Simulated Landscape: Solar Reserve at the Lincoln Center, NYC

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On a large 28-foot by 24-foot frameless LED wall, located near the Lincoln Center in New York, artist John Gerrard showed Solar Reserve, which is consider to be “a realistic video game type of art” that shows computer-generated images of a Nevada solar thermal power plant and its surrounding desert landscape.

Dublin-born and based artist John Gerrard has installed a solar power plant at Josie Robertson Plaza in Lincoln Center in New York City. Well, not exactly a solar plant. Gerrard works with realtime 3D as a medium.  Some claim the work Solar Reserve bears resemblance a realistic videogame, showing computer-generated images of a solar thermal power plant’s tower, surrounded by mirrors, in central Nevada. But other say the work has more in common with film or video-based art. Chelsea Wald writes in New Scientist that ‘there is nothing very game-like or even movie-like about his work, which might be better compared to scientific simulations. The dizzying simulated vision includes a tower surrounded by 10,000 mirrors which adjust their positions, in real time, according to the location of the sun. “From above, the plant’s 10,000 mirrors form a perfect disc, mimicking the layout of a sunflower,” said the artist to The Wall Street Journal.

Every hour, the installation moves back and forth from a ground view to an overhead one. “New York is this extraordinarily energetic city, and what I love about this site is that it’s these three exquisite, monochrome buildings,” Mr. Gerrard, 40 years old, told  the Wall Street Journal. “It’s quite intimidating to intervene at Lincoln Center.” Gerrard regards realtime 3D as a medium that enables him to work with time in new ways. Working with virtual worlds which include time as one of their dimensions allows time to become a sculptural component. He regards it as ‘a post-cinematic medium in which one can manipulate and interact with time in new ways.

“From above, the plant’s 10,000 mirrors form a perfect disc, mimicking the layout of a sunflower,” Mr. Gerrard said. “And from the front it looks like a lighthouse, with this illuminated tower.”

Every hour, “Solar Reserve” will gradually move back and forth from a ground view to an overhead one, recreating the movements of the mirrors as they pivot to follow the sun as well as the orbits of the sun and moon.

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 “Solar Reserve (Tonopah, Nevada) 2014 ,the Ireland-based artist’s, 28-by-24-foot LED wall, situated between David Koch Theater and Avery Fisher Hall and framed by the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts building.

Mr. Gerrard claims that it usually takes over 10,000 photographs to construct this simulated landscape. Such virtual technology is standard in the videogames industry as well as in the military for simulation exercises, yet it rarely crosses over into the arts.

“When people hear that this is created within a gaming engine, there is the sense that there is an automation, that we just press a button,” Mr. Gerrard said. “But this is as handmade as painting or sculpture. We have to build the entire terrain: the mountains and desert, the rocks, plants, pebbles.”

The work is “a sophisticated use of visual technology that urges you to engage with it over some period of time,” said Jed Bernstein, Lincoln Center’s president. “The presence of the object will be different at different times of the day.”

Simon Preston, whose Lower East Side gallery has represented Mr. Gerrard since 2008, called “Solar Reserve” “by far John’s most ambitious piece in terms of scale, content and the technologies used.”

Gerrard’s work concerns itself with the nature of contemporary power in the broadest sense, epitomising the structures of power and the networks of energy that characterized the massive expansion and intensification of human endeavour that took place during the twentieth century. Many works have featured geographically isolated industrial facilities that are a hidden part of the global production network that makes the luxuries of contemporary life possible. As Emily Hall wrote in ArtForum:

“[Gerrard’s] fine balance of concept, content, and material suggest a theme and variations on the theme of the virtual. The computer-generated landscapes bring to mind, of course, virtual worlds, video games, special effects – that is, ways of producing unrealities. Here the format manifests something quite real, albeit at the periphery of most of our worlds – the discomfort of this admission is part of the work’s impact – since for many of us, the arrival of food in our markets and the availability of oil are things we take on faith, if we think about them at all. Their existence remains provisional – more or less virtual – whether in life, on a gallery wall, or on a computer chip.”

Although liable to be mistaken for time-based media (video or film) works, Gerrard’s works are constructed as simulations or virtual worlds, using 3D Real-time computer graphics – a technology originally developed for military use, and now used extensively in the videogame industry. This choice of medium is closely tied to both the content, the form, and methodology of Gerrard’s work: The digital computer and its generalized capacity to model any system whatsoever is the crucial enabler, not only of the hyper-realistic rendering of his subjects, but also of the globally co-ordinated networks of production and distribution that the works explore. Gerrard’s work, although making use of advanced digital technology, has been noted for its refusal to be categorised as ‘new media art’.

