The aurochs, deer and horses that have animated the cave walls of Lascaux for more than 17,000 years have begun to fall prey to bacteria. The odds of them lasting another 17 millennia are not the kind of odds you’d want to bet on.
But if you’re looking for visual imagery that will last until, and possibly beyond, the trump of doom, seek no further than a Quonset hut dubbed the “Wonder Building” in High Falls. That’s where Bob Schuler creates the quirky pictograms and primitive symbols that he chisels into cubes of granite – images that will remain, eons hence, nearly as pristine as the day they were graven in stone. The downside, if such it is, is this: not long after the cubes’ removal from the Wonder Building, they will cease to be visible to the discerning, delighted or dumbfounded eye. They will be stored in the permanent collection of the world’s oceans, buried at the bottom of the sea for what is likely to be forever.
Since 1977, Schuler has been engaged in what he calls the Tethys Project, which consists of designing, fabricating, and finally dropping his painstakingly chiseled blocks into the ocean depths. Sailing along a predetermined course, he jettisons one cube every hundred miles, and conceives of the project as making, in effect, a subterranean necklace around the world – an offering, perhaps, to the mythical Tethys, daughter of Gaia and Uranus, whom the ancient Greeks deified as the embodiment of the world’s waters.
Schuler’s maiden voyage, in 1986, took him and a motley crew of sensitive artists and crusty sailors across the Atlantic; he has since planted his granite canvases from Miami to the Galapagos Islands, and across the Caribbean and the Mediterranean. Now, at 87, and almost two decades removed from his last run, Schuler is planning the longest leg of his odyssey thus far, across 3,000 miles of open sea from the Galapagos to Tahiti.
“The older I get, the harder it is to quit,” he says. “Right now it’s desperation to finish that drives me, and I really have to work fast. But I can’t force the ideas; if I do, I get caught in a trap where I keep doing the same thing.”
If you’ve read this far, you’re probably asking one of two questions, if not both: “Is this guy compos mentis?” and “Is this project being funded with my tax dollars?”
Let’s answer the latter query first: It’s not. Specifically, it is not being funded by any government agency – not the National Endowment for the Arts, not the New York State Council on the Arts, not one cent of taxpayers’ money since the late ’70s. For the past 40 years, the full cost of purchasing the stones, having them cut, doing the sandblasting, fine chiseling, and painting, and chartering boats and hiring crews has come from small private contributions and from Schuler’s own pockets, mostly from money he saved and invested over his 18 years as an assistant professor of printmaking at SUNY-New Paltz.
“It’s so much more expensive now than when I first started chartering boats,” says Schuler, whose vessels have included a century-old Dutch double ender and a dilapidated Irish fishing boat, the Father Murphy. “But I have kept at it for the long haul, as they say. So it’s been a labor of love for an idiot.”
Which brings us back to the first question: Bob Schuler is not missing any screws. He is, however, obsessed – and to those who admire him, splendidly so.
“The Tethys Project is an important work of art by an important artist who wants to make a statement that goes beyond the ephemeral nature of so much modern art,” says Steven Kolpan, a friend and fellow artist. “I think Bob’s obsession has to do with making a mark, a lasting mark, that will serve as a cultural, aesthetic, and personal guidepost to the life of one person and to the greater life, and eventual death, of the world in which he lived.”
No, “ephemeral” is not a word we can apply to Schuler’s vision. “I think in terms of billions of years,” he says, “in terms of the life span of the universe. I’m not operating on the assumption that this is going to go into a gallery and be very hip. [This project] is the opposite of cell-phone culture, although I do include cell-phones and computers in some of the designs. It’s about the fact that I’m using an ancient means of cutting into a stone block, and hoping it’ll last.”
The 16-inch granite cubes, each weighing approximately 450 pounds, are quarried and cut in Barre, Vermont. “I tried some Canadian granite, and some from Georgia, but they were too closely grained, not as strong,” Schuler says. Working from preliminary sketches, he uses pneumatic drills to incise the cubes on five sides with cartoonish doodles and symbols, to which vibrant color is added to enhance their frenetic energy and childlike imagery. The sixth (bottom) side of each cube is “stamped” with the project’s name and the longitude and latitude at which it will be dropped.
A recent visit to the Wonder Building revealed 20 or so cubes in various stages of completion, gathered in clusters amid sandblasting tools and a stone-cutting machine. One sported a quote from Wallace Stevens: “Thought is false happiness.” Another bears the symbols for “all the basic physical constants from physics,” such as C for the speed of light, G for gravitation, etc. Yet another commemorates the catastrophic earthquake in Japan on March 11, 2011, using Hokusai’s “Great Wave” as an iconic symbol of nature’s power. The glyphs – wave, crushed villages, cooling towers – are very finely chiseled, although the more delicate the work, the less longevity it will have at ocean’s bottom. The paint that completes these images has a relatively short life span, too; the bright primary colors cannot survive geologic time, although the cubes themselves, according to oceanographers that Schuler has consulted, will last anywhere from 60 to 200 million years.
Ponder that time frame. No more Rembrandts, Renoirs, or Rauschenbergs; no Parthenon, Eiffel Tower, or Empire State Building. We might be tempted to exempt the pyramids or the Great Wall of China, but not if violent quakes, volcanic eruptions, or impacts from near-Earth objects take place at the right coordinates. But under the sea, safely ensconced in murky sediments, there will still be something wrought by human hands.
In Motel of the Mysteries, David Macauley’s classic spoof of archaeology and cultural chauvinism, a 20th-century motel is uncovered in the year 4022, providing all sorts of fodder for wrongheaded assumptions and mistaken conclusions about the society to which it belonged. Assuming that one or more of Schuler’s cubes will be unconcealed by time, tide and planetary upheaval, and that intelligent beings will be there to find them, what will such beings make of them?
I’m not sure, and neither is Schuler. But I can guarantee one thing: if they are creatures having something akin to a sense of wonder, the first question they ask will most assuredly not be, “Did someone actually fund this stuff?”
For more information and updates on Bob Schuler’s Tethys Project, visit https://tethysproject.org.