Contemporary Installations Where Art Meets Engineering

Combining engineering with art, these installations evolve into both visual and physical experiences.
Irmak Bayrakdar
Flux (left), Machine Memoirs: Space (right)1, 2

As humans advance further into the digital age, it's only natural for artists to carry their artistic ventures into a digital setting. And, whether you are a lover of contemporary art or not, there is no doubting the visual impact of art installations. So, what becomes of the art installations where art and engineering go hand in hand? They offer the viewers the top-notch art experience where new media's fundamentals are based on.

An art installation is a genre of contemporary art. They are usually the work of postmodern artists - but not always. These artworks can either be permanent or temporary. 

As for their purpose, they tend to serve as an alternative mirror to more traditional types of artworks. In this respect, viewers are able to enter, move around, and interact with it in a way that would not be possible with classic paintings and sculptures. 

Where did it all start?

Contemporary art installations came to prominence around the 1970s. Many people credit the start of the genre to Marcel Duchamp's work, and Kurt SchwittersMerz art objects around this time.

But it should be noted that the philosophy behind this genre of artwork has been employed in the past. One notable example is the immersive experience of well-known theme parks like Disneyland.

art installations head
Source: Matthew Mohr Studios

With engineering included in the picture, these artworks evolve into an experience a visitor could indulge in both visually and physically. These installations often feature transparency, sensuality, and a sense of self that appeals to the viewer's own perception. The visitors are invited to interact with the artwork and their environment; touch them, walk through them, or set them in motion.

Now that you have a better grasp of things, here are some contemporary art installation examples that masterfully combine art and engineering.

1. The sensory GaiaMotherTree by Ernesto Neto

Ernesto Neto's monumental installation was on display from From June 30 to July 29, 2018, in Zurich Main station. The Brazilian artist created his carefully engineered artwork, GaiaMotherTreeentirely by hand. He used bright colored strips of cotton that were knotted together with a finger-crocheting technique to form a giant transparent structure to "[explore] constructions of social space and the natural world by inviting physical interaction and sensory experience.”  The sculpture that resembles a tree, extended up to the station's ceiling at a height of 65 feet (20 meters) and covered it. 

Since the GaiaMotherTree was a walk-in structure, it offered a large area where visitors can linger and rest on seats arranged in a circle at its base while drop-shaped elements hung from the branches that were filled with aromatic smells such as spices and seeds. The space functioned as a venue of interaction and meditation, drawing a contrast to the business of the station. 

2. Skyscraper (the Bruges Whale) by StudioKCA

Contemporary Installations Where Art Meets Engineering
Source: Matthias Desmet/StudioKCA

StudioKCA's 4-story-tall whale-shaped Skyscraper that was installed in the Bruges Triennial in 2018, is completely made of plastic waste. At a height of 38 feet (11.5 m), the whale breaching from the water was the first "skyscraper of the sea." The installation's focal point was the fact that it was made out of 5 tons of plastic waste that was pulled out of the Pacific Ocean. The eloquent sculpture was arching over the city's historic Jan Van Eyck Square as a reminder of the estimated 150 million metric tons of plastic that currently circulate our oceans. 

The studio says that they chose the form of a whale since it is "the largest mammal in the water, it felt like the right form for our piece to take in order to show the scope and scale of the problem."  

3. Hollow by Katie Paterson and Zeller & Moye

art installation hollow
Source: Katie Paterson

Hollow is a fascinating interactive art installation designed by Katie Paterson and Zeller & Moye. The sculpture that is made up of over 10,000 unique tree species, is a compilation of the world’s forests. According to Katie Paterson's website, the materials that were used include "petrified wood from the earliest forests that emerged over 390 million years ago; a sample from the oldest tree in the world, and some from the youngest and near-extinct species."

The installation that "showcases the history of our planet" is a walk-in structure where the visitors can lend an ear to the stories of all the contributing trees while the sunlight filters through the apertures in the sculpture's ceiling, mimicking sunlight radiating through a forest. 

4. The Floating Piers by Christo

art installations piers
Source: Wolfgang Volz/Christo and Jeanne-Claude

The Floating Piers by Christo was on display over Italy's Lake Iseo. Consisting of 100,000 square meters of shimmering yellow fabric, carried by a modular dock system of 220,000 high-density polyethylene cubes floating on the surface of the water, the installation is dubbed as one of Christo's greatest pieces of "land art".  The installation consisted of a series of floating yellow paths that invited visitors to walk across the water 

The shimmering yellow walkways span 1.9 miles (3 km) and the floating piers were 52.5 feet (16 m) in width at about 13.8 inches (35 cm) high.

