Sunsets and Body Parts: Pushing the Boundaries of Art and Design at Industry Gallery

By Eric Hope on February 5, 2013
"Virtual Sunset" installation view at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.  Photo courtesy of Studio Tobias Klein.
“Virtual Sunset” installation view at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Photo courtesy of Studio Tobias Klein.

Emails from Industry Gallery almost always pique my interest, and the one that recently arrived in my inbox was no different.  Industry Gallery is unique in the area for its relentless focus on the intersection of art and design.  Past exhibitions have generally focused on furniture pieces as sculpture (always visually engaging if not entirely practical), so I was intrigued by the gallery’s latest press release touting the opening of Virtual Sunset, a “globally connected live installation, exploring the ephemeral notion of the sunset,” from UK based Studio Tobias Klein.  Is this a departure from their traditional display of usable sculpture? Gallery director Craig Appelbaum invited me over to meet the artist and find out for myself.

The gallery’s two rooms are empty but the space is anything but quiet when I arrive on a recent weekday afternoon.  Gallery staff members are busy with pre-installation activities, covering the windows with light-deadening materials and notating component placement with tape marks all over the floor.  As luck would have it, Klein is at a short lull in his activity while waiting for crates of air-freighted materials to arrive and we have time to huddle in the corner with his large MacBook open to display key concepts of the installations.  As the principle of his namesake studio, Klien operates (to quote his promotional literature), “in the between of architecture, across the fields of art and installation, experimental design, interactivity and urbanism.”  I’m certainly charging into uncharted territory!

Klein is actually presenting two distinct installations in the gallery (more on that in a moment). The first installation — Virtual Sunset — will confront visitors at the top of the stairs at the gallery’s entrance.  Three kilometers of translucent tubing hang in strips from a ceiling-mounted rig, forming an undulating world of plastic for viewers to gently maneuver through (perhaps this is what a fish swimming through a sea of anemones feels like).   Media projectors situated at key angles around the room shine onto this mass of tentacles, and here is where this project gets interesting.  Computer users the world over have been invited to upload images of sunsets, which Klein geo-locates by time and location onto computer servers which feed data to the cameras.  Images coming from one side of the room correlate to the actual sunset over Washington, DC.  Images from the opposite direction are a composite of the “crowd-sourced sunset” projected in their real-time (for example, an image of a sunset uploaded in Paris at 5:30pm Paris time would be displayed in real time in the gallery at 11:30am).  As the colors gently, almost imperceptively shift over time, the viewer is immersed in the “real” sunset as it happens in Washington and a shared, “global-event” sunset as experienced by humans the world over.

"Virtual Sunset" installation view at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.  Photo courtesy of Studio Tobias Klein.
“Virtual Sunset” installation view at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Photo courtesy of Studio Tobias Klein.

Described to me, it’s a heady, theoretical piece (the affable Klein is kind enough to repeat himself several times as I work to understand the concepts), but the actual, immersive experience is gentle – almost meditative.  Klein is a trained architect, and so I ask him how architecture influences this work.  Should the viewer consider this a form of architecture or work of installation art?  While it’s a bit of both, my question is still imprecise, because it overlooks the interaction of the ever-growing and evolving digital world of information with the physical world of our five senses.  Klein’s machines are able to do electronically what we cannot achieve physically:  “experience” the ephemerality of a sunset instantaneously in more than one location.  An interesting subtext to this piece is the notion that as he collects more data, the digital world of Virtual Sunset continues to evolve organically and each exhibition of the piece will differ; this display builds upon an earlier iteration of Virtual Sunset exhibited at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London last fall.

While Virtual Sunset is certainly contemporary with its comingling of art, architecture and electronics, the second installation in the gallery’s back space pushes the very boundaries of contemporary with a knife-edge focus on the crossroads of biology, architectural forms and crowd-sourced participation.  The Invisible Human is a collaborative installation from Klein and Alex Kaiser, co-founder of the London firm Ordinary, a design firm investigating how biological processes can be harnessed in the development of architectural building materials (the duo go by the moniker Ordinary Klein).  In a nutshell, the installation features digital impressions (“slices” if you will) of a human figure rendered with 3-D modeling technology onto a fabric mesh on which crystalline structures, mimicking human cells, will grow over the course of the exhibition.

"The Invisible Human" installation view.  Photo courtesy of Ordinary Klein.
“The Invisible Human” installation view. Photo courtesy of Ordinary Klein.

Perhaps some backstory is in order.  The idea for the piece comes from the life (or in this case death) of Joseph Paul Jernigan, a convicted murderer who was executed by lethal injection on August 5, 1993.  Jernigan donated his body to science, which was frozen after his death to -73˚C and sliced in one millimeter increments.  The resulting 1,871 slices where then photographed for posterity.  The scientists involved named the experiment – the first of its kind – the Visible Human Project.  Twenty years later Klein and Kaiser, curious as to how the “architecture of the body” mimics that of the external world, have re-imagined this event, simultaneously turning evolution on its head.  Along one side of the room are 100x60cm “slices” of a human body, rendered by MRI screening into fabric pieces evoking the skeletal structure of a human figure.  On the opposite side of the room are similar structures but presented as sculptural forms in the vein of bodily organs.  In both cases the fabric pieces are bathed in an aqueous, crystalline solution that when provided proper light and heat will cause crystals to form and literally grow up off the canvas.   Adding complexity (both literally and metaphoric) will be the actions of audience participants around the world, who can log into the exhibition’s website and by electronic command alter the heat signature within each cabinet housing a “section” of the human body.  By their actions audience members, depending on how they choose, can encourage growth, hasten death or keep a piece in static limbo.  When asked why they chose to allow audience participation, Klein highlights the “provocative discourse” of this community interaction as a key component of the work.

Detailed view of crystals growing on skeletal fabric.  Photo courtesy of Ordinary Klein.
Detailed view of crystals growing on skeletal fabric. Photo courtesy of Ordinary Klein.

Singly, each installation provides a visual wallop (The Invisible Human viscerally so); shown together they present an interesting juxtaposition of serenity and unease. Whereas Virtual Sunset invokes an ersatz, global Kumbaya, the interactive component of The Invisible Human feels slightly menacing (and in a way more intriguing).   Holding “life” in their hands, will audience members coddle the growing “cells”, ensuring their full development, or cruelly withhold heat and light, hastening their demise?  By introducing biology into the architectural arena, Klein and Kaiser provide a unique, artistic context in which to ponder morality in the face of new scientific discoveries.  For contemporary art lovers, this is one of those exhibitions you’ll be talking about long past the last sip of your opening night’s wine.

Virtual Sunset and The Invisible Human open concurrently on February 9, 2013 at Industry Gallery.  For more information, visit the gallery’s website here.

To participate in Virtual Sunset, upload your own photo here.