The West Gallery at Grounds For Sculpture could be compared to a playground or a fun house. The big open space has hosted exhibitions with psychedlic shapes and colors, such as Paul Henry Ramirez’s 2016 exhibition that shook, rattled, and rolled the space. Now we have “Michael Rees: Synthetic Cells,” on view through July 14, 2019, filling the gallery with giant bubbles — 10-foot-square inflatable vinyl cubes — enhanced with color and shape and augmented reality.
Is it “time’s up” for painting and sculpture? Rees, a pioneer of new digital media, believes the future of art is interactive, according to a video screened at the gallery’s entrance, and the future of painting and sculpture will involve movement. “The interaction with people is so important to me, to see the wavelength on which people respond to the work,” he says. “I want younger people to experience art through a language in which they are conversant, and they are screen-based.”
Indeed, the children who come to see “Synthetic Cells” know instantly how it works, running up to the tablets on stands, wheeling them into position to view, say, a strutting rooster or a pair of dismembered feet wiggling its toes. They know how to manipulate the size and position, and to wheel them around to change perspective.
Through the tablet’s viewfinder, a visitor experiences the actual sculpture combined with a computer-generated virtual layer, a collage of the virtual and the real. Rees has described the exhibition as the collision of utopias, with the older inflatable designs overlaid by the augmented reality pieces.
The inflatables contain trigger points that activate the animation on the tablet. Wheel the tablet over to the image that looks like Harpo Marx in a buffalo plaid jacket with a color-blocked head, a feather duster in one hand and a cigar in another, and you can overlay animate ants crawling all over it.
“My ideal scenario with the viewer is that we will look together into the theater of an invented space to experience interactive and cumulative experience of form and media as both object and network,” says Rees. “Content fades away into an ephemeral moment, a glimpse into some possibility, something at the edge of your thoughts. You might not know why you are moved but you are changed.”
In another work, pink pigs walk across a backdrop of stone. If pigs don’t do it for you, you can choose monarch butterflies, or an enormous fly rubbing its front appendages together.
Here’s where it gets complicated. Grounds For Sculpture Chief Curator Tom Moran curated the show, which he describes as a combination of art, science fiction, and philosophy, but there are two guest curators who chose the augments on the tablets that alter the actual work. Rees and Moran refer to this as Para(Site) — the augmented reality is a site within a site, and the other artists are sharing the site, i.e., the Para(Site) is hosting six other artists.
It is based on the late 19th-early 20th-century concept of the “Chautauqua” that brought together the arts, sciences, and politics for educational opportunities. Inflatable objects have historically been seen in utopian furniture, architecture, and toys dating back to the 1960s.
It’s all playful and fun until it isn’t. Tamiko Thiel, for example, has designed a digital overlay that simulates the red algae overwhelming Florida’s shores — it is viewed over a turtle shell. “Some make a statement, but others are more playful,” says Moran.
There are a total of six augments, by six artists, to choose from that can alter the reality created by Rees. With a large exhibition that is on view for a full year, the augments offer additional ways of viewing the object-based sculpture.
Some of the augments completely transform the original, so that what looks like a painted abstract on the wall becomes a mat of seaweed. Another covers the trigger image with a forest.
“You think you want to introduce kids to the art, but they are introducing it to us,” says Moran of the way children flock to the technology. At the same time, these multichambered inflatables are “heavy duty sculpture,” he says. Even the inflatables in the Macy’s Parade are only one chamber, so these multichambered inflatables had to be fabricated by a specialist in China. (Rees’s journey to get these built took him first to Brooklyn, then California, Canada, and even the Czech Republic, before finding the fabricator in Xiamen.) They were shipped in large plastic bags, weighing in at 200 pounds each, and, once in the West Gallery, inflated with a shop vac.
But it doesn’t end there. Each has been stabilized with a metal framework, “so they’re not just beach balls,” says Moran, and then suspended on a winch so they can be raised with an iPhone (not yours; one specially programmed to do so) when the West Gallery becomes an event space.