Shane Brighton has suggested that the doubling of ‘the horizon of the image’s visual composition and the time-horizon of its unfolding duration’ serve to bring into focus human finitude and the limits of meaning, thus relating the work to a tragic mode. Gerrard himself says that ‘the medium moves beyond the realm of the consumable in a sense, and involves much more inhuman timespans, which cannot be watched like a film. It connects and intersects with other types of time, other types of endurance and other types of simultaneity’. However, the works also constitute Gerrard’s continuing reflection upon his own time: ‘these melancholic realms are in some way a road movie of the Twentieth Century, a revisiting of the extraordinary comforts and freedoms that I’ve experienced.

Gerrard’s work has been associated with the philosophical movement of Speculative Realism. Lufkin (Near Hugo, Colorado)was featured in Urbanomic’s 2010 intervention The Real Thing at Tate Britain, and his History of Nitrogen, co-authored with chemist Michael A. Morris, appeared in the seventh volume of Urbanomic’s journal Collapse (journal). British philosopher and editor of Collapse Robin Mackay titled his 2010 essay on Gerrard Speculative Liter(e)alism (in reference to the term ‘literalist’, which was used to describe what later became known as ‘minimalist’ works), and in the same volume Iranian philosopher Reza Negarestani notes that the reconstructed surfaces of the artist’s virtual structures invariably refer to inhuman processes at the intersection of capitalist globalisation and earth history: ‘The agro industrial destiny of nitrogen (“Grow Finish Unit”), the terrestrial history of hydrocarbons (“Animated Scene [Oil Field]”), the politico-economic chronicle of prefabricated architecture and the widespread history of limestone extraction and the geochemical cycle of calcium (“Cuban School”) exemplify deep geo-cosmic histories of contingency silently plotting behind everyday terrestrial façades.’

The eerie hyperrealism that characterises the medium, and Gerrard’s choice of industrial subjects, has led some to compare his work with Charles Sheeler‘s ‘precisionism‘.[Gerrard’s interest in minimalism and postminimalism (in 1999 he wrote a postgraduate paper on sameness and doubling in the work of Roni Horn and Félix González-Torres) is evident in the physical presence of his installed objects, which are presented either as large-scale projections that often push the boundaries of existing technology, or as compact ‘artboxes’, designed in collaboration with Inseq, an industrial design firm in Vienna. Like Horn and Gonzalez Torres, Gerrard’s work has been described as somewhat undermining the masculine confidence and aggression of minimalism, as it makes explicit the relationship between the ‘specific objects’ of minimalism and processes of industrialisation and virtualisation in ‘the real world’. References to the photography of Bernd and Hilla Becher can also be read in Gerrard’s aloof treatment of industrial structures.

The production of Gerrard’s works is a highly labor-intensive, collaborative affair, with each work typically taking between six months and a year to complete. The artist works with a small production team in his Vienna studio who carry out the programming and modelling, including long term collaborator Werner Poetzelberger, alongside programmer Helmut Bressler and others. He also collaborates with industrial designers Inseq in Vienna to create the physical form of his works. He has said that the ‘system of working … is very similar to making films, in that a group of specialists is assembled under a director to make something … making these works is beyond the capabilities of any one person.’

Working initially from research documents, texts or striking images in the popular press, Gerrard uses the internet as a research tool, in what he calls ‘image wandering’. This subsequently leads to exploratory journeys: ‘Really, my technique is to be present on the landscape, and to spend some time travelling across it, being aware of it.’

Often the structures central to Gerrard’s works are discovered by chance during these trips. Once a structure is selected for a ‘portrait’, the artist takes a comprehensive set of several thousand photographs of the surface of the structure: ‘I function like a scanner, moving over the landscape, capturing the scene.’ These photographs are used in the studio as textures for a reconstructed, hand-built virtual 3d model of the structure, which in turn is then placed within a ‘virtual world’ that incorporates the passing of time and other environmental elements.

Recent works such as “Oil Stick Work”, “Cuban Schools” and “Infinite Freedom Exercise” have increasingly featured simulated human figures, produced using Motion Capture, and have experimented with the use of algorithmic components to produce action within the work that is unforeseeable to the artist himself.

The production space where Gerrard and his team work (Loquaiplatz 3 in Vienna) was designed by the artist in collaboration with A2 Architects in 2010. It also doubles as a kitchen and informal gallery, and is the site of Gerrards long-term collaboration with Austrian collective AO&, who take up seasonal food and discourse based residencies in the space several times annually. The space includes furniture designed by the artist and often installations of his works.

