Art in the City Sky: Interview with Janet Echelman

Art in the City Sky: Interview with Janet Echelman

In 2012 sculptor Janet Echelman (LF 2008) was named an Innovator by Architectural Digest for "changing the very essence of urban spaces." Her massive installations are at once monumental yet fluid, their vibrant colored surfaces shimmering and undulating in the wind.

Measuring 230 feet across, 1.26 is a stunning fiber sculpture first displayed at the Biennial of the Americas, held in Denver in 2010. The piece has subsequently traveled to Sydney, Amsterdam and will soon alight in Singapore. Echelman spoke to writer Eli Kintisch about 1.26 and the role her works play in urban spaces.

 echelman  1.26, Denver 2010EK: In the case of 1.26 you were asked to create a monumental yet temporary installation. You’ve called that a new paradigm, since the lightweight material that makes up the piece allows it to be moved around. 

JE: It's a new model for mobilizing a community in a place to contemplate. New developments in fiber technology have made new things possible. With 1.26, I began using a material made by Honeywell called Spectra that is more than 15 times stronger than steel. Having that strength in a fiber allows me to make delicate lightweight structures that are able to carry the wind loads my sculpture need to sustain, up to the force of a hurricane or intense storm, even the loads of snow and ice. 

Before my sculptures used to require rigid steel armatures – I used the people that make roller coasters to curve my big steel armatures. The model came from nature-- a skeleton draped with a skin. What happened was that when I wanted to make a more complex shape, I just couldn’t do it with steel, because you lose so much strength when you introduce a bend that deviates from, say, a circle, like my first big urban project, in Portugal. After that, as I wanted to make more complex curving forms, each time I wanted make a bend, it would require me to make everything so much heavier and thicker. So much so that it distracted from the overall feeling of lightness that I was seeking. It meant that I couldn't make the shapes I wanted to if I was going to continue using steel armatures. 

It occurred to me that I was able to give up the steel skeleton altogether, and use a soft grid to hold my geometry. I started looking at models from nature, like what spiders do. I learned they have different kinds of silk - one that is stronger in structural capacity that they use for the structural elements, the ones which sort of cut across the circle. And when they connect in between those, they use a thinner, lighter silk. In a way, that's what I've started to do, where I'm picking certain structural elements and making them with these ultra-strong fibers like Spectra. Then the other fibers I select according to the properties I need, like color, softness, cost, recyclability, and so forth. 

This is very exciting, because as a sculptor, for the first time I know of in history, I have materials and methods that enable me to create forms that are at this monumental scale yet able to remain delicate. For centuries artists have pushed their cultural language through the development of new technology. These new fibers have allowed me as an artist to engage people in the city by creating art in the sky.

EK: I want to talk about the role that such art plays in cities. This piece connects continents, as it can be moved and placed in different cities. But it also occurs to me that it connects people within a city.

JE: It's about using the empty space between things and seeing it as a positive space.  Usually the space around buildings, above the street and between buildings and underneath highways is not seen at all, it's kind of invisible. I'm seeing that space between things and seeing it as a volumetric whole, like a spatial envelope. And I sculpt in that airspace.

When 1.26 was installed in Sydney, lots of people first encountered it as they came up from the underground subway station. I watched everybody coming out of the subway, looking up, and suddenly they were all whipping out their phones taking photos. There's something about discovering the unexpected in a place that is completely public and accessible. Everyone feels entitled to walk on the street. And there's something compelling to me about placing art in the most ordinary and mundane space. I think there's great value in stopping us in our tracks as we are rushing through our daily life in cities, and having us look up, up at the sky, and having a moment of contemplation. 

EK: Your work seems to play off ideas. 1.26, for example, draws on data showing that the 2010 earthquake in Chile shortened the length of a day on earth by 1.26 microseconds.

JE: I think the way my work affects people most is on a deeply emotional level, a human level.  I think it's first about sensation, and later about comprehension. That said, I think it's pretty cool that we can give an idea a visual form. 1.26 is a great example of that, exploring the idea that we are all interconnected. I was searching for a physical phenomenon that embodied that idea, when I learned about NASA’s scientist who measured the impact of the earthquake on the earth’s rotation. Once I’d found the right metaphor, it was about turning that into a visual experience. I think the most powerful or lasting impact of my work is each person’s individual experience of being in the space, being underneath it as billows, and reflects the choreography of each passing current of air.

Eli Kintisch is contributing correspondent at Science magazine and journalist in residence at Rhode Island School of Design. He was a Knight Fellow at MIT 2011-2013. He was a Knight Fellow at MIT 2011-2013.

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