The Logic of Mass

by Chris Livesay

1. Cornelia Parker, Mass (Colder Darker Matter) (1997)
Mass (Colder Darker Matter)
Cornelia Parker

The word “mass” elicits a host of images.  A mass of people just ran into the breezeway to escape the monsoon showers outside the building I type in.  Scores of people across the world are certain to be celebrating the Mass at this moment, in churches both tiny and massive in size.  Most fundamentally, there is mass in its scientific context, i.e. mass as the sum total of matter present in an object.   In all of these senses, Cornelia Parker’s Mass (Colder Darker Matter) acts as a perceptual and conceptual metaphor.

En Masse
The medium is sculpture and its materials are basic: string, wire, and debris from a Texas church struck by lightning during a thunderstorm.  The British artist collected the remains the following day while in residency at a nearby artist’s colony.  Thus, Mass is essentially a found object, or at least an arrangement of found objects with the same origins.  Parker arranges the found objects within a strict, self-imposed modular system in order to render the semblance of a cube 366 x 320 x 320cm.  Strings of equal length (366cm) hang from an aerial grid equidistant from one another.  The force of gravity makes each strand taut as it pulls on the affixed pieces of debris, debris that ranges in size from a penny or glass marble to carry-on luggage.  The smallest debris specimens delineate the perimeter of the cube while the size of the debris gradually increases towards the center.  It suggests a solid nucleus without ever realizing one; its deepest innards remain unbound to one another and are visible to the viewer.  Likewise, Mass suggests a solid cube without actually being one and without aspiring to such.  It is effectively an arranged, carefully thought-out gathering of debris particles en masse.

Celebrating the Mass
The Christian Mass is itself a gathering.  Parishioners assemble in a church to celebrate the liturgy of the Eucharist and a procession of sacraments.  Mass recalls this association in a number of ways.  The cuboid shape intimates the dimensions of a small room or a tiny building.  Its height from top to bottom strikes one as standard ceiling-to-floor height, and its width is adequate for a row of pews in a small chapel.  The medium is, after all, the remains of a church (albeit not a Catholic church, but Southern Baptist), complete with jagged nails and hinges enmeshed in wood-cum-charcoal.  They are a memento mori that points to something once here in its place—sobering artifacts of a cataclysmic event.

a close-up of Mass‘s
burnt shards of church

A church structure is a sort of artifact in that it refers to a larger institution of which it is a member.  The Catholic Church is not one church building, but rather an enormous nexus of smaller church units.  The sacrament they have in common is the sinew that at once links them together and gives them strength.  Like an artifact, a sacrament points to something larger and more significant than itself.  But unlike an artifact, which reflects human agency, the sacrament (the Mass) points to the Divine.  The idea of a church being struck by lightning may invite poetic musing: on one level, it looks like a cosmic punch-line of mythical proportions, worthy of Zeus or Thor, or a wrathful God of the Old Testament.  Parker’s reconstructed rubble memorializes the lightning bolt as much as, if not more than, the church itself.  If it is possible to depict an icon of iconoclasm, Mass achieves it.

Cold Dark Matter
Cosmological elements abound in the work.  Its parenthetical title Colder Darker Matter draws immediate attention to the theory of Cold Dark Matter and its parent theory The Big Bang.  Cold Dark Matter describes the origination of the universe as the result of a rapid expansion of matter that formed an extremely high state of density.  In its simplest form, the hypothesis states that “gravity caused cold dark matter particles to clump together.”  Subsequently, “primordial hydrogen and helium gas collected around these clumps” to form mass and eventually galaxies.  Without mass, the universe would be a sea of particles zipping around at the speed of light.  Such is the natural condition of any massless object.

Mass is the latticework of physical things.  It inexplicably arrests otherwise erratic particles of energy and assembles them with their counterparts to form solid bodies of matter.  Parker’s Mass aspires to the same.  By reassigning form to an obliterated mass of particles—the obliterated Texas church—Mass acquires the same credentials as our galaxies and cells, even our human bodies.  The effect is humbling.

The Physics of Mass
In his Principia, Isaac Newton describes mass as “[t]he quantity of matter and the measure of the same, arising from its density and bulk conjointly.”  That is, mass equals the total matter present in an object, and matter we know as anything one can touch.  Parker’s Mass deciphers this empirical fact by giving the viewer a model to work from—the totality of the sculpture suggests mass as such, while the suspended, individual components represent its building blocks.  To put it in Newtonian terms, the dangling chunks of charcoal amount to “the quantity of matter,” while conjointly they represent mass.

