Throughout history, measuring instruments have helped us make sense of our environment. Ancient civilizations used body parts to indicate length while relying on celestial bodies to tell time. With the introduction of more uniform measuring systems, the world was able to fall into place and quantify anything at any scale, from the smallest bacteria to entire planets. But what about measuring the intangible things that also inform our life? Can feelings be counted? Can our souls be appraised? That's the idea artist Rick Salafia drew from to create his evocative Instruments series.
Comprising metal pieces that resemble conventional rulers bent out of shape, the Instruments series speaks to something larger. “This project seeks to create tools to measure the unmeasurable concepts that are woven into our lives—that we engage with as if they are measurable. The value of a human life. The weight of grief. The levels of anxiety we might experience when faced with something we think we shouldn’t be anxious about,” Salafia tells My Modern Met. “Each of us has a different way to calibrate these things. The project is a way of exploring our attempts to standardize those experiences.”
As starting point for each design, Salafia takes into account three aspects that make up a ruler—the shape, the hashes (increments), and the markings (numbers). From there, the artist jumps into exploring the subjective nature of the way we measure things that are difficult to quantify. “To measure these things, we must use the thing itself, which can’t be done,” he explains.”So, the fundamental concept is that we all have different ideas about what any quantity is (a gallon, a meter, a sufficient amount of empathy for others) and I set out to create a visual equivalent of that concept.”
To further explain this idea, the artist speaks about a specific instrument. “I was recently asked if I was going to be making a ruler that measured despair, which is exactly the kind of problem I want to solve. So, I think of each piece both in visual and metaphoric terms. For example, #20 resembles an analog clockface but is also a metaphor for the interrelationship between time and space. The shape of Instrument #23 is extracted from a cloud but also speaks to the way happiness is associated with sunshine (or lack thereof).”
But not everything follows this process. “There are a few that depart from this method in favor of a reflexive relationship between the function of measurement and the devices we invent to accomplish that task. What I mean by that is I want to turn the viewers' attention to the standards we use to judge the people and things we encounter, which we often are unaware of.”
Salafia began working on this series in 2020. The first piece was the same size and shape as a standard ruler but one where numbers and the increments appeared to “fall” from their assigned positions, collapsing into a pile at the center of the rule. Now, Salafia is working on sculpting his Instrument #198 and has a dozen digital drawings ready to be translated onto aluminum.
Each piece of the Instruments series is made of aluminum alloy in limited editions of three, which Salafia then cuts, files, and engraves by hand. Typically, creating one of these designs can take from a week to 10 days, although the drawings can take longer as he makes variations of each. More complex designs, such as curved ones or pieces with several line engravings, can also extend the process. The artist adds, “In the end, I would like it to be clear that when I make one of these, I am attempting to be as accurate as possible, yet upon close inspection every piece reveals inaccuracies that in turn reveal the subjective perceptions that override the attempts to quantify an object or experience.”
Ultimately, establishing the details of each artwork is what truly speaks to the complexity of the concept. “Determining the shape of each ruler is a process of trying to come up with a metaphor for the ways in which we evaluate and judge the people and things that we encounter,” he states. “What's the difference between something being ‘very beautiful' and something being ‘especially beautiful'? The more specific I can make a ruler, the more likely it is to break free from the generic application of translating the language of space into the language of numbers.”