Illuminating Plant Life
A site-specific art installation at the Natural History Museum of Utah’s new home, the Rio Tinto Center, will literally illuminate the natural world. The Museum commissioned Dutch media artist Simon Heijdens (SEE-mon HI-dans) to create an interactive exhibit that uses light to project “living” organisms on to the canyon wall. Each organism reacts and interacts with the environment around it, “growing” on the Museum’s Canyon wall.
The project has been three years in the making, beginning innocently enough on a business trip to New York City, when the Museum’s design team visited one of the city’s prominent museums.
“On one of our trips to New York, we saw Simon’s projected work, or installation, ‘Light Weeds’ at the Museum of Modern Art,” said Director of Exhibits and Public Programs Becky Menlove, who oversees exhibit installation at the Rio Tinto Center. “We believed his work would be a wonderful addition to the Rio Tinto Center.”
His work bridges the natural and artistic worlds, making the Rio Tinto Center a perfect place for a permanent installation. Heijdens creates “living” organisms out of light. Projected images literally comes to life; they begin as seeds, growing in reaction to climate and weather, and the movement of people around it.
Heijdens work stems from his fascination with nature, which leads to real-time artistic creations. “My interest isn’t directly in nature as an entity, such as a tree or flower, but nature as an interlinked collection of unplanned processes that change the character of each of its elements over time – growth, decay, unplanned interaction, changing aesthetics and the narrative quality these give to an environment. Every situation has its own nature.”
The London-based artist studies the life of plants and their life cycles That information is loaded as a series of algorithms on to a computer that directs projections of the life of the “plants” on the canyon wall. Sensors located around the “plants” and outside of the museum will relay data to the computer and the exhibit will behave according to the sensory data.
“The projected silhouettes are alive; from a digital seed that, in numbers, contains the genetic data of its family,” said Heijdens. “A seed drops into the projection, grows and is affected by actual measured rainfall and sunshine; it moves in the real wind; and throughout the day, it turns to follow the sun”
Heijdens has created works such as “Light Weeds,” “Tree” and “Branches,” and has had his work displayed in London, New York, Berlin, Tokyo, Rotterdam and Milan. But Heijdens localized the Museum’s project, talking with each of the Museum’s curators, and specifically with Garrett Herbarium Curator Dr. Mitchell Power. His plan is to create an exhibit that projects Utah native plants. By expanding on his “Light Weeds” creation, Heijdens is making an installation for the Museum that will be both a one-of-a-kind and site-specific.
“We talked about his work, and I recommended species that would work with his schematics,” said Power. “So, we looked a phragmites (grasses that grow along the shores of Utah Lake and Great Salt Lake), sage brush, Aspen, tumbleweed, and Gambel oaks, among others.
“Simon was looking for patterns in the plants that are familiar to people, ones that people would instantly recognize when they were projected on the canyon wall. And, he truly wanted to ensure he wasn’t going to misrepresent the plants in his installation.”
Heijdens’ installation at the Natural History Museum of Utah will be his first permanent exhibit in the United States, and the first (and currently only) installation in a natural history museum. The exhibition is scheduled to be installed in the Rio Tinto Center by the grand opening in fall, 2011.
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