Standing at the Center of the Earth

An artist’s overview of Capital’s unique sculpture and kinetic timepiece.

Jules Verne often wrote about ideas of travel, from Journey to the Center of the Earth’s fictional quest to find a new world beneath our planet’s surface, to the ultimate travelogue of Around the World in 80 Days. With their kinetic sculpture Latitude, the artist team of Ralph Helmick and Stuart Schechter invite us on a similar journey, offering an experience in which we simultaneously stand at the center of the earth and feel like we’re traveling around it.

In embarking on this voyage, who would imagine that Hartford, Connecticut would feel like the center of the earth? In fact, it may take a moment to orient oneself in the greater scheme of this work. Physically, you are in Hartford, at 41° 7’ north latitude, standing in the soaring five-story atrium of Capital Community College. However, in your mind—and the mind of the artists—you are on a journey, circumnavigating the globe in real time as a 27-foot diameter blue ring slowly rotates around you.

Latitude is an unconventional map. From afar, the outer edge of the ring looks almost like fire or the corona of the sun, but on closer inspection recognizable silhouettes emerge: a mountain range, the Coliseum, a Shinto gate, a catamaran, a lofty pine tree. The radiating profiles are articulated on individual panels, and soon organize themselves into geographical coherence. The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain leads across the Mediterranean to Rome, Italy and so on to the Caspian Sea, North Korea, the Pacific Ocean, and the Rocky Mountains, finally ending—or beginning, depending on how you look at it—with Hartford, the only silhouette in gold leaf.

Latitude is also a kinetic timepiece. The ring turns at a glacial 0.7” per minute — just below the threshold of normal human perception — completing one rotation every 24 hours. Adjusted for scale, the sculpture is rotating at the same “speed” as the earth on its axis. Consequently,the silhouettes reflect their celestial position, as the apex of the ring marks the noon hour for whichever location is proximate. Hartford, reaching the summit at 12:00p EST and represented by three overlapping silhouettes, stands as a beacon that anchors the present time and place. Experiencing this work takes you on an imaginary journey, and though you may be standing in one place, time has moved on and location has shifted, as the silhouettes move before your eyes.

Similar to Verne’s writings and the work of traditional cartographers, Helmick and Schechter infuse their sculpture with a unique interpretation of location and its discovery. With Latitude, as with any map, there is subjectivity at play. Generally, we take maps to be the truth, but they are a version of the truth, reflecting the unique vision of the mapmaker, one that he hopes to make universal by sharing it with the public. This impetus is also in play inmost public art, as the artist shares his vision and makes it universally understandable. Perhaps this is why the map form works so gracefully in Latitude; it starts with Helmick and Schechter’s conception of time and place, expands it, and presents it to a public who will inevitably personalize it.

In 1988 the pop group R.E.M. recorded the song “Stand” whose chorus calls out to: “Stand in the place where you live / now face north / think about direction / wonder why you haven’t before”. With Latitude Helmick and Schechter certainly make us think of direction and location. However, it is time… time that brings forward our own sense of where we stand on the earth, wondering just how far we can travel in 80 days, or even 30 minutes.

Denise Markonish
Curator, Artspace
New Haven, Connecticut