Janet Echelman is an American artist whose urban installations playfully respond to wind and light. In her work Echelman exploits the inherent beauty of common materials such as fishnets and atomized water particles in a design approach that elegantly combines ancient arts and craft with 21st century digital and numerical techniques. To speak to her genius, she has received the Guggenheim Fellowship, the Harvard University Loeb Fellowship, a Fulbright Lectureship, and the Aspen Institute Crown Fellowship. She was ranked number one on Oprah Magazine’s List of 50 Things that Make You Say Wow! We are so honored that Janet was so generous with her time and gave us this inspiring interview.
Sigrid Adriaenssens: How do you describe the aesthetics of the soft surfaces you design and build, and why do they have such an impact on the public?
Janet Echelman: My work exists at the intersection of art, architecture, computer and material science, and public space. I often experience cities as hard-edged and rigid – mostly concrete, steel and glass laid out in straight lines. I’m drawn to humanize the city to the curves and softness of the human body, bringing the scale of skyscrapers down to the size of hand-knotted mesh, because those spaces make me feel at ease. The softness of my art becomes a counterpoint to the city, as I install billowing, hand-knotted net sculptures to bridge the gap between an industrial skyscraper and my body. I observe that these crafted, textural connections often engender a sense of social interconnectedness as well.
I think art in the public sphere is vitally important. I want my work to be as accessible and free as breathing air. I see art, architecture and landscape as interwoven elements that we can design in a way that improves our cities. They can be fused together to create a unified experience much greater than each entity can do alone.
I leave my work open to interpretation, for each person to complete. My hope is that each person becomes aware of their own sensory experience in that moment of discovery, and that may lead to the creation of your own meaning or narrative
How do you generate form?
My forms come from my search for inspiration from life. I guess this is my way of making sense of the world, and finding my tiny little moment within the larger unfolding story of humanity on our planet. For my traveling Tsunami Series artworks (1.26 and 1.8), the concept stems from scientific data sets of the earthquakes and tsunamis in Chile (2010) and Japan (2011) respectively, and the observation that our actions are interwoven into the complex network of the earth’s natural systems.
My studio generated the 3D form for the sculptures using NASA and NOAA data that measured the effects of the earthquake including tsunami wave heights across the oceanic expanse. The resulting vibrations momentarily sped up the earth’s rotation, shortening the length of the day by micro-seconds, which became the catalyst for the sculpture series.
I also turn to the unique site as a guiding force for each artwork. When I make the first site visit, I get feel for its space, talk to the people who use it, and spend time uncovering its history and texture to understand what it means to its people. I work with my colleagues to brainstorm, sketch, and explore all ideas, without censoring our ideas in the early stages. As the sculpture designs begin to unfold, our studio architects, designers and model-makers collaborate with an external team of aeronautical and structural engineers, computer scientists, lighting designers, landscape architects, and city planners to bring my initial sketches into reality. We fabricate our artworks through a combination of hand splicing and knotting together with industrial looms, and then install on location. It is a collaborative and iterative process that can take more than a year.
What is the relevance of traditional crafts in your work? and What is the relevance of digital techniques?
I think it’s interesting how we’re making monumental sculpture with pre-industrial and industrial methods, but we require post-industrial computer tools in order to build at the scale of the city. I see it as connecting our past, present and future.
When I began making my netted sculptures, they were fabricated completely by hand. All of my recent works are a combination of machine and hand-work. My studio uses hand-work to create unusual, irregular shapes and joints, and to make lace patterns within the sculpture. We utilize machines for making rectangular and trapezoidal panels with stronger, machine-tightened knots that can withstand intense hurricane-force winds, and the heavy weight of snow and ice storms. Industrial equipment and materials have helped me bring my work to a new scale and permanency.
My studio has been collaborating the past 6 years with the world’s leading design software company (Autodesk) to build a custom software tool that allows us to soft-body 3D modeling of our monumental designs while understanding the constraints of our craft, and showing response to the forces of gravity and wind. We couldn’t have built our monumental city-scaled sculptures without it.
How do you match the ephemeral floating nature of your nets with the permanence needed for urban interventions? What makes your collaboration with engineers successful?
I work closely with aeronautical and structural engineers and material scientists throughout the design process, and regular communication and problem-solving together makes it successful. It is a gradual, collaborative, and iterative process from every angle, and often takes more than a year to get from my initial sketch to the final artwork.
Some parts of the form are structural and carry significant wind loads, so are made of a fiber more than 15 times stronger than steel (Ultra-high-molecular-weight polyethylene). The colored portions of the sculpture are designed to withstand UV while remaining soft and able to gently billow in the wind (Poly-tetra-fluoro-ethylene). The final materials in my sculpture are the projected colored light, which mixes with the physical color, and the context of buildings, ground, and people, who together complete the artwork in my mind.
What is your greatest achievement and why?
Shaping a life.
What question are you never asked and would like to be asked? What would be the answer?
What inspires you?
The ancient carved stone caves of Ellora in India, the immense stones of the Coliseum and imagining the gargantuan textile Velarium that used to float above it, the Ikat weavers in Indonesia, the gesture of a master calligrapher brushing ink on rice paper, watching a skyscraper’s bamboo scaffolding survive a typhoon while its concrete foundation cracks, watching the mapping of fluid dynamics from a bat’s wing in flight.
I look all around me for inspiration – at the forms of our planet in macro and micro scale, to the patterns of life within it, to the measurement of time, weather patterns, or the paths created by fluid dynamics.