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Art Review: 'Electrified' at Wood Street Galleries

| Wednesday, April 23, 2014, 6:09 p.m.
Edwin van der Heide
'Evolving Spark Network” by Edwin van der Heide
Alexandre Burton
“Impacts” by Alexandre Burton

On April 25, in conjunction with the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust's Spring Gallery Crawl, “Electrified” will features new works by artists Edwin van der Heide and Alexandre Burton.

Each pays homage to the pioneering work of Nikola Tesla (1856-1943) and his experiments in electricity, X-rays and wireless communication.

The first piece visitors will come to is van der Heide's “Evolving Spark Network,” which is a multi-sensory installation on the gallery's second floor comprising a network of sparks, which produce sound and light.

A Dutch artist and researcher from Rotterdam, Netherlands, van der Heide has been focusing on the interaction of sound and space for several years. With this new piece, he extends composition and musical language in spatial, interactive and interdisciplinary directions.

More of an environment than an installation-type artwork, it is as much about performance as it is about spatial relationships, in that van der Heide has created an environment in which the audience is challenged to actively explore, interact with and relate to the work. In this case, as it relates to the electrical impulses by which our nerves communicate information.

Utilizing 80 identical spark bridges distributed over a standard grid suspended from the ceiling, van der Heide says it's not so much an installation in space, but “you could say the space is completely transformed by the installation.”

As visitors enter the space, their movements are noted by motion-detection sensors and used to activate the network. And that's where the fun begins, as dozens of sparks begin to pop and whir like dozens of little fireflies. As if in a real field filled with fireflies, complexity arises through the interrelations between the individual spark bridges.

The work results in a “cosmos of sparks.”

“A cosmos with its own rules and behavior,” van der Heide says.

“The patterns are constantly changing and evolving,” he says. “Each spark bridge is communicating with its neighbors, so in a sense, there can be all different kinds of patterns.”

The exhibit gets even more electrifying on the third floor. That's where visitors will find the installation “Impacts” by Montreal-based artist Alexandre Burton.

In the “live” sculptural installation composed of several Tesla coils, each coil is fitted with a glass pane and suspended from the ceiling. Burton says the general idea behind the work was to “design an electromagnetic phenomena-based instrument, explore it's sonic and visual expressive potential and figure out how to deploy it in a gallery context.”

Entering the piece, the visitor's proximity to each coil engages arcs of electricity of variable intensities as well as a rhythmic articulation, generated by the impact of the electrical arc on each glass pane. Beyond providing a fertile context for aesthetic experiences, Burton says a central preoccupation was to find a way to present a high-energy, relatively dangerous event in an intimate and fragile gallery context.

“The idea is to get very close to the electrical plasma and appreciate the infinite resolution of the potentially lethal arcs,” Burton says.

This hair-raising (literally!) interactivity is designed so that the installation “wakes up” when people enter the gallery and gets more intense as they get closer or stay longer.

“That way, the visitor is free to keep things calm and minimalistic, or go for an in-your-face experience,” Burton says. “So what they get is proportional to what they attempt to pull out of it.”

As a symbolic and sonic source, the Tesla coil's ability to throw electric arcs has been employed by a wide spectrum of artists. With this new work, Burton proposes the use of plasma (loosely defined as an electrically neutral medium of positive and negative particles) as matter and medium itself, circumscribed by a defined frame and articulated through unique programming. In this way, “Impacts” serves as a reminder of the danger and muscle of this marvel while capturing its sublime beauty and rhythmic potential.

The piece is a direct continuation of Burton's ongoing research on energy and artistic processes. This is the artist's second visit to Pittsburgh. A previous work, “Condemned Bulbes,” was at Wood Street Galleries in 2005.

Featuring nearly 30 arts venues, the Gallery Crawl is a free quarterly showcase of art and entertainment in the heart of the Cultural District. All events take place at a variety of galleries and spaces and are free and open to the public. The event is ongoing between 5:30 and 9 p.m., with some locations remaining open until 10 p.m. Details: crawl.trustarts.org/

Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at kshaw@tribweb.com.

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