Standing at the Center of the Earth
An artist's overview of Capital's unique
and kinetic timepiece.
Jules Verne often wrote about ideas of
travel, from Journey to the Center of
the Earth’s fictional quest to find a new
world beneath our planet’s surface, to
the ultimate travelogue of Around the
World in 80 Days. With their kinetic
sculpture Latitude, the artist team of
Ralph Helmick and Stuart Schechter
invite us on a similar journey, offering an
experience in which we simultaneously
stand at the center of the earth and feel
like we’re traveling around it.
In embarking on this voyage, who
would imagine that Hartford, Connecticut
would feel like the center of the earth?
In fact, it may take a moment to orient
oneself in the greater scheme of this
work. Physically, you are in Hartford, at
41° 7’ north latitude, standing in the
soaring five-story atrium of Capital
Community College. However, in your
mind—and the mind of the artists—you
are on a journey, circumnavigating the
globe in real time as a 27-foot diameter
blue ring slowly rotates around you.
Latitude is an unconventional map.
From afar, the outer edge of the ring
looks almost like fire or the corona of the
sun, but on closer inspection recognizable
silhouettes emerge: a mountain range,
the Coliseum, a Shinto gate, a catamaran,
a lofty pine tree. The radiating profiles are
articulated on individual panels, and soon
organize themselves into geographical
coherence. The Guggenheim Museum in
Bilbao, Spain leads across the Mediterranean
to Rome, Italy and so on to the
Caspian Sea, North Korea, the Pacific
Ocean, and the Rocky Mountains, finally
ending—or beginning, depending on how
you look at it—with Hartford, the only
silhouette in gold leaf.
Latitude is also a kinetic timepiece. The
ring turns at a glacial 0.7” per minute —
just below the threshold of normal human perception — completing one rotation
every 24 hours. Adjusted for scale, the
sculpture is rotating at the same “speed” as the earth on its axis. Consequently,the
silhouettes reflect their celestial position,
as the apex of the ring marks the noon
hour for whichever location is proximate.
Hartford, reaching the summit at 12:00p
EST and represented by three overlapping
silhouettes, stands as a beacon
that anchors the present time and place.
Experiencing this work takes you on an
imaginary journey, and though you may
be standing in one place, time has moved
on and location has shifted, as the silhouettes
move before your eyes.
Similar to Verne’s writings and the work
of traditional cartographers, Helmick and
Schechter infuse their sculpture with a
unique interpretation of location and its
discovery. With Latitude, as with any map,
there is subjectivity at play. Generally, we
take maps to be the truth, but they are a
version of the truth, reflecting the unique
vision of the mapmaker, one that he
hopes to make universal by sharing it with
the public. This impetus is also in play inmost public art, as the artist shares his
vision and makes it universally understandable.
Perhaps this is why the map
form works so gracefully in Latitude;
it starts with Helmick and Schechter’s
conception of time and place, expands
it, and presents it to a public who will
inevitably personalize it.
In 1988 the pop group R.E.M. recorded
the song “Stand” whose chorus calls out
to: “Stand in the place where you live
/ now face north / think about direction
/ wonder why you haven’t before”.
With Latitude Helmick and Schechter
certainly make us think of direction and
location. However, it is time… time that
brings forward our own sense of where
we stand on the earth, wondering just
how far we can travel in 80 days, or even
New Haven, Connecticut