Mimi Zeiger

Critic, editor, curator and instigator.

June 15, 2016

From Nets to Networks

The aerial artwork of Janet Echelman.


Art, Articles, Janet Echelman, Urbanism

Artist Janet Echelman creates extra-large, jellyfish-like sculptures—colorful net structures that compete with the size of buildings. Yet, to merely refer to their monumental scale is to ignore their subtle and surprising dynamic details. Her artworks aren’t set in stone; instead, they hang in the air, responsive to the wind. Each sculpture, made of ropes tied into netting with tens of thousands of often hand-tied knots, casts an ever-changing pattern of shadows on the urban environment.

Last year, Echelman suspended the nearly two-block-long piece “As If It Were Already Here” over Boston’s Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway for six months. Weighing nearly a ton and made out of hand-spliced ultra-high-molecular-weight polyethylene and braided high-tenacity polyester fibers, Echelman’s artwork hung from the façades of surrounding buildings and formed a delicate canopy over the park below. At night, RGBW 100W LED floodlights cast a changing wash of colored light onto the 600-foot-long by 300-foot-wide structure. The design team hid the lighting equipment in plain site in the urban fabric. Mounted on the surrounding building canopies and streetlights, the 44 fixtures were linked by a custom DMX control system with wireless repeaters. The Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway Conservancy commissioned the roughly $1.25 million installation as part of the organization’s public art program to draw people to the park. The gamble paid off. “People would lie down in the grass and watch the sculpture change and billow in the wind,” Echelman says.

The impact of her designs comes not just from their beauty, but also from how people respond to them—often by losing themselves in the moment, albeit a public moment. This winter, when she installed “1.8” over Oxford Circus, Londoners found themselves braving the chilly temperatures in order to take it in. “On the coldest week of the year, we closed the busiest street and people were lying down on the cold asphalt to have the experience of contemplating the world unfolding above them,” Echelman says, adding that she was among the brave throng. “It is very important to me that my work be a dynamic experience rather than a static experience.”

That dynamism emerged from her practice over a number of years—beginning as fluid brushstrokes before evolving into large-scale kinetic sculpture. Her biography suggests a correlation between how she was making art and where she was making it. In the late 1980s, she studied Chinese calligraphy in Hong Kong. Then, she collaborated with Indonesian textile artisans in Bali. Finally, in the late 1990s, while on a Fulbright fellowship in India, she was inspired by the nets of village fisherman in Mahabalipuram. Those nets provoked a pivotal change in her work. Rather than suggesting movement, form, and light through ink, paint, or sculpture, she could capture natural forces at play in real time. The result was a series of modest anticipatory works made out of local materials that seem almost like rough sketches for the work to come.

The traces of those nascent experiments—her openness to collaborate with craftspeople and her hand-tied net sculptures hung from wooden poles—still resonate in her studio’s most ambitious efforts. Works throughout the 1990s and early 2000s grew in scale and finesse, growing from the size of the human body to the size of a building. A 2001 piece, “Target Swooping Down … Bullseye!” which was installed in the courtyard of the Spanish National Trade Fair Complex in Madrid caught the eye of the late architect and urbanist Manuel de Solà-Morales, who invited Echelman to create her first work at an urban scale on the border of Matosinhos and Porto, Portugal. That piece, entitled “She Changes,” set the stage for how Studio Echelman operates today. Her artistic vision is supported by collaborations with multiple consultants including software companies, engineers, lighting designers, and fabricators.

Despite the move to the monumental, Echelman’s desire to create artworks that speak to the whole of a city continues to be rooted in craft, even if that craft has now expanded to incorporate digital processes. She describes her sculptures as custom garments for the city, and she jokes that hers is an artisanal practice—“as if your grandmother knit you a sweater.” Indeed, each piece combines preindustrial handwork, industrial loom technology, and postindustrial computational soft body modeling. She asks herself, “How do you keep the beauty and idiosyncratic [nature] of handmade production while bringing [it] to a monumental scale and robust engineering suitable to withstand the climate year after year?”

