If a cow and a deer got into a stupidity contest, it's unclear who would win, and what they would win. Still, to a deer, a wall can be had. Humans seem perpetually surprised by what's stored in the haunches of a deer. A cow will pretend a wall isn't there, but that involves strict and obsequious observation of the wall. The cow can't recall the content of its legs. Unorganized sand. Or, organized sand—the results are the same.
When an artist decides to make a fence or an outdoor wall, you can be sure that the effort is not to keep in or keep out. He or she will make a wall about walls. It might be fashioned from inappropriate material, such as hair, cardboard, or a conglomerate of recyclables. Or the wall might be made of plaster and then eaten by the artist. The wall might have embedded messages about border conflicts. It might be trained to move when the viewer least expects it. A rule of thumb: in art, there must always be a surprise. She could build the wall into the side of the hill so that it disappears unless you seek it out, run your fingers across its many names.
There is a wall in a well-acred sculpture park bordering the far end of the property. First you view primary color steelworks that could only have been created by a crane and a mind that does not believe in miracles. Though this mind does not mind appearing miraculous. Then a sculpture that looks as if it's survived a burn, wood so dark and scarred it seems to have become conscious. It makes you think of dead industries, the holds of slave ships, mine shafts, textile factories that went up with one spark in the cotton-dust air. Another piece you walk on before you know it's art, then, startled, leap to the side.
Beyond the point where many can't or won't continue walking is the wall. It is made of ordinary masonry, the kind of wall one might find between fields, keeping domestic animals from one another. But it doesn't do what a wall should do because it's a wall about walls. It trails in and out of the tree line; though solid, it moves like a brook; occasionally, it ceases to exist—the mind perceives the absence while the eye finds the missing stones and taps them into place.
In the sculpture park, the visitor is not encouraged to walk into the surrounding woods. At dusk, the deer, who require no invitation, sample the grasses in the hill troughs, sometimes climb to the tops on spindly ankles. They look like lawn ornaments. They compose a photograph that would be classified as either ironic or “nature,” pretty and possibly sentimental.
Nightfall, when the deer leak through the gaps in the wall, dark drop by drop, you drain the other way, into the woods. Quickly you lose light. There was so much deliberation on the other side; here there is none, though there is surprise: bark turning into moth, hill that is anthill, spider web across the face. Through the night you hear sounds that reference other sounds.
And in the morning, where are the deer? Not in the fields, though you can see the swirls they've made in the grass here and there, like cowlicks on a fine head of hair. Their ribcages are larger than you can fit your arms around. But there are other means to mastery: You could ask a hunter for the carcass, dry the bones, flesh stinking no longer than you'd expect. Failing a hunter, you could make a cage of deer ribs with plaster or resin or wood and place something unexpected inside: headlines of war arranged in collage; a leafy houseplant tucked into an artificial trunk that trails down the spine to the ground; a video screen the size of a heart that loops footage of deer springing through a field.
You can see the bright yellow architect's remnant in the distance. A physics lesson painted caution. You have things to do. The parking lot, your Toyota pickup, is on the opposite side of the park. But your feet are sandbags. You can't cross the stone wall, even where it is no longer a wall, only a suggestion of a wall.
If there were a video screen where your heart should be, what would it loop?
This piece is based on a visit to Storm King, a sculpture park in the Hudson Valley. Chief among the things that stuck were Maya Lin's hills and Andy Goldsworthy's wall.