To call Mass “massive” would in some respects be a qualified statement.  In other respects it would be a misnomer.  It certainly occupies a fair amount of space—it dominates the entire south-east corner of the Contemporary Gallery at the Phoenix Art Museum.  The maneuver is justified given Mass requires both a variation of distance for the viewer to take in its enormity and a variety of angles to appreciate its complexity.  It is an engagement with the phenomenology of rooms.  Mass’s implied architectonic elements, i.e. walls, ceiling, and floor, translate the simple language of “roomness”  into non-stable, artistic conceits.

Mass is deceptively un-massive in its scientific understanding.  While large objects often have more mass than small ones, this is not categorically so.  For example, a beach ball has less mass than a human head.  And Mass has less mass than an automobile of similar spatial dimensions.  Mass is constituted of charred remains that weigh very little, and weight corresponds directly with mass so long as the object is earth-bound.  Gravity, for instance, pulls more forcefully on the astronaut’s head than the beach-ball when they are both near the beach at Cape Canaveral.  But once their space-craft lifts off and enters zero gravity, the conditions change.  Weight becomes a non-factor, but the object’s mass remains.  Since gravity plays a crucial role in the composition of Cornelia Parker’s sculpture, the concept is again useful.  Spatially, the sculpture is very massive.  But physically, most of its mass burned away the night of an electrical storm.  In this sense, the title is antonymic, but only insofar as it points toward the counterintuitive and, in many ways, paradoxical nature of mass, matter, and energy.

Structure of Mass
In Mass, each strand of suspended church debris dangles quietly and incessantly, as though a snap-shot image somehow remains kinetic before the viewer’s eyes.  Ventilation from the museum air-ducts flows within and without.  And gusts from the passers-by brush through its tendrils.  This interaction of sorts turns mass into a moving, living model.  It seems to breathe.  But why would a paragon for mass do so?

Mass, as I established above, is composed of matter.  But the model can be broken down further: matter is composed of molecules; molecules are composed of atoms; atoms are composed of subatomic particles (protons, neutrons, electrons); subatomic particles are composed of energy.  And here we arrive at what Einstein dubbed the Duality Paradox:  mass, at its most fundamental level, is composed of energy particles.  One is often unaware of or inattentive to this empirical reality until the moment of combustion when, for example, wood is set on fire.  During this process, its energy properties are made visible.  Such was the case as the Texas church burned.  And such is the case as those carbonized artifacts dangle from the ceiling, albeit in the form of a metaphor.  “In [Parker’s] work,” Adrian Searle opines, “objects are ordered according to eccentric typologies, and presented as diagrams as in four dimensions, in time as well as in space.”  By giving us a suspended, mobile diagram for mass, Parker dramatizes the duality paradox and Mass confronts the viewer with a recondite truth.

Mass Reconciled
In an unusually casual talk recorded for the Canadian Broadcasting Company, Claude Lévi-Strauss described what he saw as a schism between modern science and “mystical thought.”  Scholars like Bacon, Descartes, Newton and others built up their theories by opposing

the world of the senses, the world we see…and perceive; the sensory was a delusive world, whereas the real world was a world of mathematical properties which could only be grasped by the intellect and which was entirely at odds with the false testimony of the senses.

Lévi-Strauss goes on to remark that this separation was ultimately useful, given that during this time, scientific thought was able to constitute itself.  It essentially needed the elbow room.

Modern art has undergone a series of similar schisms.  From l’art pour l’art movements of the nineteenth century, to the arguments for art’s autonomy of the twentieth, “mystical thought” has teetered precariously in the mix.  In recent decades, minimal art stood out in cool, systematic contrast to the stylized chaos of its predecessor, abstract expressionism.  Artists like Sol LeWitt and Donald Judd did everything to make the artist’s hand untraceable.  Unlike Rothko or Pollock, every measure was taken to exclude individual personality factors.  Minimal art must be non-referential, self-contained, and non-emphatic.  Judd believed one of the benefits to this ideology was the riddance of “the problem of illusionism…which is riddance of one of the salient and most objectionable relics of European art.”  LeWitt’s work was described as “complex, multipart structures [that] are the consequence of a rigid system of logic.”  For all of its calculations, calibrations, and out-right aloofness, minimalism often seemed to favor the scientific to the “artistic.”

