In a large, clean room are 75 bars of polished stainless steel laid out in rows on the floor. They form a glistening geometrical pattern which fills the space with its presence. Faceted and glittering, the metal bars reflect the light, and can seem to hover weightlessly above the grey concrete. Seen from various angles, a range of different shapes, movements and directions can be detected in the pattern. Above the bars a nearly tangible tension field arises and fills the room.
So this is the Computer Which Will Solve Every Problem in the World. It is nothing like a computer, in fact. No chips, no hard disc, not even a cable in sight. Instead it is pure geometry, proportion and beauty. Designed in 1984 by the New York artist Walter de Maria (b. 1935) for this 40 by 40 meter hall in Rotterdam's Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum, the sculpture is rarely exhibited due to its size and its specificity to this hall. At the moment it is the key work of the exhibition "SHINE! Wishful Thinking and Visions of the Future in Contemporary Art," which remains on view till Apr. 21, 2003. (Among the other artists with works in "Shine" are Paul Cox, Martin Creed, Jeroen Eisinga, Daan van Golden, Christian Jankowski, Rince de Jong, Liza Lou, Tracey Moffatt, Saskia Olde Wolbers, Roman Opalka, Gerco de Ruyter, Maria Roosen, Fiona Tan, Henk Tas, Fred Tomaselli, Dr Wapenaar.)
Closer inspection reveals more of the mathematical logic of De Maria's sculpture. Three three-sided bars form the first row, four four-sided bars the second, five five-sided bars the third, and so on, until in the tenth row the bars attain a 12-sided shape and are nearly round. While the distance between the rows always remains exactly one meter, the distance between the bars slightly increases from row to row, resulting in a subtle curve in the field.
Beauty resulting from numerical logic -- is this the solution of every problem in the world? De Maria's "computer" creates an artificial world full of harmony that stands in contrast to the chaos of reality. Proportionality and order reign in the museum hall, but in order to grasp the underlying complexity of the work, you have to walk around the floor sculpture, look at it from different angles and even count the bars. The metallic puzzle has to be transformed into dry figures before it reveals its perfect beauty.
So, will this Minimalist computer solve every problem? There's enough to do at the moment (give world economy a prod, make peace in the Middle East). But it won't. After all, its title is formulated in future tense. De Maria doesn't claim that the computer can actually solve any problems. He just claims that it will, some day.
In this sense the computer sculpture belongs to the long tradition of mankind's dreams, such as the perpetual motion machine, the fountain of youth or the philosophers' stone. It is part of the endless romantic search for panacea and wonder machines. At the same time it is an ironic allusion to modern man's unconditional belief in technology and his hope that the computer, which in the end is just an adding machine, will perform wonders.
But the sculpture doesn't give any answers. It offers an artificial ideal, which reality can try to attain -- but never will. After all, the future tense excludes that the computer will ever fulfill its task: It is a beautiful, but eternally unkept promise.
ANNEKE BOKERN is a German freelance journalist and lives in Amsterdam.