engineered to deceive
Many of today’s visual artists are technological innovators, using advanced materials, industrial design, and sophisticated light manipulation to build experiences that trick your brain. Look inside their imaginations—and allow them to expand your own.
BALLOON VENUS (MAGENTA), 2008–2012 / JEFF KOONS
Balloon Venus (magenta)
In the collection at the
Broad museum in Los Angeles
In 2008, Jeff Koons commissioned a balloon twister to make a prototype for this statue, based on a Paleolithic figure. It took nine months to get the perfect shape; then the 62-year-old American artist, who started out as a commodities broker, made a CT scan of the bulbous Venus, enlarged it, and had the shape cast and milled in steel. It would have been easier to construct the hair and body separately, but Koons insisted that making the entire model out of a single balloon was the only way for the 8.5-foot Venus to look and feel like it was truly filled with air—and might even pop. “I’m interested in transformation. I’ll take something that was fragile and delicate and transform it into something that is durable and rigid,” he says. “There is always this aspect for me of transcendence—something shifting, something changing.”
SCREENSHOT OF BALLOON VENUS DURING CT SCAN
how it works
The CT scan of the twisted balloon gave Koons a 360-degree view of every layer and interior fold. “If you look in the side holes, you can look into her being,” he says. “You can see how all the chambers are interconnected.” It took almost a year for his studio to process the scan: Assistants had to eliminate any irregularities so they wouldn’t become magnified in the jumbo sculpture. That data became the instructions to cast the general shape and program the CNC mill to carve the final Balloon Venus.
Rough surfaces scatter light in many directions. A perfectly smooth surface, like this one, bounces light directly back to the source—Koons’ statue is probably the best mirror you’ll ever encounter.
Infinity Mirrored Room—The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away, 2013. Courtesy of David Zwirner, N.Y. Yayoi Kusama; diagrams by sunday Buro
Infinity Mirrored Room—The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away
On view at the Broad through October.
Yayoi Kusama—once known for painting dots for more than 50 hours straight with no food or sleep—has been living in a Tokyo psychiatric hospital since 1977. She checked herself in after a nervous breakdown, disappearing from the art world for a while, but she never lost her fascination with dots and points of light. Back in the ‘60s, Kusama worked with an electrician to create an early infinity-room installation involving mirrors and electric lights. But it used only five colors. By 2008, still living in the hospital, she was building hallucinatory rooms with programmable LEDs, which are easy to manipulate, last a long time, and emit little heat. Those qualities allowed her to compose the lights like music: She could incorporate a vast array of colors and create smoother, more precise transitions from light to dark. That gave the artist a “nimbleness that wasn’t there before,” says Alison de Lima Greene, a curator at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. With these new LEDs, Kusama could realize the exact hues and transitions that she had always imagined.
how it works
Twenty of Yayoi Kusama’s mirrored rooms exist today. And building an Infinity Room, explains curator Alison de Lima Greene, “is like a very complicated Ikea bookshelf.” Each installation arrives in custom wooden crates, accompanied by a detailed instruction manual as much as 50 pages long. Today, visitors to the Broad often wait more than two hours to stand alone in this room for just 45 seconds.
A digital sequencer dims and brightens the 160 hanging LEDs every 35 seconds.
The viewer stands on a raised platform surrounded by an inch and a half of water that functions as a reflecting pool.
Breathing Light, 2013, Los Angeles County Museum of Art James Turrell; Photo by Florian Holzherr
On view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Throughout his career, James Turrell has been using light to disorient us, transforming an empty room into a wall of color or a portal that goes on forever. And since the mid-1970s, he’s been creating immersive works based on the ganzfeld effect—hallucinations and a loss of depth perception that come from looking at a featureless expanse or a single color for a long time. These ganzfelds are easier to create today (and much more intense) because LEDs can produce very pure color in a narrow range of wavelengths. And, unlike fluorescent and neon lights, LEDs can be manipulated smoothly and subtly even when dim. “Turrell has been able to execute work that was only part of his imagination for the better part of his career,” says Michael Govan, the director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. When visitors enter the room, they find themselves staring into a portal of intense color. What their minds don’t realize at first is that the lights are changing hue—at a rate that’s undetectable to the human eye. As Turrell puts it, “Instead of mixing light with a bucket, you can do it with a teaspoon.”
how it works
Your Eye on Turrell
The pupil expands as it becomes hyper-attuned to the dim light in one of Turrell’s ganzfelds. That can be cool, but it can also be dangerous, because if it remains dilated for a long period, the pupil can freeze that way. Matthew Schreiber, Turrell’s former chief lighting expert, says his vision was blown out for hours after a day programming one of the works. “The pupil got stuck open—it wouldn’t snap back.”
While looking at Breathing Light, you may think you see spots on the wall in front of you. What you are actually seeing are blobs and imperfections in your own eye. When we’re deprived of external visual stimulation—something, anything, to relay to our brain—our eyes go into overdrive.
2017 Robert Irwin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Untitled (Dawn to Dusk)
On view at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas
California-based artist Robert Irwin can make an entire building glow without a single lightbulb, LED or otherwise. Irwin, who began his career as a painter before ditching canvas to design landscapes and installations, rebuilt this abandoned military hospital in Marfa, Texas, with a few strategic tweaks. Now it’s “a machine to track how the sun moves,” says Jeff Jamieson, his longtime assistant. The 10,000-square-foot concrete building has no electricity—Irwin tinted the windows and painted the walls, and the sun transforms each room as it crosses the sky. Depending on the time of day and time of year, the scrim dividers can look entirely transparent or entirely opaque. “He uses a construction site like an artist’s studio,” says Jenny Moore, director of the Chinati Foundation. The installation opened last summer, and unless you visit at the exact same moment every year—and the weather is identical—you will never have the same experience twice.
how it works
When you enter the horseshoe-shaped building, you choose your own adventure. Turn one direction and you’ll proceed from light into darkness; turn the other way and you’ll go from darkness to light.
The long corridors are segmented by scrim walls that filter the light streaming through the windows. The fabric makes everything feel fuzzy, like you’re walking through a dream.
The new floor is 4 feet lower than the original, which puts the windows at eye level rather than the traditional waist level. Looking out, visitors see a small strip of land—and a vast expanse of Texas sky.
Julia Halperin (@juliahalperin) is the executive news editor of Artnet News. This is her first piece for WIRED.