Alibi V.27 No.24 • June 14-20, 2018 

Culture Shock

New Classics

Otto Rigan's sculptural work and the art of endurance

Genesis
Artist Otto Rigan's large sculptural work, "Genesis," at Spaceport America near T or C
Otto Rigan

“My intent was that it couldn't be entirely earthbound. It had to make you want to lean back just a little bit to look up.” And so, Genesis—the massive steel sculpture at Spaceport America outside of Truth or Consequences does just that. Shaped as a colossal arc, the 11,000 pound, 40 foot long piece inlaid with cast glass reaches for the cosmos—a fittingly aspirational sculpture to welcome those headed to the world's first purpose-built spaceport, where one day visitors hope to set out to the stars on commercial space flights.

For Otto Rigan, the artist behind Genesis, whom I spoke with over the phone while he was home in Tucson, Ariz., designing work at the desert outpost seemed a natural fit. Rigan was born in the Mojave, moved to the Chihuahuan, and now lives in the Sonoran desert. He began to explain his relationship to the site where the spaceport sits like this: “I'm going to give you the peculiar story.” And so, he did.

Rigan didn't speak until he was more than 4 years old. Then, from the front door of his family home in Roswell, he said his first words—an actual, complete sentence: “I'm going to go across the street to see the rocket.” “It's not that I'm obsessed with this stuff,” he said—pointing to Roswell's history, his life lived in deserts across the US, the fact that he still fabricates the bulk of his pieces at New Mexico Travertine and their quarry in Belen, down to his very first utterance—“It just felt so damn familiar.”

Rigan began his artistic career as a painter, but he found architecture compelling and soon pivoted his focus after dwelling on the question, “What can you do that speaks abstractly to larger aspirations than the temporal?”

“As a spiritual belief,” he explained, “I believe everything is alive. A stone just happens to be alive very slowly.” Stone, and working with it as a medium—it's expansive lifespan—inspired Rigan. It soon became foundational both as material and concept, along with the idea of light, usually materializing in his work as glass. Light is exactly the opposite of stone, he told me, because it is often so fleeting. Yet, the two can, when melded together in work such as Rigan's, have the ability to turn a more powerful eye on what each represents. “If you put light inside of a rock,” he explained, “piercing the surface of something that you know to be as permanent as anything, then suddenly you've illustrated its life.”

Genesis incorporates these elements—steel mined from iron and ore, and pieces of glass arranged to create “a carpet of light,” as Rigan described it, along the interior bend of the sculpture. “Most of my sculpture, the forms are monolithic,” he explained, “but I wanted this thing to feel lighter and more soaring than that, because it had to address the idea of things going up.” He was inspired by several sites in India—like Jantar Mantar in Jaipur, built in the 18th century. Here, staircases ascend skyward, stone and marble structures measure shadow and track the celestial coordinates of objects in the sky through multiple classical systems. Today these structures endure not just as astronomical tools (“Jantar Mantar” actually translates to something like “calculating instrument”) but as art objects, too.

In all of his work, Rigan aspires to similar timelessness—something that will continue to have impact long after technology has moved beyond the usefulness of where the piece is situated. Especially when it comes to working with ideas around space, there is a certain tendency to lean on cliché—all chrome and polished metal. “When you’re trying to say something too specific,” Rigan said, “you run the risk of giving it a shelf life. It could look inappropriate in a few years. Whatever the concept is, in my opinion, it has to be reductive. Go through all the ideas you have about what it should be, then take away what you don't have to have, or anything too literal. My hope is that it can then stand the arc of time.” For Genesis, Rigan wanted to share the altitude, the transcendence of something in flight, “but not anything as cliché as just wings—something that had that feeling without being an illustration.”

“It is sort of satisfying,” he continued, “illustrating something that you feel.” And there is a tremendous amount of idea, feeling and concept underlaid in a piece like Genesis, and even coursing throughout Rigan's entire career. There are certain deep, abiding queries that Rigan seems to approach—questions on time, endurance and how we might look at something and be a part of it simultaneously. “To me,” he said of his work at Spaceport America, “it's not about space travel. I don't think that is going to do a lot for the proletariat—that wasn't the point at all. … For me, it wasn't superficial—it was the big ideas, what will last.”

Otto Rigan's work at Spaceport America is visible from the entrance of the private site. Tours of the facility are also available on weekends (see spaceportamerica.com/experience to book [though it seems to be down right now]). Follow the artist and hear about upcoming projects via his website, ottoriganstudio.com.