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TED2011

Janet Echelman: Taking imagination seriously

March 3, 2011

Janet Echelman found her true voice as an artist when her paints went missing -- which forced her to look to an unorthodox new art material. Now she makes billowing, flowing, building-sized sculpture with a surprisingly geeky edge. A transporting 10 minutes of pure creativity.

Janet Echelman - Artist
American artist Janet Echelman reshapes urban airspace with monumental, fluidly moving sculpture that responds to environmental forces including wind, water, and sunlight. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
This story
00:15
is about taking imagination seriously.
00:17
Fourteen years ago,
00:20
I first encountered this ordinary material, fishnet,
00:22
used the same way for centuries.
00:25
Today, I'm using it to create
00:28
permanent, billowing, voluptuous forms
00:30
the scale of hard-edged buildings
00:33
in cities around the world.
00:35
I was an unlikely person to be doing this.
00:38
I never studied sculpture,
00:41
engineering or architecture.
00:43
In fact, after college
00:45
I applied to seven art schools
00:47
and was rejected by all seven.
00:49
I went off on my own to become an artist,
00:53
and I painted for 10 years,
00:55
when I was offered a Fulbright to India.
00:59
Promising to give exhibitions of paintings,
01:02
I shipped my paints and arrived in Mahabalipuram.
01:05
The deadline for the show arrived --
01:07
my paints didn't.
01:10
I had to do something.
01:12
This fishing village was famous for sculpture.
01:14
So I tried bronze casting.
01:16
But to make large forms was too heavy and expensive.
01:19
I went for a walk on the beach,
01:22
watching the fishermen
01:24
bundle their nets into mounds on the sand.
01:26
I'd seen it every day,
01:28
but this time I saw it differently --
01:30
a new approach to sculpture,
01:32
a way to make volumetric form
01:34
without heavy solid materials.
01:37
My first satisfying sculpture
01:40
was made in collaboration with these fishermen.
01:42
It's a self-portrait
01:45
titled "Wide Hips."
01:47
(Laughter)
01:49
We hoisted them on poles to photograph.
01:53
I discovered
01:56
their soft surfaces
01:58
revealed every ripple of wind
02:00
in constantly changing patterns.
02:02
I was mesmerized.
02:04
I continued studying craft traditions
02:07
and collaborating with artisans,
02:10
next in Lithuania with lace makers.
02:12
I liked the fine detail
02:14
it gave my work,
02:16
but I wanted to make them larger --
02:18
to shift from being an object you look at
02:20
to something you could get lost in.
02:22
Returning to India to work with those fishermen,
02:25
we made a net
02:28
of a million and a half hand-tied knots --
02:30
installed briefly in Madrid.
02:35
Thousands of people saw it,
02:38
and one of them was the urbanist
02:40
Manual Sola-Morales
02:42
who was redesigning the waterfront
02:44
in Porto, Portugal.
02:46
He asked if I could build this
02:49
as a permanent piece for the city.
02:51
I didn't know if I could do that
02:53
and preserve my art.
02:55
Durable, engineered, permanent --
02:57
those are in opposition
03:00
to idiosyncratic, delicate and ephemeral.
03:02
For two years, I searched for a fiber
03:06
that could survive ultraviolet rays,
03:09
salt, air, pollution,
03:11
and at the same time remain soft enough
03:14
to move fluidly in the wind.
03:16
We needed something to hold the net up
03:19
out there in the middle of the traffic circle.
03:21
So we raised this 45,000-pound steel ring.
03:23
We had to engineer it
03:28
to move gracefully in an average breeze
03:30
and survive in hurricane winds.
03:32
But there was no engineering software
03:35
to model something porous and moving.
03:38
I found a brilliant aeronautical engineer
03:42
who designs sails for America's Cup racing yachts
03:45
named Peter Heppel.
03:48
He helped me tackle the twin challenges
03:51
of precise shape
03:53
and gentle movement.
03:55
I couldn't build this the way I knew
03:58
because hand-tied knots
04:00
weren't going to withstand a hurricane.
04:02
So I developed a relationship
04:04
with an industrial fishnet factory,
04:06
learned the variables of their machines,
04:08
and figured out a way
04:10
to make lace with them.
04:12
There was no language
04:15
to translate this ancient, idiosyncratic handcraft
04:17
into something machine operators could produce.
04:21
So we had to create one.
04:24
Three years and two children later,
04:27
we raised this 50,000-square-foot lace net.
04:31
It was hard to believe
04:34
that what I had imagined
04:36
was now built, permanent
04:38
and had lost nothing in translation.
04:41
(Applause)
04:44
This intersection had been bland and anonymous.
04:49
Now it had a sense of place.
04:52
I walked underneath it
04:55
for the first time.
04:57
As I watched the wind's choreography unfold,
04:59
I felt sheltered