An earlier series of works by Gerrard feature virtual reconstructions of historical events or existing structures on the contemporary landscape. The artist still speaks of them as ‘portraits’; they draw on multiple media – photography, film, sculpture, land art – to create a new form. In 2006, Gerrard discovered several photographic images, from 1935, of a vast dust storm travelling across Texas, in what were becoming the agri-industrial heartlands of the US. In the early decades of the twentieth century, the exploitation of petroleum enabled an agricultural intervention on an hitherto unimaginable scale, resulting in a hundred million acres of this area being ploughed within a twenty-year period, thus destroying an ancient and stable grass ecosystem. The catastrophic result was a desertification of the landscape, and the creation of what came to be known as the Dust Bowl. The photograph became the basis for Dust Storm (Dalhart, Texas) [2007], a work that consists of a virtual portrait of the landscape as it stands today, upon which is placed a realtime animated 3D model of the historic storm, like a slowly unfolding sculpture. This work was first shown in Marian Goodman Gallery, NY in a project titled Equal, that is, to the Real Itself, curated by Linda Norden, in mid-2007.

This work led Gerrard to investigate further the backstory of the traumatised ‘dead zone’ of the Dust Bowl and its relevance for contemporary life. At the centre of this plot is the discovery of the function of nitrogen in synthesizing organic compounds, and the development of the Haber-Bosch Nitrogen-fixing process, exploited for the production of explosives, but which also enabled large-scale production of the nitrogen-based fertilizer upon which the world’s ever-growing population is now largely dependent. Gerrard explored this history in a text written for the catalogue of his Venice Biennale presentation of 2009, Animated Scene. The Venice install, curated by Jasper Sharp and Patrick Murphy, included Dust Storm (Dalhart, Texas) 2007, Grow Finish Unit (near Elkhart, Kansas) 2008, Oil Stick Work (Angelo Martinez/Richfield, Kansas) 2008. A related work, Sentry (Kit Carson, Colorado), 2009, was shown concurrently at the Palazzo Fortuny, Venice, as part of “Infinitum”, the final part of a trilogy of exhibitions mounted by Axel Vervoordt which began in 2007 withArtempo: When Time Becomes Art.

In subsequent years, Gerrard returned repeatedly to the midwest landscape, making a series of works all based on structures discovered within its vast expanse. The area across which the duststorm once passed is now home to new production units, whose enmeshing in automated networks of food production, reflected in their eerie ‘virtuality’ and geographical disengagement, is redoubled by the precise 3d modelling employed in the works. Gerrard shows how, with these new facilities, the sterile surface of this land has once again been returned to productivity, packed with remote-controlled batteries that power hungry cities.

Gerrard has stated that his visit to the Chinati Foundation at Marfa following the Goodman show, and in particular seeing Donald Judd‘s 100 Untitled Works in Milled Aluminium sensitised him to the recurrent forms of the pig production units he saw in the distance from the highway. Working with his partner Cesar Mejias Olmedo, he drove offroad to discover more about the structures, resulting in the first Grow Finish Unit work of 2008.

The Duststorm works are virtual recreations of duststorms from found photographs, placed upon reconstructions of the landscape as it stands today. Upon the Exhibition of the work at Art Chicago in 2008, famously tactiturn critic Alan Artner led his review of the Fair with the headline ‘A New Medium Emerges’, opining that ‘Not many times in life can anyone see an artist pioneer a significant new medium. But that is what we see in John Gerrard’s Dust Storm (Manter, Kansas)’. Artner continues:

Dust Storm unites a classic image from the Great Depression with a contemporary industrial landscape, setting them in a cosmological orbit that is completed over the full spectrum of a year. The exploitation of oil that goes back to the beginning of the 20th Century is presented as the catalyst of conditions that led to the ecological disaster of Dust Bowl. But nothing is didactic. The pity in the subject comes to viewers subliminally through a visual poem of complexity and power.”

Another critical response by Joseph Wolin, in Modern Painters states:

“The work’s panoramic view comes from photographs the artist shot on location, the image of the storm from 1930s archival photos of the Dust Bowl, which resulted from the confluence of cyclical drought and the reckless expansion of agricultural activity made possible by fossil fuel–powered farm equipment. But Gerrard devised the algorithm that defines the dark cloud’s roiling by looking at video of a dust storm in Anbar Province in Iraq, taken by an American soldier. In a strange reversal, Dust Storm makes our contemporary thirst for oil, and an attendant blindness to its effects on the world, animate a historic catastrophe in the panhandle of George W. Bush’s home state, a disaster that was likewise driven by oil, rapaciousness, and willful ignorance of the consequences.”

