The Hirshorn Museum (Smithsonian’s modern art building) presents another wow exhibit, one that gives enough material for long-lasting, multi-level reflection. RAFAEL LOZANO-HEMMER: PULSE (November 1, 2018 – April 28, 2019) engages the observer in a way that is as much peculiar as it is tantalizing. Maybe the show title “Pulse” should have tipped me off but, not having experienced Lozano-Hemmer’s work before and not having read the exhibit description online ahead of my visit, it was thrilling to realize that full experience of the pieces required museum visitors to provide vital sign stimuli. From fingerprints and water spouts to waveforms and light densities, Lozano-Hemmer has harnessed technology to transform something as brief and personal as a heartbeat into enveloping surrounds; at times, it’s nearly a dance club atmosphere.
In a large screen installation, people lined up for their turn to offer a fingerprint. There was communal fascination in watching the unique marks of earlier donors make their way down the presentation wall. Some prints showed tiny sweat beads, others revealed perfectly concentric circles. Access to such private information leaned toward peep show but quickly gave way to bigger impact notions such as individuality, environmental footprint, and karma.
The karma idea has stuck with me. The idea that our actions affect the quality of our lives, this one as well as future lives, is perhaps most pertinently demonstrated by transforming heart rate to waveform. Watching a heartbeat transform still water into a wave, one can’t escape the realization that our force, even one as small as a heartbeat– something we don’t really control– can be used to set other objects in motion. Like carbon emissions leading to greenhouse gases, leading to planetary warming and destructive storms. The heartbeat sits at the origin point of all human force. In an art installation simply transforming heartbeat to water pulse–the use of such a single small stimulus to transform water leads to big question thinking.
In slightly more concrete terms, Lozano-Hemmer’s pieces are simple physics, possibly traced to his roots as a Physical Chemistry major in college. Newton’s third law, reaction: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. At first you might think a heartbeat isn’t the equal and opposite of a room pulsating with light. But add in the technology, a very real amplifier built in to our society and something so small can lead to something environmentally significant. Like a 60-second cat video gone viral; technology allows small stimuli to have big impact. Yes, Grumpy Cat has her own website now.
If you are in or around D.C. before May 2019, get over to the Hirshorn and use your vital signs to gain a better understanding of your energy output and the universe. Click here to to keep up with Lozano-Hemmer’s pieces and shows.