This book review was first published in the Lowell Sun on August 30, 2016. I recommend Geoff Dyer's books in general, including The Missing of the Somme and Another Great Day at Sea.
"White Sands: Experiences from the Outside World," by Geoff Dyer (Pantheon Books, 2016, $25)
By Paul Marion
The cultural critic Lucy Lippard describes the preserved sites and heritage displays in Lowell, Massachusetts, as "artworks," but ones that "diverge from the conventional museum and historical society." She says the story presentation is important because we "need to know others' histories." It's part Lowell being a highly charged place, one that can speak to us if we successfully plug in to the location.
In "White Sands," Geoff Dyer goes looking for meaning and to be moved by artworks and the residue of art-makers in places as different as Tahiti and The Watts Towers in California. He's on an eclectic tour of places animated by artists, from Paul Gauguin to Sam Rodia.
Given that Lowell has 500 or so visual artists and hundreds more musicians, dancers, writers, craftsmakers, actors, and other "creatives," Dyer's field reports should resonate especially well with those practitioners, not to mention the audience for creative work.
At "The Lightning Field" (1977), Walter De Maria's mile-sized rectilinear installation of 400 steel poles curated by the Dia Art Foundation in the New Mexico desert, Dyer and a few friends seek out what the unconventional sculpture is giving. And he it is almost ecstatic: "an intensity of experience that for a long time could be articulated only ... within the language of religion. The group is in awe."
In Utah, he tracks down "The Spiral Jetty" by Robert Smithson (1970), a stone spiral made at the Great Salt Lake, maybe the premier work of the Land Art movement of the '70s, of which Smithson was the foremost preacher. Again, an artist's intervention into a natural landscape turns up the vibe dial on the geographic site. These are major alterations at least in terms of what one person can do to the Earth. Dyer's lucid and evocative prose puts us in the scene.
Before he traveled to Tahiti, the author stopped at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts to see one of Gauguin's master works, "Where Do We Come From? Who Are We? Where Are We Going?" The vast painted lush vision of an ideal South Seas culture, with boldly colored foliage, women, and fruits was on loan at the time, but Dyer did see a copy in the Gauguin Museum in French Polynesia. I've seen the painting dozens of times. It's a favorite.
These questions are what Geoff Dyer is after in his stops along the curated way. His book becomes a four-star Acoustiguide in a museum without walls.