High-Tech Spectacle

Prepackaged virtual reality: Steinkamp's projection tunnel puts the viewer inside the art.
Robert Wedemeyer

If there was a downside to the fall of the Soviet Union, it was the loss of spectacle -- no more monumental heads of Lenin or towering figures of workers and collective farmers. Retrograde North Korea is the last real bastion of communist spectacle. Remember Madeleine Albright's stadium visit with the badly permed Kim Jong-Il? Acrobats and bayonet-wielding soldiers packed the field while a stadiumful of people flipped cards to create large-scale inspirational socialist scenes. You need a totalitarian state -- or Vegas -- to pull off the really big stuff.

But in the post cold-war art era, there is a new if not-so secret weapon in the battle to create spectacle: technology. And two artists exhibiting at Rice University Art Gallery and the Glassell School of Art take full advantage of the technological arsenal.

Jennifer Steinkamp certainly has a firm grasp of the spectacular -- she's even worked Vegas. Aria (2000) was commissioned by the City of Las Vegas Arts Commission for The Fremont Street Experience, a four-block-long, 90-foot-high canopy of 2.1 million lights. The venue usually features, in addition to advertising and product launches, works with titles like "Country Western Nights." But Steinkamp's abstract light-and-sound piece deftly used digital technology to create animated forms that awed onlookers. In fact, Aria pulled people out of the casinos and received spontaneous applause on the street. The casino-emptying effect of the work may have proved to be its undoing. The canopy has returned to its schedule of "Classic Rock" and "Las Vegas Legends."


"Jennifer Steinkamp and Jimmy Johnson -- One saw; the other saw"

Through October 28 at Rice University Art Gallery, 6100 Main Street. For more information, call 713-348-6069.

"Sharon Engelstein -- Inflated"

Through November 25 at Glassell School of Art, 5100 Montrose. For more information, call 713-639-7300. (Work from the same series will be on view October 27 to November 24 at Moody Gallery, 2815 Colquitt, 713-526-9911.)

Another Steinkamp spectacle, Loop (2000), used six projectors to swathe the circular walls of the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., with dangling, looping strands of light that enveloped the spectators, fully integrating them into the environment.

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Her current installation at Rice University Art Gallery is a one-projector show, which is fortunate since the projectors required by Steinkamp's work run from $7,000 to $50,000 a pop. Maya 3D graphics, the high-end software she employs, isn't a bargain either. It's primarily used to create Hollywood's special effects.

For One saw; the other saw (2001) Steinkamp enlists the front window of the gallery as a projection screen. The tall, narrow image of a multicolored, pulsing tunnel is projected at the gallery's entrance. Seven motion sensors change the image's perspective according to registered movements.

Inside the gallery, visitors walk into a tunnel that ends in the projected tunnel image. The projection covers them and displays their silhouettes on the screen. Here, a motion sensor manipulates an electronic audio soundtrack by composer Jimmy Johnson of the group Grain. It incorporates an ominous swooshing and humming that makes you look around for Darth Vader and his light saber, a feeling that is somewhat at odds with Steinkamp's happy pulsing tunnel.

The image is a kind of "prepackaged" virtual reality, with the preset events manipulated by the viewer. But the overall effect is one of edgy beauty rather than gimmickry. Her work "dematerializes the architecture" of the space by altering our perception of it. Working with images that are entirely digitally generated, things that haven't existed before, is an important element in Steinkamp's agenda to create a fantastic environment.

Sharon Engelstein, exhibiting at the Glassell School of Art, also is creating forms that haven't existed before, but hers feel like they could have. Using a three-dimensional modeling program called Rhino, Engelstein creates biomorphic shapes reminiscent of lab book diagrams of dividing cells or yeast colonies. Rounded forms sprout from other rounded forms to create figures that are part cartoon character, part organic life and part spaceship. Engelstein's creatures exist in a virtual space until she realizes the forms through various industrial processes. The small objects in the side gallery were rendered by stereolithography. The process, often used in industrial prototypes, creates a three-dimensional "print" when a computer-directed laser hardens resin into the desired form. The surface ridges of Engelstein's small objects provide faint evidence of the production process.

A static sort of spectacle exists in the main gallery, with two inflated sculptures manufactured by the same people who make the Michelin Man and giant Budweiser bottles. Twins (2000) is plopped on the floor like a fat, deformed puppy, and the bloated, budding forms of Boya are suspended in an ominous stasis. The only sound comes from the whirring fans that keep the forms "alive." (The fan for Twins looks like an orifice between two leglike appendages.) Both the small sculptures and the large inflated ones are a pristine white that conjures sculptural associations with the marble of classical statuary. Engelstein selected the color, or lack thereof, to allow the viewer to focus on the forms. And the forms look like the sun-bleached exoskeletons of a malformed Pokémon.

Spectacles are rarely conceived and executed by an individual; they require cooperation. In addition to musicians, Steinkamp works with architects and the exhibition venues to realize her work in a space. She brings in other artists and programmers to help solve problems (like creating sensors for an interactive swing set in Los Angeles). Engelstein is similarly collaborative. She calls up manufacturers directly, telling them what she wants and asking what is possible. She says the chance to work on a creative project proves enticing for many of them.

Spectacle has never been cheap. Work that has a dramatic impact usually involves overwhelming production costs. And artists have a much better chance of recouping on sofa-sized oil paintings than on projected environments and gigantic inflated sculptures. Steinkamp managed to borrow four pricey projectors to present an early piece, and although her projects and venues are increasingly well funded, she still draws upon equipment donations and creative financing from time to time. To help defray the fabrication costs of Engelstein's work, friends Monica Pope and Andrea Lazar of Boulevard Bistrot hosted a fund-raising dinner. It was a clever supplement to the usual artist resources of begging, borrowing and credit cards. One more thing, perhaps, to pine for in the collapse of the Soviet Union: state sponsorship.

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