Harris, New York, seems an unlikely place for an art exhibition, especially one of the caliber of The Harris Observatory, by Philadelphia-based artist Richard Torchia. Situated in the southwest corner of the Catskills, in a landscape of dense forests dotted by small enclaves of boarded-up storefronts and factories, prisons, and fallen-into-disrepair summer cottages, many Jewish summer-camps with uncomfortable visual echoes of concentration camps, The Harris Observatory occupies a twenty-foot high geodesic dome building on the campus of The Center for Discovery, a residential and learning community for children and adults with significant mental and physical disabilities.
Torchia’s work over the past two decades uses the ancient optical phenomenon of the camera obscura to project exterior landscapes into interior viewing spaces, until now at a much smaller sale than this sprawling half-sphere. Generally, these luminous images are projected through lenses onto walls or other fixed surfaces (one of the most famous camera obscura, at the Greenwich Observatory outside London, projects the London City skyline onto a table top). Given that many of viewers of this exhibit will be wheelchair-bound, Torchia decided turn this limitation to his advantage and make the viewing screens small and portable, so that the observer is responsible for selecting one of the many views (each facet of the dome houses a small aperture, offering dozens of different views of the adjacent Catskills forests), and focusing it by moving the screen, a round translucent Plexiglass disk, closer or farther from the lens-in-wall opening.
By making the spectator an active participant in the installation, Torchia has only magnified the magic of the camera obscura while deepening our understanding of the optics involved. Birds perched outside are brought into the space in a kind of otherworldly projection that is neither video nor photograph, but somehow more gratifying than either, occupying a zone somewhere between microscope/magnifying lens and telescope/binoculars.
Snow on leaves in nearby trees has an immediacy it might not have even outside by being cropped and enlarged and literally held up in front of us for appreciation and contemplation.
Almost as if this weren’t enough, Torchia has removed part of the cladding of the dome and perforated it with small holes that are the representation of the constellations immediately above Harris, a rare chance to occupy the center of a planetarium and a reminder that light permeates space whether from fifty feet outside the window, or millions of light years into the cosmos.
Just outside the Center for Discovery a small road sign reminds us: New York – 89 miles. For an installation of this scale of wonder, that seems a small distance to travel, indeed.
The Harris Observatory in on view until March 3 (10 a.m. – 5 p.m.) or by appointment by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org. It is also the subject of this excellent short video by Noah Hutton.