected, the instruments will be used to confirm the presence of, and to study volcanic material on earth-like planets. The pours for the volcanology team from Dickinson recreated the behavior of lava in the ocean and under glaciers, and allowed the team to study the thermodynamics of high-energy fluids.
Studying underwater lava in nature is difficult and dangerous—imagine scuba diving, instruments in-hand, in a boiling water kettle while trying to study the heating element. The SU Lava Project makes this research feasible even as Wysocki studies how the material changes, and the many ways he might shape it for his art.
Poured over ice, the lava is an angry fluid that bubbles violently as it inflates into pillows of heat. In a few seconds it cycles through all the colors of fire from white hot to black char. Poured onto sand, the lava flow is luxuriously slow, a lazy puddle of flame. Poured into water, the lava writhes and crackles. The sudden crust formed when the fire meets the water breaks in fast-changing patterns revealing glowing lines like fiery Picasso sketches. There are moments of breathtaking art in a Wysocki lava flow, and and each pour brings him closer to the goal of creating large-scale forms in a medium no one else is wielding.
Sculpting with geological forces requires dedication and patience. In his current crucible, Wysocki can melt about 500 pounds of basaltic rock—he orders it from landscaping companies—a process that takes hours. In preparation for a morning lava pour, Wysocki often spends the night next to the firing kiln.
As if sleeping outside in November in Syracuse weren’t sufficient witness to his resolve, Wysocki also deals with the constant uncertainty of breaking completely new ground. It’s that uncertainty that attracts researchers from around the world. Geologists don’t fully understand the behavior of molten rock. Even at this more human scale, lava pours aren’t predictable, and things don’t always go as planned. In that way, this long-term art project is like big science. Every pour teaches something. Even when a pour ‘fails’ from a scientific standpoint, like when an under water ‘vent’ suddenly solidifies, there is always another discovery about how this material behaves. Inexorably, the artist becomes a little more familiar with his new medium, and always the beauty of the process uncovers new possibilities.
The possibilities are epic. Wysocki is extending an artistic vocabulary begun by the great art innovator Robert Smithson. But where other ‘Earth Work’ artists integrated natural materials with landscapes, Wysocki is conducting deep research to use nature’s forces as the creative engine. It’s the first real advance in the earthworks genre since Smithson’s untimely death. It’s an exploration that is long overdue.
“Eventually I’d like to create a continuous lava flow in an art park devoted to all of nature’s creative forces” says Wysocki. “I just have to find a patron to underwrite the research.”
The research agenda is fairly well mapped out too. Once he’s mastered the molten flows, he’ll place sculptured lava alongside the dunes and ‘fault line’ pieces he’s done. “Then I’ll begin studying the aurora borealis seriously–and large-scale glacial forms too–those are the next natural art works I’d like to exhibit. That would be a hell of an art park.”
On the way to that goal, he has made several smaller studies and test pieces, and he’s building another, larger crucible to conduct the research crucial to making the grand lava work. Wysocki’s artistic vision is taking shape slowly and inexorably, at nature’s inexorable pace.