Looking for the Bright Rectangle

by: Steve Tignor | January 31, 2013

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SYDNEY—What do we like so much about seeing sunlight cover a baseball diamond or a soccer pitch or a tennis court? It might have to do with the way the field of play grabs something that's normally elusive, organizes it, and reflects it back to us in a way that we can understand.

I keep this theory in mind each summer in New York when I get to my tennis club for the first time and find the courts shining in the sun. It’s as if they’ve taken all of the light for themselves and left none for anything else. I thought the same thing this month during the Australian summer, on the days when the sun was out and it blazed across Rod Laver Arena.

You’ve almost certainly seen photos taken from the catwalk at the top of Laver, with the Melbourne skyline in the distance. Inside, the narrow way the light is framed—the backs of the court are left in shade—is also striking. Surrounded by dark, the brightness in the middle of the court is intensified. Sometimes it seems that the heat is as well. On hot days, those with the misfortune of sitting in the sun will fan themselves relentlessly, while the rest of us wonder what their problem is. It doesn't feel so hot to us.

The subject of bright rectangles popped into my mind at another spot in Melbourne this time. Late in the tournament, when the number of matches each day dwindled to one, I managed to break free of my usual orbit—hotel, café on the corner, tennis courts—and walk the dozen or so blocks to the National Gallery of Victoria art museum. The NGV has two locations near each other, but I had only been to the newer, less appealing version. It turns out all I had to do was turn one more corner to find the much more impressive International building.

On the way there I walked through the Fitzroy Gardens, a regally landscaped green rectangle of its own in the heart of the city, home to local layabouts and camera-wielding tourists. Without tennis to focus on, my mind suddenly bounced all over the place. It slipped and skipped from bad memories to irrational anxieties as if blown by the same wind that was bending the trees in the park. As Philip Larkin wrote, "Walking around the park/Should feel better than work"—except that, to minds accustomed to being occupied, it often doesn't.

This is the curse of the solo traveler. With no routine to fall back on, no work to worry about, no appointments to keep, none of the brain’s regular boundaries in place, it can run wild. That can be liberating for a time—everything you’re taking is new. It can also be wearying. Montaigne said that he hated to leave his mind alone, because left to its own devices it would dredge up “monsters from the deep." He also said we shouldn’t be surprised by its unruly fluidity. Everything, including us, is liquid, is in flux. We would understand that better if time were sped up and we could see the changes—in weather, in the seasons, in what the years does to all surfaces—happen in front of our eyes. Routine and a desire for the familiar is the defense we build against all of this.

(Not that absolutely everything is unfamiliar to an American in Australia. You’d think we’d feel right at home in a place that runs our sitcoms 24/7; where the locals refer to our Secretary of State as “Hillary” and voice approval of her new glasses; and where the sides of buses are currently adorned by the Kardashian sisters.)

I visited both versions of the NGV that afternoon. The best art was at the International, but the most memorable moment, to borrow a sportswriting cliché, came at the new site, at an exhibit of photographs by Canadian artist Jeff Wall. I knew immediately, when I turned the corner and saw the first piece, a giant work entitled “The Destroyed Room,” that I was in for something good (as you might be able to guess, that's it at right). Wall’s photos are oversize transparencies mounted in lightboxes, so they glow from the inside. It was the sunlight-on-a-tennis-court effect in reverse. Here was the world, as composed by Wall, fit into a rectangle, where you could understand it, and where my brain could find a focus after its wanderings.

This was true for all of the art I saw at the NGV. It was true of the Neo-Impressionist and contemporary paintings at the International building. What can you do with the surface of a rectangle? The idea was simple, but the possibilities infinite. The paint or the photo organized space and made it understandable. It gave the mind a boundary. Figuring out what's going on, on the surface of the artwork or on the surface of the court, is where the fun is.

Tennis is also absurdly simple: Hit a ball back and forth on a rigidly marked-off court that never changes shape or size. But the possibilities, from player to player and match to match, are infinite. For both of these reasons, the end of the Australian Open, like the end of every Grand Slam for me, is bittersweet, and maybe it has been for you, too. 

On the one hand, after two weeks, I’d had enough of watching a ball cross a net. Just as, by the time I explored the two Melbourne museums, I’d had my share of staring into painted rectangles for the time being. (As much as I liked everything else, nothing hit me with the force of that first photograph by Wall.)

On the other hand, I've stayed in Sydney for a few days after the tournament; with lots of time for the brain to run wild, I've felt that familiar traveler’s psychological vertigo. I’ll look forward to seeing those rectangles again. Sunlight or no sunlight, the world inside the lines is a place I can understand.

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