As you enter the Mary H. Dana Women Artists Series Galleries at Rutgers’ Douglass Library in New Brunswick, the gallery to the right is filled with a large pulsating vinyl form, and sculptural islands of shimmering white bubbles rise upward. As this futuristic form changes color, undulating like a form of life we haven’t yet met, it mesmerizes the viewer. Though trance-inducing, it is a complicated work of technology with LED lighting programmed into patterns and sequences, and video animation illuminating the gallery space around it.
“Light Between the Islands #2” by Grimanesa Amoros, on view through December 10, is part of “Momentum: Women/Art/Technology,” a series of exhibitions that began in 2013 and continues through 2015, presenting innovative uses of technology by women and transgender artists. Conceived by Judith K. Brodsky and Ferris Olin, founding directors and curators of the Institute for Women and Art (IWA), and Muriel Magenta of the University of Arizona, “Momentum” includes an online festival of video works and a directory of women and transgender artists who embrace technologies. An online catalog is forthcoming.
The IWA exists to “insure that the intellectual and aesthetic contributions of women in the visual arts are included in the cultural mainstream,” says its website. “Momentum” has a larger umbrella, including transgender artists. “There is a huge movement in the transgender community for this kind of scholarship and artistic pursuit. At the same time the definition of what it means to be a woman is expanding,” says IWA director Connie Tell. “We feel it is so important to include that participation. ‘Momentum’ is the start for us, but it is something IWA will continue.”
Tell continues and notes, “One of our scholarly missions is to discuss gender in art and what it means to be female. Some students do not define as either female or male, and it’s important for us to pursue that dialogue. The IWA is a unit of the Rutgers Office of Institutional Diversity and Inclusion, whose mission is to ensure that Rutgers is a welcoming place for all students. This is accomplished by creating programming that empowers students, enriches learning, and encourages critical thinking.”
“Momentum” showcases artists who have chosen technology over traditional media because it’s what they’re good at, says Tell. “Artists go to materials they are attracted to and learn what they need, or invent it, to get the job done. ‘Momentum’ debunks the myth that women can’t think on a large scale or do math or work in what they can’t lift. The amount of planning and organizing Grimanesa does to engineer her monumental pieces is unbelievable. This is exposing me to artists I didn’t know, and I’m crazy about the work.”
“Light Between the Islands,” according to Amoros’s statement, suggests her beloved Uros Islands in Lake Titicaca in the Andes. A native of Peru, Amoros came to the U.S. in 1984 at age 20 to study at the Art Students League. Before that she studied psychology at University of Lima, leaving three credits shy of a bachelor’s degree, she told a crowd during a recent public lecture.
Amoros is known for large-scale light-based public art installations exhibited worldwide. Not only do the sculptures incorporate video, lighting, and computer programming, but they respond to and engage architecture. Her site-specific installation, “Breathless Maiden Lane,” a composition of moving light, is on view at 125 Maiden Lane in the Financial District of New York through January 9, 2015, as part of the Time Equities Art-in-Buildings program.
During a three-day residency at Rutgers, which included her lecture, Amoros said she wanted to show students that if she could do it, so could they. Wearing a green dress of a crinkle fiber with an asymmetric hemline and shiny green lace-up boots, the blond-bobbed Amoros recalled how she was first inspired to come to the U.S. when her mother sent a postcard with the New York City skyline.
At the Art Students League, Amoros worked from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., supplementing her education with independent reading and visiting museums. “It was a Bohemian life, but I have no regrets — I love what I’m doing. When you are passionate about something, even in business, it seems effortless and you don’t count the time. If you set goals with a time frame you suffer, but if you follow your dreams it will come.”
When rejected for a grant, Amoros counsels, “Remember it’s just the opinion of a small group of people and the world is made up of billions — it doesn’t mean your work isn’t good. And it’s never too late to be a student. You can be 80 and be a student.”