And that’s not all: each inflatable has a zipper at the bottom so one can get inside to clean it or fix a leak in a chamber. Now that would be one after-hours sight worth watching — and possibly add another layer to the object.
While there are seven on view, a total of 15 inflatables were fabricated. “We eliminated some of the others because they were too strong to co-exist,” says Moran. (Yes, they had to be inflated, looked at side by side, and then deflated in order to make the decision about which could stay and which had to go.) “We needed to find the happy family to create the wow factor you want.”
So what about the other eight? Two are on view at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art in Overland Park, Kansas. The works were commissioned by Grounds For Sculpture, and Rees owns them.
Two of the inflatables are purely aesthetic, with no trigger points for augments, capturing the light filtering through the gallery and creating effects. The objects pick up reflections and have a stained-glass quality. Over time, as the light changes, the objects change. “They are beautiful without the augments, but the augments add another layer,” says Moran, who distinguishes augmented reality from virtual reality: “With augmented reality you are seeing the real thing with an overlay.”
Rees’s concept for the show was triggered by Andy Warhol’s floating pillows of the 1960s. He is a professor of sculpture and digital media at William Paterson University, where he directs the Center for New Art. A sculptor who has worked in plaster, fiberglass, metal, photography, and animation, Rees moved into the digital realm in the 1990s.
He has exhibited from Chelsea, New York, to China, and is collected by the Whitney Museum of American Art, where he was featured in the 1995 Biennial, among others.
A resident of North Bergen, New Jersey, Rees grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, where his father was an interior designer known for his use of color. Rees learned about, or absorbed, color theory from his father. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Kansas City Art Institute in 1983 and a master’s degree in sculpture from Yale in 1989.
The West Windsor Art Center’s “STEAM Series: [sin ‘Thedik] Landscape,” on view through November 2 (opening reception Saturday October 13, 4-6 p.m.), also includes work by Michael Rees. Curated by Stass Shpanin, an artist on the faculty at Rutgers-Camden, “[sin ‘Thedik] Landscape” is a “survey of American artists focused on the creation of new synthetic nature that is a by-product of daring artistic endeavors and new technological advancements,” according to the press release. The artists include David Bruce, Elizabeth Demaray, Vita Eruhimovitz, Matt Neff, Rees, Tim Rusterholz, Orkan Telhan, and Victoria Vesna.
WWAC Executive Director Aylin Green is fundraising for a pre-college level digital media lab at the arts center, to offer classes in 3D design and music and film editing. “Our phones ring off the hook with a demand for workshops and camps in coding,” she says. The center is in talks with Rutgers about a partnership for this project and the addition of a 3D printer.
Describing augmented reality, Green says it’s about making the invisible visible, “so a series of dots and lines translates into an object. The artist is creating the design and then the code to make it visible.”
She concedes that the technology is so new that it doesn’t always go smoothly. There is troubleshooting, and the equipment costs can add up. “Rees is creating something new that we don’t yet understand.”
One of his works that stands out is a video of what looks like contemporary dance troupe Pilobus performing, but in fact is a digital creation. Before the virtual animation, it began with an actual sculpture, Rees explains. He calls these multi-limbed monsters, not in the sense of horror, but rather ambiguity. “They are funny monsters, and people often laugh when they see them.”
So what is the future of sculpture? “He’s questioning the validy of the object,” says Moran. “When will the object be obsolete? What is technology adding to the object through augmented reality? Technology is adding value, but will it replace objects? Probably not. How can they support each other? Each can stand alone, but when they work together, that is the heart of the exhibit.
“It’s been so much fun brainstorming with Michael,” continues Moran. “This is all new — I like the challenge of all the details. Not only are four-year-olds excited, but it’s the quality of something we all get excited about.”
Michael Rees: Synthetic Cells, Grounds For Sculpture, 126 Sculptors Way, Hamilton. Through July 14, 2019,Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. $10 to $18. 609-586-0616 or www.groundsforsculpture.org
STEAM Series: [sin ‘Thedik] Landscape, West Windsor Art Center, 952 Alexander Road. Through November 2. Opening reception Saturday, October 13, 4 to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Free. www.westwindsorarts.org