In A Line Describing the Sun (2010) – a two-channel video documentation of a day-long performance by Brooklyn-based artist William Lamson – a wheeled apparatus is slowly rolled across the barren expanse of the Mojave Desert. A Fresnel lens (the type used in lighthouses), mounted to the structure, concentrates the sunlight into a single beam powerful enough to burn a charred line into the desert floor. Over the course of the day, Lamson traces the trajectory of the sun, leaving a giant, 111-metre mark in his wake.
Curated by Paul Young, in conjunction with Pierogi gallery in Brooklyn, A Line Describing the Sun has plenty of art-historical precedents (the title itself alludes to Anthony McCall’s 1973 A Line Describing a Cone and it follows firmly in the footsteps of established land artists). But it also has a more explicitly theatrical and narrative quality, which is largely due to Lamson’s presence on screen. Dressed in a straw hat, boots and goggles, he appears in the video as a Beckettian figure, somewhere between hero of the wild and deranged hobo.
The video marries the comedy of the single-minded with intensely rendered moving image. The soundtrack of sizzling earth accompanies a series of images that effectively alternate between close-ups of the apparatus, the burnt line and the relentless emptiness of the desert expanse. A Line Describing the Sun combines a preoccupation with the technicalities of the apparatus with a leavened sense of cosmic seriousness; Lamson appears as a figure of existential comedy.
That’s not to say the video doesn’t refer to both the weighty anthropological and art-historical lineage of mark-making; the purpose of Lamson’s apparatus is to transform the immaterial into the material, through the process of alchemy – a loose definition of one function of art. This alchemical magic is also echoed in the mechanics of film itself, another case of light hitting a lens, and one doubly relevant in this context because of the way in which Lamson’s video pays homage to the cinematic tradition of the American West. The movie clichés of the West – rugged individualism, wide open spaces, manifest destiny and the frontier – are nodded to, as are the subcultural narratives of everything from drug hallucinations in the desert to UFO sightings; if the landscape recollects a number of classic Westerns, it also calls to mind films ranging from Electra Glide in Blue (1973) to Paris, Texas (1984).
Out of deliberately simple means, Lamson creates something greater than the sum of its parts. But he also undercuts the notion of epic artistic endeavour, or the image of the artist as alchemist. This creates a tone that feels both effective and unique, and that circumvents cliché. And that’s while shooting in one of the most evocative, symbolically laden landscapes in the world: no small feat.