Gerrard’s project ‘Solar Reserve’ is an illusory desert landscape in the middle of the bustling urban center. “I want to cut a hole into this scene and put a world in,”Gerrard said. “An alternate universe.” The mastery of this medium that Gerrard and his production team have developed has enabled him to distance the work from any conspicuous emphasis on ‘new media’ credentials and their cultural associations. Chelsea Wald wrote in New Scientist that ‘there is nothing very game-like or even movie-like about his work, which might be better compared to scientific simulations. Gerrard sets the parameters and then simply lets the scene evolve … [the] team-oriented production model comes from the world of computer science, not art.’ While they use the same software that is employed for intensively interactive gaming environments, the works give the viewer no freedom of movement, and generally feature a slow path of movement that orbits a silent, isolated structure. In relation to this movement, Gerrard says that his understanding of this medium is ‘profoundly orbital. The works stage a world, in which certain set behaviors have been put in motion. One of them is what I call an orbital camera, a camera that moves, at walking pace, around the scene – the human presence: being there, the witness. And then of course you have the orbit of the year which is linked to the real and which forbids an easy, instant consumption of the scene, because it takes a full year to unfold in full. But then, crucially, this world, this reality, consists of one moment in time. Not an instantaneous moment, but the time during which I documented the scene’. So while viewers do not interact with the work in the same way they would with a video game, they are influenced by the environment the work proposes. This seems quite logical given the subject matter. However, the power to run New York City typically flows from the northern and western State of New York to the population centers in the southeastern part of the state. A list of power stations for New York include non-renewable sources such as coal, nuclear power station, gas-fired (or combined gas/coal) and Petroleum. Renewable sources include hydroelectric, wind farms and Biomass. There is no mention of solar power plants. Meanwhile the Nevada power plant depicted ‘Solar Reserve’  is in the Mojave desert- nearly 3000 miles away. Ivanpah, a joint project uniting NRG Energy Inc., Google Inc. and Bright Source Energy, can produce enough electricity to power just 140,000 west coast homes.  Gerrard’s work ‘Solar Reserve’ is billed as “a sophisticated use of visual technology that urges you to engage with it over some period of time,” due to the fact that the “The presence of the object will be different at different times of the day”. Most of the critical questions the work raises is if the use of the use of all these elaborate special effect in the middle of New York City is as relevant and necessary as the artist would like us to believe.  This dizzying simulated vision depicts a tower surrounded by 10,000 mirrors- which is itself a theatrical visual feast with a ‘feel good factor‘. The real-world, grandiose, $2.2 billion solar project is an engineering marvel.. that looks great and makes us feel great while obscuring the dirty industries that really power cities like New York. And I suppose that is the real pertinent point of the exercise. 

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Solar Reserve by John Gerrard was at The Lincoln Center’s Josie Robertson Plaza from the beginning of October till December 1st 2014.


Gerrard received a BFA from The Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art, Oxford University.  He undertook postgraduate studies at The School of The Art Institute of Chicago and Trinity College, Dublin, and in 2002 was awarded a Pépinières Residency at Ars Electronica, Linz,  In June 2009 he began a six month guest residency at the Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunsten, Amsterdam. Following a nomination to the Junge Akadamie, Berlin by Dieter Appelt and Wulf Herzogenrath, During 2012 he is Legacy Fellow at Magdalen College, Oxford, working on a major new commission for Modern Art Oxford and the London 2012 Festival. Gerrard has participated in group shows including BEYOND at Kumu Art Museum, Tallinn, Estonia (2011), 20/20, Irish Museum of Modern Art, Ireland (2011), EV+A, Limerick, Ireland, in collaboration with Peter Carroll. (2010), Infinitum at Palazzo Fortuny, Venice, (2009), Academia at L’Ecole de Beaux-Arts, Paris (2008), Equal, That Is, To the Real Itself, Marian Goodman Gallery, New York, Existencias at the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Castilla y León (2007). Recent solo presentations of Gerrard’s work include Infinite Freedom Exercise, Manchester International Festival, Manchester, UK (2011), John Gerrard, Ivory Press, Madrid, Spain (2011), John Gerrard, Perth Institute of Contemporary Art, Perth, Australia (2011), Universal, Void, Derry, N. Ireland (2011), John Gerrard, Thomas Dane Gallery, London, UK (2010), Cuban School, Simon Preston Gallery, New York (2010), Sow Farm : What You See is Where You’re At, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, Scotland (2010), Oil Stick Work, Art on the Underground, Canary Wharf Station, London, UK (2009 / 10), Directions : John Gerrard, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington DC, USA (2009), and John Gerrard, Animated Scene, 53rd International Art Exhibition, La Biennale di Venezia, Italy (2009).

Sources:

http://www.mymodernmet.com/profiles/blogs/john-gerrard-solar-reserve

http://www.wsj.com/articles/john-gerrards-solar-reserve-comes-to-lincoln-center-1412268559

https://www.youtube.com/user/BrightSource

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar_power_plants_in_the_Mojave_Desert

http://www.wsj.com/articles/john-gerrards-solar-reserve-comes-to-lincoln-center-1412268559

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