Stepping into Zilkha’s South Gallery feels a bit like stepping into a cave: quiet, dark, still. But it also feels as though you’re in a science fiction movie, with the hum of machinery and, before you, a massive metallic gossamer coil, glittering with lights. Proceeding into the coil, a short path delineated with masking tape points you into the heart of the coil, where you can stand, sit, or lie down with the winking lights around you slowly changing from blue to green to red, and all the colors in between.
The sculpture, the work of Sam Hart ’10, titled “Self Assembly” evokes a strong feeling of tranquility and relaxation. Hart, though, is no arts major: in fact, he’s majoring in Chemistry and Molecular Biology. “Self Assembly” is a new foray for him, an expression of the wonder of light informed by his work with molecular biophysics (and, truth be told, the steel structure can feel oddly like a living thing). Hart discussed his work with The Argus by e-mail.
Argus: What inspired “Self Assembly?” What do you see in the piece?
Sam Hart: Light is such a beautiful and interesting phenomenon that has an incredible power to define physical and emotional spaces. My original concept was to design an environment where I could manipulate light to explore some of this territory. I wanted people to be able to immerse themselves and really get lost, but it was also important to me that the piece function as an object that could be examined in the context of the space it occupied.
My research in molecular biophysics was definitely a large influence. I chose algorithmic processes that would essentially grow the structure on their own to create a strong armature from which the lights could be placed.
I’ve also experienced a lot of personal conflict with the role of machines in my life. They are useful tools that have allowed us to achieve a fantastic understanding of what is going on around us, communicate instantaneously, and quickly access information; but they also seem to be the source of so many of our problems. As a society we have really begun to integrate them into our identities, which is something that I wanted to address.
I definitely see myself in the piece; I think it’s beautiful and subtle and delicate wrapping around people so comfortably. I also think it’s very direct in that I tried to achieve the goal that I set for myself as simply as possible (even though it’s anything but simple). My parents are definitely in this piece as well as I owe so much of my process and my training to them.
A: What was the process of actually crafting the piece like?
SH: I built the piece in two pieces, the wiring and programming I did in my room and the assembly of the scaffold and the structure I did in the Physical Plant building on Long Lane Rd. I spent both winter and spring break almost exclusively working on this project but it was really difficult because I was only allowed in the Physical Plant building from 9-5 on weekdays. I also had to build the piece so that it could be moved which played a large part in directing the process. The actual time constructing the structure gave me a lot of time to think. There were certainly moments where I had to ask myself why I was compelled to create this piece.
A: What is the piece made of (technically)?
SH: The sculpture was constructed from galvanized steel wire that I cut to length and formed into about 2000 circles by fastening them with thinner gauge steel wire. The lighting array I created with 60 red, green, blue Light Emitting Diodes (making a total of 180 LEDs), the programming was done in MAX MSP, and the light covers were made of vellum. The scaffold above I made from PVC pipe and some concrete reinforcement mesh. I intentionally tried to choose very synthetic materials to create something that felt natural.
A: Since you’re not an art major, how did this collaboration with the Zilkha come about?
SH: Toward the end of last year I decided that I was interested in creating a light sculpture of some kind. I had taken a class with Nina Felshin, the Zilkha Gallery Curator, and decided to approach her about the project. During our meeting I drew something on a piece of scrap paper that probably looked nothing at all like the finished piece, but she was interested and allowed me to take a private tutorial with her the following semester. I applied to have this piece be a thesis but the general scholarship committee rejected my proposal because it wasn’t closely enough related to my field of study. Since this piece wasn’t a thesis, the only gallery space available to non-studio majors is South Gallery. I don’t think it could have worked out any better though, I really love South Gallery, it is a wonderful space, the carpeted floors and the hum of the heater add a lot to the piece I think.
A: What do you hope viewers will get out of the piece?
SH: I’m actually hesitant to answer this question too specifically. One of the motivations behind the piece was simply to elicit some kind of emotional response from the viewer. What that response is I’m sure will be very specific to those viewing it and to the context i.e. who they are with, where they are coming from, and what pattern is playing at the time. I can say that I am so pleased with the responses I’ve seen. Many have actually had physical reactions to the work, which is astounding. A number have told me that they feel a sense of peace or calm (although I have set up a number of more abrasive spaces throughout the week as well). Several people have told me that they feel some kind of connection with the piece, as if it were alive, which is definitely something that I was looking for. I wanted there to be some discontinuity between feeling like the piece was biological in some way and understanding that it wasn’t at all. If anything though, I want people to walk away reminded of how beautiful natural phenomena can be and how amazing it is that we have the ability to perceive light as we do.