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Week of 15 January 1999

Vol. II, No. 19


Let there be art

By J. Nicole Long

If everything goes as planned, Rob Smart's sculpture Time will respond to human touch.

In 1998, Photonics Center Director Donald Fraser and SFA Dean Bruce MacCombie asked SFA students to draft and propose art projects for the Photonics Center, something they plan to do annually. "In effect, we're offering the Photonics Center as a gallery. We're soliciting proposals that unite art and technology and that celebrate light," Fraser says.

Rob Smart

Rob Smart gazes up at his sculpture, Time, located in the first floor atrium of the Photonics Center. Photos by Kalman Zabarsky

Smart (SFA'99) and Alice Orleman (SFA'99) are two students currently enrolled at BU who met the challenge. SFA Assistant Professors Kitty Wales and Carol Keller were instrumental in keeping the projects focused. "We asked them questions about scale, the logistics of installing electricity, the appropriateness of the sculpture to the facility, and budget," says Keller. "We tried to help them maintain their vision even with the constraints of the site."

Smart is planning to incorporate an interactive photonics technology that will sense light. His sculpture currently has four columns of colored light, or light emitting diodes, that interact with a computer program designed by engineering student Mike Lewis (ENG'00). Lewis' program uses mathematical algorithms to change the color inside the glass tubes. Each tube is lit at the ends by its own light source, and the light is dispersed evenly in an outward direction down the entire length of the shaft.

The tubes are based on a photonics principle called leaky wave guides. "Other engineers and I tried to communicate some of the photonics principles that might apply to the commission, but they've done all the work," says Shawn Burke, deputy director of the Photonics Center.

Smart's project, like Orleman's, required that he learn the practical aspects of permanent installation projects, such as using vendors to purchase custom-cut glass and steel. But his sculpture is still in progress because the interactive technology is still in the stages of development. The technology Smart plans to use is an outgrowth of smart skin, a photonics technology already patented for one of its applications -- the regulation of air bag deployment in cars. That kind of smart skin responds to pressure, but the application under design for Smart's sculpture is an optics technology. "We have ideas of what we want the smart skin to do, but we're still working out the how," says Burke. The hope is that viewers will be able to alter the colors in the tube through direct stimulation.

Alice Orleman

Alice Orleman with her sculpture Book of Hours, on the seventh floor of the Photonics Center.

"My idea was to use light and color that responds to the pulse of the building," says Smart. The glass tubes, lined with prismatic film and capable of presenting 16 million colors (of which only about 100 are visible to the human eye), will change in response to touch. "The idea is that it can be played like a musical instrument," Smart says. His sculpture is located in the first floor atrium next to a staircase. When there is no direct stimulation, the plan is that traffic in the building will affect the colors in the tubes.

While completing his master's degree and the Photonics sculpture, Smart has also taught welding, figure drawing, and three- dimensional design as an SFA teaching fellow. Eventually he would like to teach again, but his primary focus after graduation is to find an occupation that will allow him to develop his ideas.

After working on the Photonics project, Smart says, he is faced with a conflict. "I'm torn between two styles. Do I make art to express myself or for money? I see the potential in computer compositions, but whether I work on something computer-oriented or not, I want to develop my skills." Tubes will continue to be a significant part of that work. "Tubes are something I can put energy inside of," Smart says. "I want to use them because they show the guts."

Smart had already been working with illuminated tubes before he considered the Photonics Center challenge. As an undergraduate, he unearthed pieces of rusted farm equipment, placed them inside tubes, and lit them internally. "I like the idea of using objects with a history and illuminating them," he says. "There is the human aspect in the verticality of a tube. It relates to standing up and balancing on a small point."

Students can choose to use photonics technology such as fiber optics in their work, but it is not required. Orleman opted for refraction, luminosity, and reflection in her sculpture Book of Hours, based on an illuminated manuscript from the 14th century that describes the creation of light and spheres. She crafted three separate pieces: a metal circle, a glass ring, and rods and glass chunks, which were then welded together as one piece. Her sculpture, on the seventh floor of the Photonics building, occupies a space four feet in diameter and weighs over 300 pounds.

Orleman also graduates this spring. "I'd like to go out west and possibly work as an apprentice," she says. "I prefer working with metal, but I'd consider working with stone or wood carvers." After her training at BU, Orleman is also qualified to work in welding shops that custom-craft metal. Her goal after finishing the program here is to find venues that will allow her to continue to develop her skills as a sculptor. "That remains to be discovered," she says.

Sherman Gallery hosts traveling tavolettas

By J. Nicole Long

For Michaela Amato (SFA'68) the space around her art is as important as the art itself.

Amato is an installation artist whose individual pieces are designed to be viewed as aspects of one large work, and every exhibition is different, according to the venue. Each gallery space influences how the work is arranged, the relationships between the works, and their meaning. "My art objects are words and sentences, a language that I am able to construct in different ways," she says. "Installation art is always in flux -- always dependent on the space."

The Sherman Gallery on the second floor of the GSU will feature Amato's traveling exhibition Tijuana Tavolettas: Cante Hondo from January 15 through February 26. Tavolettas are two-sided paintings used during the Spanish Inquisition -- they were said to have the magical power to transform the condemned and bring them spiritual peace at the moment of death.

Characteristic elements of her work can be found in Memory Trace I. The repeated image in this case shows sites where bodies were excavated from solidified ash that Amato photographed while in Pompeii. "The repetition of images," says Amato, "vibrates with the silent echo of people's fear, pain, and desolation like chants and ancestral deep song [cante hondo]."

"My works aren't one thing. They are sculpture, painting, and photographs equally," says Amato. The intangibility of memory, mixed mediums of art, and the blend of culture and language all figure prominently in Amato's art.

Memory Trace I is a 14-square-inch glass plate, with a wire grid overlapping frames of film and partially covered with a thick application of paint. The repetition of the image is designed to represent the multiple voices of the suffering people who died in the ash, according to Amato. "The grid creates spatial and psychological compression, and the paint is viscous like the interior of the body," she says. "So it is about contradiction. The intensity of the confinement those people must have felt while they suffocated in the ash, and the reality of the bodies trapped and silently screaming."

Amato grew up in New York, but her cultural influences are diverse. Her mother was born in Boston, and her father is a descendant of a family of Sephardic Jews from Spain who lived on the island of Rhodes off the coast of Greece. Her family continues to speak Ladino with one another, the language spoken among Sephardic Jews.

"I grew up," says Amato, "with hyperbole and parables, and a sense of the magical." Her father spoke several languages, including French, Italian, Greek, Turkish, and Swahili. He operated a trading post in Africa before moving to the United States, where he was the proprietor of Caribbean Botanical Gardens in Spanish Harlem. For 40 years he sold healing herbs, essences, and oils. Before he died, her father began taking amateur photographs. Amato uses some of his photos in her work, to recollect her heritage and join it to the present. She says she also uses the same sensibility in arranging her artwork that her mother used in arranging their home.

"The only way to see an installation is to see it from different perspectives," says Amato. "This kind of art, like truth, is dependent on the specificity of a given time frame. Nothing is absolute, things are always shifting."