A site-specific commission, Rita McBride’s Particulates is housed in a dark concrete warehouse, next to the Dia Art Foundation Chelsea offices. The sign on the door warns “DO NOT ATTEMPT TO MAKE CONTACT WITH ANY LASER BEAMS!!” I go during the last week of its eight-month long run, with the impression that an air-conditioned gallery would be a welcome break on a hot summer day. I was mistaken—the first thing any viewer notices upon stepping inside is the oppressive humidity. Heavy mist hangs in the air like in a greenhouse, and while no plants are growing here, something is very much alive. Sixteen green laser beams stretch across the room, piercing through what the artist calls “site-specific particulates, ambient extraterrestrial dust, and water.” Specifically, this is marble dust, a highly reflective material conveniently already plentiful in the building from its past as a marble-cutting facility. The result is spellbinding—the geometric tangle of shimmering light gyrates as if it has a mind of its own. McBride says in an interview in Artforum, “As an artist, I rarely have the feeling that, wow, this thing is bigger than me—not in the sense that it’s 170 feet long, but that every decision made seemed predetermined and inevitable.”
The barrier structures keeping the lasers out of reach were also a product of inevitability and practicality. United States law dictates that no one can be closer than six feet away from the lasers, which emit low-level radioactivity. At first glance, the barriers look just like the standard crowd control tools all over the city. McBride designed and fabricated Barriers (2017) to be slightly more Victorian and customized to the site, and these structures do more than just aesthetic work. Their presence guides you through the room, silently manipulating the way each viewer interacts with the piece. Particulates is also McBride’s response to a Dan Flavin sculpture at Dia:Beacon, untitled (to you, Heiner, with admiration and affection) (1973). That work is a grid of green fluorescent lights, which blocks anyone from crossing the room and bathes the viewer in its eerie glow. Separated into two halves, Particulates and Barriers are different means to a similar end, one where the audience is kept at a distance.
Active since the mid-80’s, McBride is known for her architecturally influenced sculptures, which both embrace and challenge the visual vocabularies of the Minimalist and Modernist movements. Her most famous work, Mae West (2006), is a 52-meter tall egg cup shaped structure crafted from one sheet of polymer. Installed in Munich, the sculpture stands directly overhead the public tram system, meaning countless commuters have traveled through McBride’s hyperboloid “wormhole.” The artist frequently works with this specific form, which she views as a connection between distant regions of space-time. Formally and algebraically speaking, the surface of a hyperboloid is made of planes that intersect into hyperbolas, with three perpendicular axes and planes of symmetry. While incredibly precise, the result is more magical and transcendent than sterile. Particulates is a work of science fiction fleshed out in reality. It’s not such a great leap to imagine it as a place where time stops, or where time travel is possible.
Speaking to the writer John Reed for Bomb Magazine, McBride says this of the relationship between art and science: “I want to go back to a time before hard lines and divisions, when art and science were joined in alchemy because when an idea transcends any category there is a confluence of elements that are far beyond anything tangible. When I look at Particulates, I am in awe that something like this materialized from limited designs and capacities. I was only bringing a possibility into the perception of a particular community. It obviously transcends itself. This should happen in science, right?”