Under the waves, on the moon

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January 23, 2013
By: Dylan Thomas
David Bowen used hacked consumer electronics to record waves on Lake Superior near Duluth.
Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Dylan Thomas
Two transporting installations at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts

WHITTIER — You could know a fair bit about David Bowen’s “underwater” installation at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, about the artist’s ingenious use of consumer technology to translate the waves of Lake Superior into art, and still arrive in the gallery totally unprepared for the sound.

The sound is like water moving across small pebbles, the static-y tinkling of small red and purple stones that accompanies a walk on a North Shore beach whenever the waves are rolling in. It’s unclear if Bowen actually intended this, or if the sound is just a fortuitous byproduct of his art-machine in action, but the illusion is a powerful one. It’s transporting.

That seems to be a theme in the current edition of the Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program at the museum. Both Bowen and Brett Smith, whose “Superimposter” is installed in an adjacent gallery, will take you away if you let them.

Smith uses stagecraft to accomplish his illusions, but Bowen found his magic wand when he hacked into a Microsoft Kinect. Essentially a very sophisticated and expensive toy, the Kinect uses motion sensors to translate the movements of videogame players into on-screen actions.

Bowen trained those sensors on a patch of Lake Superior near Duluth and let it record the undulating motion of the waves. In the gallery, he plays this recording back on a machine of his own design: scores of servos affixed to a metal grid, working in concert to raise and lower a pink lattice suspended below.

All this hangs from the ceiling, so that viewers — walking beneath and often stopping to stare upward with their mouths hanging open, as was observed on a recent Saturday afternoon — get a fish’s view of the rolling waves. The motion of the servos, raising and lowering their metal arms, is balletic.

Bowen’s high-tech wizardry has dazzled in the past — as when he unleashed mini-zeppelins piloted by fruit flies in the Soo Visual Arts Center gallery two years ago — but this new piece is a purer melding of nature and technology. For all the complexity of Bowen’s process, and despite the naked artificiality of his machine’s exposed servos and wires, “underwater” makes you feel as if you’re floating beneath the waves.

“Superimposter” is another kind of trip altogether. In the darkened gallery next-door, Smith combines sculptures, colored lights and mirrors in three optical illusions that evoke sci-fi cinema special effects, like the psychedelic interlude near the end of Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

Crackpot conspiracy theorists like to claim the moon landings were only so much Hollywood smoke and mirrors, which makes it fun to see Smith do such a smashing job recreating the moon’s desolate, cratered surface. Smith doesn’t hide his tricks, but we willingly suspend our disbelief. 

“underwater” and “Superimposter” run through March 31 at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 2400 3rd Ave. S. 870-3000. artsmia.org