Chess: The Game of Life

Chris Walsh, Chess: The Game of Life, 2011. Chessboard made of Himalayan salt.In the small room immediately to your right as you enter the Main Gallery at Cornish College of the Arts, a small white platform sits low to the ground in the middle of the floor, on top of it a black disc and on top of that, a curious and beautiful object: a chessboard made of the oldest salt in the world.

The board is translucent pink, its surface pitted and stained with the traces of many games of chess played on it and video recorded. A camera projects exerpts from the games onto the wall behind the sculpture.

From outside the space I was not initially that visually compelled until I walked in and looked more closely and began to talk with gallery director, Cable Griffith. Not long into our conversation, I realized that Cornish student, Chris Walsh's piece is one of the most moving, rich and multi-dimensional, as in resonating on multiple levels of meaning, works of conceptual art I've encountered.

The salt was mined in the Himalayas, part of the earliest trade routes, connecting it to the I-Ching and chess, two of the earliest and most complex games and structures for thinking about life.

The games of chess are played using pieces cast in ice, one side's pieces clear, the other's colored with tea. Traces of tea stain the small craters where the pieces briefly rested, their melting hastened by the salt.

For me the piece imediately and most obviously spurred thoughts of war, the chessboard a field of battle scars, and the thought that this is what we have done with the materials and land we've been given - we have made war.

But the more I looked and thought and talked with Cable, the more I saw.

The diagonal movements of the bishop, he explained, coupled with the right-angle matrix of the rook or castle together dominate the board. It's a powerful symbol of two structures inherent in all cultures, the religious and the military, the first the result of an apparent need, born of fear and wonder at the mysterious universe, for a way to explain it, something to hold on to, or perhaps a welling up from within outwardly manifested as a system or code of some kind; the second a result of the need for defense or protection.

At the apex of these two, as I see it, stand politicians, symbolized by the king and queen, who attempt to hold both of these reins and manipulate them. Below them stand the people, the pawns, often used as such - the front lines, the first to go and as Cable pointed out, in this case, the first to melt.

It's fascinating to watch the players on the screen attempting to execute their strategies against a clock that is not an imposed device but the very real physical effect of salt and heat on ice.

As they make their moves, fingers clumsily break bits off pawns and knights, careful maneuvers giving way along with the chesspieces, plans melting and crumbling before the hard facts of physics.

This most complex and inexhaustibly rigorous of games, this courtly aggression of two minds pitted one against another, so expressive of human interaction of all kinds from sexual to intellectual to bellicose, gives way to a larger picture, to our relationship to nature, to the fact that nature will take its course whether we fight, battle, destroy, hasten destruction of woods, ocean, air and earth or not, and we with our clever and beautiful systems built and refined over so many years dwindling, evaporating, leaving perhaps only a dent in the pink salt.

Yet until that day comes, here we each stand and grow and build, and destroy and dream and explain, explore, create, devise, struggle and love and make our moves, grasping for a square to stand on and another to reach for, our legacy precious perhaps only to us, ultimately as fragile and easily dissolved as ice.

Chris Walsh is a student at Cornish College of the Arts. I have a feeling we'll be seeing more from him. His piece, Chess: The Game of Life, was a proposal for the collaborative space in the Main Gallery. Applicants submit an idea and apply for a $100 grant to help them excecute it.

The piece coincides beautifully with Game Theory, an exploration of the use of chance in art, curated by Cable Griffith. Game Theory is on view, with accompanying performances, through Ocotober 19, 2011.