There’s something exhilarating about well designed transport hubs. Proper signposting, tall windows or glass rooftops that allow for maximum use of daylight, and large, open spaces that can be overseen at a glance, give the traveler a sense of time and place at a moment where he is most likely to feel abandoned by any hope, good will and understanding.
When I first visited the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, I had a similar sensation. As it had just been reopened, the building was heaving with visitors. I was at the end of my tour, longing to catch a breath in a place a little less peopled. And then, suspended from the ceiling in one of the rooms of the old building, I stumbled across a mobile by Alexander Calder.
Alexander Calder, Suspended Composition of Small Leaves (Four Red Spots) 1948
I had never seen a real life Calder before. And there it was, gently carving its way through the air. I felt curiously relieved. There were still plenty of people around, but somehow at once the atmosphere of the room seemed less dense.
Now, I could say this was a spiritual experience, whatever that might mean. Or that Calder’s mobile offers refuge, comfort, or consolation, for feeling stuck in a place that I was increasingly desperate to get out of. Or less dramatically: that the work was calmly greeting me, literally turning its body towards me as I entered the room. But all that sounds a little bit sentimental. Also, it would be missing the point. Because Calder’s mobiles are profoundly unsentimental. They do not represent anything. They are resolutely abstract. The painted aluminium ‘leaves’ of the mobile on display at the Stedelijk are called that because there is simply no better word to describe them. As Jean Paul Sartre said, Calder “most of the time (…) imitates nothing, and I know no art less untruthful than his. Sculpture suggests movement, painting suggests depth or light. Calder suggests nothing. He captures true, living movements and crafts them into something. His mobiles signify nothing, refer to nothing other than themselves. They simply are: they are absolutes.”
If Calder’s mobiles are ‘about’ anything, they are about the distribution of force. How bodies, all kinds of bodies, active, inert, strong, weak, heavy, light, affect each other, invisibly, by carving their presence into the air. Just like they would at say, a train station. The mobiles position themselves relative to the viewer looking at them, and urge him to take position as well.
A couple of weeks later, I decided to take another look. This time, no crowds. I sat down on the bench across from the mobile, watching its horizontal body flattening and widening at each gentle turn. As a tour group rushed in, literally causing a stir, the mobile started moving faster, to finally calm down after the group had left.