The series of façade projections at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum began in 2002 with Janet Biggs’s video Untitled (September 25, 2001: Floors 75 through 110) and continued with Turkish artist Haluk Akakçe’s piece White on White in November 2003. The current projection represents the East Coast premier of California artist Jennifer Steinkamp’s re-edited version of her single-channel work X-Ray Eyes.
Steinkamp is an installation artist who works with video and new media to explore ideas about architectural space, motion, and light. She is well-known for her projection environments, in which architecture comes alive with walls expanding and contracting like living organisms, pulsating with light, color, and sound. For instance, in Steinkamp’s installation X-Room (2000), vertical projections of spinning and undulating cylinders created optical moiré effects, which shifted the viewers’ sense of space in such ways that they felt themselves merging with the light, losing track of the difference between their bodies and their environment. For her 2002 installation Jimmy Carter, Steinkamp covered three walls of a gallery with thousands of digitally animated flowers sinuously swaying back and forth in a breeze. According to art critic David Pagel, “To spend more than a few moments in the darkened gallery is to experience your mind and body work in concert, cooperating to process the generous sensory extravaganza.” Similarly, the quivering leaves on monumental trees growing out of the dark depths of the Yerebatan Cistern in Steinkamp’s projection Eye Catching at last year’s Istanbul Biennial managed to emphasize and at the same time destabilize the centuries-old architectural marvel. Steinkamp wants the viewer to experience a shift in perception, which film scholar Gene Youngblood advocated in his now classic text of the 1970s, Expanded Cinema. It is Steinkamp’s hope that her work can alter a viewer’s mental state “by creating new forms of transcendence,” according to Melinda Barlow, “that must be experienced in a physical here-and-now.” Steinkamp’s concern with abstract visual phenomena makes her work akin to that of abstract filmmakers such as Hollis Frampton and Stan Brakhage, and California Light and Space artists James Turrell and Robert Irwin.
In the projection on the Museum’s facade, X-Ray Eyes turns the wall into a spinning tunnel of colorful smoke. According to the artist, “an incredible optical illusion occurs when the image stops. Through the optical effect known as retinal fatigue, our eyes want the image to keep moving.” Even in this brief static mode, Steinkamp’s image succeeds in seemingly penetrating the face of a solid building. Not only can Steinkamp’s work be seen in the context of abstract painting, structuralist film, Light and Space artists, music, and performance, with this type of work she has also positioned herself in the forefront of contemporary architecture. In an interview in the late 1990s, Steinkamp spoke of architect Stephen Perrella’s interest in her work, which he sees related to his concept of “hypersurface architecture.” Steinkamp noted, “Hypersurface architecture is what I do, really. One example would be to take the face of a static building and resurface it with moving images…. It is the future—that’s what our cityscapes will look like soon. It’s definitely the next wave for architecture, the nonstatic meeting between cyberspace and real space.” Perrella posits “hypersurface” as “an envisioning of nondichotomized space, in which dualisms such as inside/outside, male/female, ground/edifice, ornament/structure, form/function, etc., are more liquid.” Jennifer Steinkamp’s plays with light, challenging our prejudices that architecture is stable and the projected image is not, exemplifies this fluidity.
Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art