An otherworldly installation landed within the courtyard of the regal Palazzo Isimbardi for this year’s Salone del Mobile, part of Milan design week. Approaching the sixteenth-century stately digs from the street, an 11-ft-tall mass of concrete seemed to swell out from its plein air center. But what appeared like a giant Brutalist spaceship waiting to beam up any Instagrammer who dared wander too close from the street becomes a whole new world from behind: an endless panorama of building and sky, willed into being by thirty-four panels of mirror-polished stainless steel. All Renaissance architecture one second and blue infinity the next, depending on where you stood, Open Sky is a liquid parallel universe created by American artist Phillip K Smith III in collaboration with British-Swedish label COS.
“Where I’m from in America, something built in 1955 is considered incredibly old,” explains the Palm Springs-based Smith. “We measure the passage of time more through the landscape than through built culture.” Known for his epic reflective installations in the eye-watering expanse of California’s deserts and beaches, Open Sky was Smith’s first experience with an urban context. “More than 400 years have passed [between the time that] this building was built and this installation was installed,” marvels Smith. “The contrast of natural and human history is so possible in Italy, and the passage of time is so evident.”
For COS, an interest in the sublime has been a part of their missive since the start. “It’s got a lot to do with a feeling that we seek out, whether that’s the surface of fabric or a spectrum of sensory experiences,” explains creative director Karin Gustafsson, who honed in on Smith in 2013 after seeing his trippy Lucid Stead installation (a mirrored shed bathed in neon) for the California art and music festival, Desert X. Knowing that the brand wanted to step outdoors for the 2018 Milan Design Week (marking their seventh year participating in the fair) Gustafsson saw an immediate parallel between the pure and elemental nature of Smith’s work and the ethos of COS: a shared interest in transcending, but also reflecting, the passage of time.
“Both brand and artist have taken a huge leap into the unknown territory of the great outdoors”
For their previous exhibitions in Milan, COS have made a precedent of collaborating with artists, architects, and interdisciplinary collectives––from New York-based Snarkitecture to the London-based Studio Swine––to create immersive experiences that resonate with the art and design lean of their aesthetic, not to mention the hyper-sensory baseline of trade fairs. In years past, these collaborations have seen the development of illusionistic and experiential projects that remained in the black box: most recently (and most literally) was New Spring with Studio Swine in 2017, which involved a “bubble room” of exploding mist bubbles inside a decommissioned cinema. Previously, COS stuck to the hulking warehouses of the Lamberta district, to cultivate that sort of industrial grit feeling you get in many an urban gallery or edgy retail outlet, but this year both brand and artist have taken a huge leap into the unknown territory of the great outdoors.
For Smith, what registered first as a constraint became an unprecedented opportunity. “What’s very different about this site is that it’s contained,” he explains. “It’s basically a 50 x 50 x 50 ft cube that’s open-ended on one side; the sky.” Smith’s standard technique of dealing with wide-open stretches of desert, ocean and beach is to create a work that responds to this epic scale by integrating the view. Physically, this translates into an alternation of reflective surfaces with negative space, as seen in his Quarter Mile Arc at Laguna Beach and The Circle of Land and Sky at Art Basel Miami Beach in 2017. With the extra element of the Palazzo’s architecture added into the mix, the horizontal expanse of the sky was challenged by the vertical expanse of the building. The resultant strategy was to narrow the gap between these reflective surfaces until it was virtually non-existent, effectively compressing the horizontal and vertical axes until they became a singular, continuous surface.
The upward arch of Open Sky—its panels tilted at a 43 degrees upward slant—pull the sky into the courtyard beneath it, where its infinite blue spectrum melds freely with the palazzo, causing its rock-solid historical weight to melt into a liquid reflection. The result is dynamic: you step two feet to the left and there’s sky; step to the right, and the architecture quite quickly folds into the stainless-steel reflection.
Playing around with the fun-house style installation—or finding the best selfie angle, depending on your priorities—quickly became a staple activity at the fair, whether that entailed losing your own body in the bizarre reflection or watching the sky slowly fade to black, while basking in the darkening halo of the almost-panoramic reflective surface. As I soon found out, the spectrum of experiencing Open Sky had a third axis—time—where the tendency to hang around the outer edges of the courtyard at first, before gradually entering into the installations semi-circular embrace, seemed a universal tendency.
“All the bodies in the installation rise up at once and in unison. Try as you might, it’s impossible to selfie in the singular”
While hanging around the installation on Thursday (three days after its debut) there were far more selfie-takers than day one. It is what Smith refers to as the “spectrum of familiarity,” or the human element to the work which keeps bodies out of the picture entirely the further back you stand. Once you enter into the crowd to capture that perfect selfie, all the bodies in the installation rise up at once and in unison. Try as you might, it’s impossible to selfie in the singular. When I push Smith on this collective self-imaging, he offers some beautiful insight:
“Using a reflective surface in today’s culture evokes an immediate emotional and physical response. We typically interact with this surface within the most intimate circumstances: in the bathroom or looking at yourself just before you leave the house. But in Open Sky, these surfaces aren’t strictly vertical; they’re not meant to show you. It’s quite the opposite. You only see yourself when you step all the way up to the edge of it, but even then, you’re a small fraction of the extreme presence of the sky that’s being pushed towards you the closer you get to that surface.”
Ultimately, Open Sky––as with the five reflective works installed throughout the palazzo’s English garden around the back––are about reflecting what’s above you and below you; what’s to the left or right. But more so, it’s about compressing all these unique visions and directions across one continuous surface. Like all of Smith’s work, it’s about re-stitching and re-collaging the environment you think you know—whether built or natural, man-made or organic—and pressing these samplings onto a single surface to uncover a new perspective. It’s about encountering the unexpected in a reflective surface: a spontaneous and alternative reality that counters the immediate need for (self) reflection in a mirror. “You may be part of it, but you’re not all of it,” says Smith of his new world in the sky.
All images courtesy the artist and COS. Photography by Lance Gerber.