Floor Plan #4
Sol LeWitt
Donald Judd

Too many contrary elements abound to sustain the resemblance of Mass to minimalist pieces.  First, Mass is illusionistic: it gives us the illusion of a cube without actually being one.  Second, it is representational: its shape recalls the church from which it was (re)constructed, and its composition represents the properties of mass.  Whereas minimalism seeks to enforce the boundaries of a “‘thing-in-the-world’ separate from both maker and observer,”  Mass achieves precisely the opposite—it reconciles the “thing-in-the-world” with maker and observer.  It negotiates the schism between the mystic and the scientific.

I have spent the duration of this essay outlining moments in Parker’s work that are analogous to other physical examples in the universe.  The metaphors I underscore co-operate with the invariant elements among a few superficial differences.  Such methodology may incite controversy.  “No object implies the existence of any other,” said Hume.  But by naming her piece Mass (Colder Darker Matter), Parker implies some kind of order to deciphering her work.  Thus, I find interpretation unavoidable and the compulsion to locate meaning warranted.  I close with Lévi-Strauss:

If this represents a basic need for order in the human mind and since, after all, the human mind is only part of the universe, the need probably exists because there is some order in the universe and the universe is not a chaos.


To be precise, the term is a refinement of the Big Bang Theory. To better understand its finer points, see Richard Morris, Cosmic Questions: Galactic Halos, Cold Dark Matter, And the End of Time (New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1993).
Richard Morris, Cosmic Questions: Galactic Halos, Cold Dark Matter, And the End of Time (New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1993): 109.
A. Seiden. Particle Physics: A Comprehensive Introduction (London : Addison-Wesley, 2005).
Isaac Newton. Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Londini: apud Guil. & Joh. Innys, 1687).
My model is admittedly generic and unrefined, but its simplicity is necessary for the intents and purposes of what is predominantly an essay on abstract art. For a better understanding of the composition of mass, I direct the reader to Rusty Myers’ The Basics of Physics (Publisher Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2006).
Albert Einstein. Relativity: The Special and General Theory (New York: Pi Press, 2005).
Claude Lévi-Strauss. Myth and Meaning. (New York: Schocken Books, 1979): 5.
Claude Lévi-Strauss. Myth and Meaning. (New York: Schocken Books, 1979): 6.
Donald Judd, “Specific Objects.” 1965.
Mel Bochner, “Serial Art, Systems, and Solipsism.” 1967.
Mel Bochner, “Serial Art, Systems, and Solipsism.” 1967.
Claude Lévi-Strauss. Myth and Meaning. (New York: Schocken Books, 1979): 13.

3 thoughts on “The Logic of Mass”

  1. Congratulations!
    This guy knows where it’s at, and now we do too. Exposition is clear and precise, the sources relevant, and the subject curious. It might have been a good idea to make a point that “mass” and the Catholic “Mass” are etymologically different things with hardly a link between them.
    Mr. Livesay’s writing is dangerously close to being more interesting than the material he analyzes. Let us hope, however, that the artists will nevertheless be interested in asking him to review their works in the future.
    Thumbs up for Mr. Livesay!

  2. Though ‘Mass’ and “mass” are indeed of different etymological origins, the artist herself must have been keenly aware of the connection made upon using the remains of a church. It seems clear to me Cornelia Parker chose her title very deliberately, and Mr. Livesay is not the first to suggest the connection (though perhaps first in text).

    I personally found the comparison to Judd’s work startling, not in content but in inclusion. Had there been some connection made earlier on in the essay, I could’ve been prepared. As it stands, the comparison to Judd’s work, which Mr. Livesay determines hold little water, leads me to question why the comparison need be made at all. With 30 years between Judd and Parker, it’s no surprise that they don’t resonate.

    Judd doesn’t hold a monopoly on cubes, as far as I’m aware most geometries are public domain. The work has so much going on within itself, it doesn’t necessarily need to be pit against a ‘classic.’

    Great work!

  3. This is an intriguing matter. When one looks at MASS and mass from a God-centered, Christ-centered, providential way, it is easy to see that while etymology might not support a close connection, every other method of relating the two meanings of the word mass DOES.

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