As a young woman, Amoros wanted to be like Mother Theresa, but a friend pointed out she likes shoes and wine too much to give them up. Inspired by a grandparent who wrote poetry, her mother’s holiday craftwork, and her engineer father, Amoros began making art at age 11. Her earlier work in New York included painting, encaustic, drawing, and photography. In 2000, during a trip to Iceland and seeing the Aurora Borealis, “I couldn’t stop saying ‘wow,’” Amoros says from her New York studio several days after the residency. “I want to share it with others. I don’t want to just stay in my studio.”
She realized that she could fulfill this dream with appropriate technology. “I’m the kind of person that, when I like something, I start doing it,” she says. “In 2000 I realized I wanted to work with lights, but at that time the cost of using LEDs was prohibitive, so I started with theater lighting. I was fascinated by the lighting of Broadway. But theater lights give off so much heat, and you have to change the gels every few months, so in 2005 I switched to LEDs.”
Amoros taught herself about the electrical hardware and the programming she needed to do the sequencing. Her “Terrarium” light installation in TriBeCa is featured on the Philips lighting website for its transitions from one color to another using Color Kinetics, iPlayer 2, ColorPlay, DMX control, and iColor Flex SLX strands.
At the Douglass Library, several assistants accompanied Amoros. Depending on the project, she has anywhere from four to ten people working for her, from helping her keep her schedule to installing and photo documenting the projects. “It’s a team effort, and quality is very important to me.” She does the technical work herself, though she occasionally uses lighting consultants.
Some consider themselves good in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math) and some favor the part of the brain that makes them strong in arts, language, and understanding human relations. Is it the rare brain that excels in both?
“Everyone comes into the world with these goodies, but it changes when we encounter societal expectations,” says Amoros. “We all have these capabilities and talents, and it’s up to us to recognize and use them.” She compares the human brain to an automobile. “You have to maintain it, push the boundaries, and be aware. Not everything comes from the sky, without effort — you have to put yourself out. My mother told me if you want God to work for you, you have to demonstrate that you are ready.”
Amoros compares the creation of her light installations to composing music. “Lines (of light) are my instrument,” she says. “Each one is different.”
It all begins with drawing, Amoros says. “Before you know how many lines of light, before you can be creative or work in computer assisted design, you have to start with a drawing. Just like with music, you have to compose and balance the piece.”
Amoros’s exhibition also includes “Miranda,” a video that mixes imagery of circuit boards, ancient Incan monuments, Incan sun masks, and animation of the artist’s face transformed by the lines of reeds, with a soundtrack by Israeli composer and musician Ivri Lider; videos documenting the installation of her works; and photographs of installations in Times Square, New York City; Turku, Finland; Beijing, China; and Madrid, Spain. “Once the installation comes down, the work ceases to exist, so video documentation of the projects is important to keep the artwork alive,” says Amoros.
A project such as “Momentum,” showcasing technology in art and an online video festival, requires a robust website, and IWA has risen to the challenge. Tell credits Leigh-Ayna Passamano as IWA’s “tech goddess.” “For feminist artists, dissemination through the internet has become very important,” says Tell. “It’s accessible and you can access artists working virtually, especially in a university.”
Bringing an artist like Amoros to campus is far more effective than handing out a list of women who have made it in STEM fields, says Tell. “We know art has an important role in moving culture forward, and women are at the forefront of this movement. Grimanesa is a woman who has achieved tremendous success in a world dominated by men and is an inspiration across disciplines. We are changing STEM to STEAM, where the ‘a’ stands for artists.”
Grimanesa Amoros, Women Artists Series Galleries, Douglass Library, New Brunswick. Through Wednesday, December 10.
Momentum: Women/Art/Technology, Douglass Library, Rutgers University. 8 Chapel Drive, New Brunswick. January 20 through April 17, 2015, Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Artists’ reception Thursday, March 26. Works of Emilia Forstreuter, Jennifer Hall, Claudia Hart, Yael Kanarek, Jeannette Louie, Ranu Mukherjee, Mary Bates Neubauer, Marie Sivak, Camille Utterback, Adrianne Wortzel and Janet Zweig. Free. iwa.rutgers.edu.