JANET ECHELMAN Living, breathing public art

Internationally acclaimed artist Janet Echelman reshapes urban airspace with monumental, fluidly moving sculptures. Compass spoke to Echelman, who was named a 2012 Architectural Digest Innovator for “changing the very essence of urban spaces” to understand how her work fuels social interactions.

COMPASS: What do you see as the role of art in humanizing urban environments?

JANET ECHELMAN: I often experience cities as cold and hard-edged – concrete, steel and glass in straight lines. But the human body is soft and curvy. I need to humanize the city environment for me to feel good in it. Billowing, hand-knotted net sculptures help me bridge the gap between an industrial skyscraper and myself. When my work makes physical connections in this textural, crafted way, it creates for me a sense of social interconnectedness as well.

What experience do you hope people have when they view your work?

JE: My hope is that each person creates their own narrative or becomes aware of their own sensory experience.

When I installed a sculpture in Sydney, a man who lived on the street came up pushing a grocery cart. He asked me what the work was and shared with me what he thought. I felt rewarded to engage and talk about ‘art’ with someone who might not feel entitled to enter a museum. Everybody feels entitled to be on the sidewalk. It’s like breathing air. I want my work to be as accessible and free as breathing air.

Describe the conversation between opposites in your art. 

JE: My work is full of dichotomies. The industrial or machine-made sections versus the handcrafted portions play off each other. The soft, billowing forms create a counterpoint to the hard-edged lines of surrounding architecture. I love that the sculpture looks so delicate and yet is immensely strong. It’s soft and flexible, able to yield with changing conditions – strength gained through resiliency, not brute force. There’s also the sense of bringing artwork into the city and allowing the forces of nature – wind, rain, sunlight – to change and animate the form over time.

How do you engage with technology to realize your vision?

JE: I approach technology with curiosity. I see it as a tool for expression – whether it’s industrial technology, post-industrial digital technology, or even new tools being created right now that enable me to create works I never could have before. Software modeling allows me to see how my monumental designs will respond to the forces of gravity and wind. Recently, I collaborated with American digital media artist Aaron Koblin and the Google Creative Lab to enable the public to paint with light onto my sculpture, “Skies Painted with Unnumbered Sparks,” installed in Vancouver, Canada, for TED’s 30th anniversary conference. Visitors were able to choreograph the lighting using physical gestures on their mobile devices. I want to continue to explore how we can use technology in new ways to connect us.

Collaboration is essential to my work. I’ve learned traditional hand crafts from artisans all over the world, and then reinterpreted the ancient techniques using new materials and technologies to fulfill my artistic vision.

What are you working on now?

JE: I have several exciting commissions. “Impatient Optimist” for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s headquarters in Seattle was conceived as a visual expression of the spirit of the foundation’s work and mission to help all people lead healthy, productive lives. The foundation is unafraid to tackle what seem like intractable problems. My challenge was to create a form to express that global vision. At night, the sculpture is illuminated by a custom lighting program. The colors are chosen to correspond to the sunrise at the foundation’s regional offices throughout the globe in real time, animating the space with color and enlivening the campus heart. 

In Philadelphia’s Dilworth Park, I’m sculpting with atomized water particles to create 5-foot-tall (1.5-meter-tall) curtains of “dry-mist,” illuminated by colored light. The artwork traces above ground the pathways of the three subway lines that run beneath the plaza’s new 11,600-square-foot (1,077-square-meter) fountain, revealing the urban circulatory system, sort of like an x-ray of the city. The movement is designed to occur in real time, using a data feed of train arrivals and departures to initiate the movement of the water particles.

by Cathy Salibian Back to top
by Cathy Salibian

For more information:www.echelman.com

YouTube:  https://youtu.be/9YekkGz1E2k