The answer comes from the studio’s in-house process, specifically in its relationship to technology. Handmade models fill the Brookline, Mass.–based studio. “There are a lot of things that you can’t do in the computer. You can’t sketch with a piece of wire on a model or drape a fabric,” says Echelman, who is quick to note that she’s indebted to computational counterparts—sophisticated 3D models and renderings—to get her visions realized. Echelman and team are engaged with Autodesk in a five-year project (the company reached out after the artist’s 2011 TED Talk) to create custom software that responds to the particular parameters of the suspended artworks, a variation on the company’s JNet tool that works in conjunction with the 3D modeling software Maya. The custom software allows the designers to accurately simulate dynamic parameters such as wind movement through the net in real time while they are designing. They can also model fabrication elements such as how the machines that knit the nets trim and cut panels, change bobbins, and vary color.

“There are many software packages where you can draw fiction … [and where] you can fall in love with the images on your computer,” Echelman notes. “Ours is the opposite. We render things we know we can build according to our tools and materials.”

In addition to computing natural and structural forces, digital tools allow the studio to model light for both day and night. For urban installations, Studio Echelman uses computer-controlled color LED floodlights, mounted close to the sculpture’s surface, to amplify the volumetric effects of the artwork. The effect is close to seamless; the designers tuck fixtures behind building parapets or place them on rooftops, making sure to avoid glare into viewer’s eyes as they gaze skyward. In 2014, Echelman collaborated with media artist Aaron Koblin, who was, until 2015, creative director of Google Creative Lab’s data arts team, on the artwork “Skies Painted with Unnumbered Sparks.” Designed to mark the TED Conference’s 30th anniversary (Echelman delivered well-received TED Talks in 2011 and 2014), the piece has an interactive component that allowed viewers to control the lighting with a smartphone app. Koblin was able to design the lighting component directly within Studio Echelman’s 3D model. As a spectator moved his or her phone, a beam of light would dance across the suspended sculpture—a bright manifestation of the titular sparks.

“For years, the industry has been talking about computer-aided design versus computer documentation,” Echelman says. “But that [is] not the way ideas develop or how the design process unfolds. We need fast results in the early conceptual stage, but when ready to do construction documents I need incredibly accurate data.” This data includes information about the real spaces in which she is installing her work. For the Boston installation, the team used a 3D digital scan of the city to precisely model and position the anchor points for the pre-stressed rope structure—these included among other things an old arsenal and an old smokestack. “I was drawing lines in the city—it was a loose exploration of real space,” she says.

Last year, the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., asked Echelman to create a piece for the Renwick Gallery’s Grand Salon as part of the “Wonder” exhibit. The commission posed a challenge to the artist who was used to working outdoors: Although large, the 100-foot-long gallery didn’t have the same active forces—no wind, no sunlight. She turned to Brian Stacy, principal and Americas lighting leader at Arup’s New York office, to help create shadow drawings along the salon walls and color washes across the sculpture. “I used to be a painter,” Echelman says, and “this translation from three-dimensional sculpture into two-dimensional shadow drawings and color washes has a lot to do with the figure-ground dialogue in painting.” The team used a seven-LED-chip light engine with theatrical-style fixtures that also allowed for good optical and glare control. The color-changing sequences for the artwork were run through a control system linked to the museum’s smart control system. To simulate the motion of air in the room, in order to give the sculpture some dynamic movement, they utilized DMX control fans.

The piece—“1.8,” like the London installation of the same name—inspired viewers to lay down on the floor and gaze up at the play of rope, shadow, and colors above. Also, like the London sculpture, the artwork references the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan, using data sets of the heights of the waves that raced across the Pacific Ocean. The title references the length of time, in microseconds, that the Earth’s day was shortened due to the quake. For Echelman, the disaster highlighted the physical interconnectedness of the natural world—something we sometimes forget given our dependence on digital networks.

“The problems for us as human beings is that there are events that exceed our history and time,” she says. “That’s humbling for me. This work is about this humility and is about being a human being in a world at a scale that is beyond what we a can comprehend.” Her hope is, through her artwork, to create a meditation on time and how our connection to the physical world functions at scales beyond our control. It might seem like a lofty goal for an artist whose career began with humble materials in a village in India, yet for Echelman it is part of a continuum from the smallest hand gesture to the monumental urban works that make us wonder about our place in the world.