05:02
and, at the same time,
05:04
connected to limitless sky.
05:06
My life was not going to be the same.
05:08
I want to create these oases of sculpture
05:19
in spaces of cities around the world.
05:22
I'm going to share two directions
05:25
that are new in my work.
05:27
Historic Philadelphia City Hall:
05:30
its plaza, I felt, needed a material for sculpture
05:32
that was lighter than netting.
05:36
So we experimented
05:38
with tiny atomized water particles
05:40
to create a dry mist
05:42
that is shaped by the wind
05:44
and in testing, discovered
05:46
that it can be shaped by people
05:48
who can interact and move through it without getting wet.
05:50
I'm using this sculpture material
05:53
to trace the paths of subway trains above ground
05:56
in real time --
06:00
like an X-ray of the city's circulatory system unfolding.
06:03
Next challenge,
06:11
the Biennial of the Americas in Denver
06:13
asked, could I represent
06:15
the 35 nations of the Western hemisphere and their interconnectedness
06:17
in a sculpture?
06:20
(Laughter)
06:22
I didn't know where to begin,
06:25
but I said yes.
06:27
I read about the recent earthquake in Chile
06:29
and the tsunami that rippled across
06:32
the entire Pacific Ocean.
06:34
It shifted the Earth's tectonic plates,
06:36
sped up the planet's rotation
06:39
and literally shortened the length of the day.
06:41
So I contacted NOAA,
06:44
and I asked if they'd share their data on the tsunami,
06:47
and translated it into this.
06:50
Its title: "1.26"
06:55
refers to the number of microseconds
06:58
that the Earth's day was shortened.
07:00
I couldn't build this with a steel ring, the way I knew.
07:03
Its shape was too complex now.
07:06
So I replaced the metal armature
07:09
with a soft, fine mesh
07:11
of a fiber 15 times stronger than steel.
07:13
The sculpture could now be entirely soft,
07:17
which made it so light
07:21
it could tie in to existing buildings --
07:23
literally becoming part of the fabric of the city.
07:26
There was no software
07:29
that could extrude these complex net forms
07:31
and model them with gravity.
07:34
So we had to create it.
07:36
Then I got a call from New York City
07:39
asking if I could adapt these concepts
07:42
to Times Square
07:45
or the High Line.
07:47
This new soft structural method
07:49
enables me to model these
07:52
and build these sculptures
07:54
at the scale of skyscrapers.
07:56
They don't have funding yet,
07:59
but I dream now
08:01
of bringing these to cities around the world
08:03
where they're most needed.
08:06
Fourteen years ago,
08:09
I searched for beauty
08:12
in the traditional things,
08:15
in craft forms.
08:17
Now I combine them with hi-tech materials and engineering
08:22
to create voluptuous, billowing forms
08:26
the scale of buildings.
08:29
My artistic horizons continue to grow.
08:32
I'll leave you with this story.
08:35
I got a call from a friend in Phoenix.
08:38
An attorney in the office
08:41
who'd never been interested in art,
08:43
never visited the local art museum,
08:45
dragged everyone she could from the building
08:48
and got them outside to lie down underneath the sculpture.
08:51
There they were in their business suits,
08:54
laying in the grass,
08:56
noticing the changing patterns of wind
08:58
beside people they didn't know,
09:00
sharing the rediscovery of wonder.
09:02
Thank you.
09:06
(Applause)
09:08
Thank you. Thank you.
09:11
Thank you.
09:13
Thank you. Thank you.
09:15
(Applause)
09:18

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Janet Echelman - Artist
American artist Janet Echelman reshapes urban airspace with monumental, fluidly moving sculpture that responds to environmental forces including wind, water, and sunlight.

Why you should listen

Janet Echelman builds living, breathing sculpture environments that respond to the forces of nature — wind, water and light— and become inviting focal points for civic life.

Exploring the potential of unlikely materials, from fishing net to atomized water particles, Echelman combines ancient craft with cutting-edge technology to create her permanent sculpture at the scale of buildings. Experiential in nature, the result is sculpture that shifts from being an object you look at, to something you can get lost in.

Recent prominent works include “Her Secret is Patience”, which spans two city blocks in downtown Phoenix,  “Water Sky Garden”, which premiered for the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, and “She Changes”, which transformed a waterfront plaza in Porto, Portugal.  Her newest commission creates a “Zone of Recomposure” in the new Terminal 2 at San Francisco International Airport. Upcoming projects include the remaking of Dilworth Plaza in front of Philadelphia City Hall -- turning it into a garden of dry-mist.

The original video is available on TED.com
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