Contemporary Installations Where Art Meets Engineering
Source: Wolfgang Volz/Christo and Jeanne-Claude

"Those who experienced The Floating Piers felt like they were walking on water—or perhaps on the back of a whale," said Christo. "The light and water transformed the bright yellow fabric to shades of red and gold throughout the sixteen days."

5. Field of Light by Bruce Munro

Contemporary Installations Where Art Meets Engineering
Source: Russell Charters/Flickr

Designed by British artist Bruce Munro, Field of Light, or 'Tili Wiru Tjuta Nyakutjaku' which means 'looking at lots of beautiful lights' in Uluru's local language Pitjantjatjara, is a massive installation located in the sacred field of Uluru in Australia. About the installation, Munro says “I wanted to create an illuminated field of stems that, like the dormant seed in a dry desert, would burst into bloom at dusk with gentle rhythms of light under a blazing blanket of stars”, on his website

Being Munro’s largest work to date, Field of Light covers more than seven football fields with 50,000 lightbulbs that slowly change color. The installation masterfully brings Australia’s most iconic monolith and blooming lights together to create a light safari. 

6. Earthtime 1.26 Munich by Janet Echelman

Janet Echelman says that her latest installation Earthtime 1.26 Munich "...reflects an interconnectedness of opposites - flexibility with strength, earth with sky, things we can control with the forces beyond us," on her website.

Located in Odeonsplatz, Munich, Germany the sculpture turns the historic market square into a gigantic art venue. The ethereal sculpture is created entirely from recyclable fibers that are woven into 361,728 knots in the sense of a massive net. While some of the fibers are 15 times stronger than steel, natural agents such as wind, rain, and light continuously alter the appearance of the sculpture, "in an ever-unfolding dance of human-made creation with the forces of nature beyond our control." 

Contemporary Installations Where Art Meets Engineering
Source: Janet Echelman

Echelman says the Earthtime 1.26 was modeled (and named) after the 3D data model of the ripple effects on the Pacific Ocean's surface that was caused by the 2010 Chile earthquake, which sped up the earth's daily rotation by 1.26 microseconds.  

In order to create the perfect form for her latest installment, Echelman has reportedly worked with large teams consisting of architects, designers, aeronautical and structural engineers, and even computer scientists.

7. Flux by Collectif SCALE & Tetro

Flux is a kinetic light installation that leaves the viewer in awe. The contemporary installation "dances" to the music with its unique and complex twists and turns. The music slowly helps the lines of light evolve while they navigate between the calm and hectic rhythms.

Flux is made up of 48 dynamic light lines that are each 4.92 feet long (1.5 m). The entirely interactive artwork is motorized and controlled in real-time. The visitor can control the movements of the installation with light and sound through a simple interface. Collectif SCALE states that through Flux, they've been able to sculpt an art installation into an alive and evolving organism with a cyclical back and forth movement. 


8. Machine Memoirs: Space by Refik Anadol

Refik Anadol's Machine Memoirs: Space exhibition is a collection of the hybrid realities of physical and digital entities he has created using complex AI algorithms. 

The artist states that the inspiration behind the exhibition comes from their 2018 collaboration with NASA JPL. Combining imagination with the visualized data at hand, the studio was able to turn NASA's 60-year-old public space exploration archives into an artwork. 

Contemporary Installations Where Art Meets Engineering
Source: Refik Anadol Studio

With the recent technological advancements brought on by the Information Age, the voice of machine learning and AI has become more dominant than ever. Refik Anadol, however, sees AI as a collaborator rather than a tool while working on his art. In Machine Memoirs: Space, he has successfully challenged the conventional notion of the cosmos, the human mind, and machines.

About the exhibition, Refik Anadol Studio further adds: "Studying the visuals that have been captured by the most comprehensive telescopes sent to outer space and to other celestial bodies made us think about the idea that telescopes keep visual travel journals of spaces to where we cannot travel. Then, the possibility emerged that telescopes – that collect so many images in their memories, albeit artificial – could dream."

9. MUSAN by Jason Decaires Taylor

Contemporary Installations Where Art Meets Engineering
Source: Underwater Sculpture

Jason Decaires Taylor's MUSAN is the Mediterranean's first underwater gallery. With over 93 figures made from inert pH-neutral materials, Taylor aims to breathe new life into the flora and fauna of the Mediterranean marine life, which is alarmingly depleted. 

The artworks included in the forest are either trees or hybrid human-tree figures. Drawing inspiration from the relationship between humans and nature, the artist hopes that these sculptures will encourage and enrich new ecosystems. Over time, the sculptures will transform into something of a collaboration where the work of nature will add to or maybe even replace the work of the artist. 

With each installation that combines futuristic technologies and engineering with art, it becomes evident that while we accept the rising need for technological adaptation, we can always marry human relevance to create the best of both worlds as long as we use our creativity. 

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