Extended interview, photos and video: New York-based artist Jen Lewin's 'Aqueous' lighting up outside new Oklahoma Contemporary Arts Center
An abbreviated version of this story appears in Friday's Weekend Life section of The Oklahoman.
Dancing lights: Jen Lewin's interactive 'Aqueous' illuminating OKC outside Oklahoma Contemporary Arts Center
Once the golden hues of the Oklahoma sunset faded to deep blue twilight, the vivid shades of pink, red, orange, purple, blue and green began to flash under the feet of adults and children frolicking in Campbell Art Park.
Since opening last month just outside the new Oklahoma Contemporary Art Center, New York City-based artist Jen Lewin's light installation "Aqueous" has beckoned people to stroll, dance and play along its winding interactive pathways - and hundreds have accepted the invitation.
"It is a joy to experience. I personally have enjoyed just watching people engage with it and the smiles, the laughter, the joy. It's beautiful to see, particularly in a time like this," said Oklahoma Contemporary Artistic Director Jeremiah Matthew Davis.
"To me there's no perhaps better artwork built for a pandemic: It's installed outside, it is interactive but you interact with it with your feet, it's huge so there's plenty of space for people to enjoy and experience it."
Part of the inaugural "Bright Golden Haze" exhibition on view inside Oklahoma Contemporary's new 54,000-square-foot home on Autombile Alley, "Aqueous" reflects the sky, the audience and the surrounding environment during the day, much like the building's "Folding Light" concept designed by Oklahoma City's Rand Elliott Architects.
At night, though, is when Lewin's cleverly engineered pathway really shines.
"I wanted to create this environment that inspires the playing of games and inspires people to feel like they can do something something themselves, but also then feel inclined to collaborate and participate with others. Really, that's the core kind of sentiment for my part, and I'm creating this light environment that can sort of explore that," Lewin said in a phone interview from her Brooklyn studio.
"I'm originally a dancer and I wanted to dance with people. I didn't want to just make a stagnant sculpture. I wanted to make a sculpture that danced and people danced with and they used their bodies."
When Lewin attended college at the University of Colorado, she was presented a choice: engineering school or art school. She decided to study architecture so she could take classes from both.
"For me, the process of art is very much integrated with engineering. I don't feel like there's a line between them. ... I think that can be inspiring for young people, too, in particular young women," Lewin said.
"It's not a small technical endeavor to create electronics that people jump on. There are very few things that we have that are electronic devices that survive jumping - or rain," she added with a laugh. "There's definitely a technical feat behind that sculpture. I liken it to a little bit like ballet when the ballerina gracefully jumps and dances across the stage. It's pretty hard. It's pretty hard to make work like that. It's very hard."
Among her first interactive sculptures were giant butterflies and moths that used robotics and motion to entice people to dance with them. But she said technical boundaries and maintenance issues nudged her down a different path.
"I started playing with interactive sound. ... I've been making laser harps now for over 20 years. I make these huge laser harp sculptures where you pass your hands through light beams and you create sound. You could really see the dancer in me coming out in that ... and then that started this kind of association with using light to make interaction. That sent me down a many-year pathway of building these large lightworks and then really honestly building light technology," she said.
"One of the things that's unusual about me is that it's all built in-house and invented. None of it came from anyone else."
She and her small studio team build permanent artworks as well as temporary installations like "Aqueous."
"We call it 'Have Sculpture Will Travel.' ... All the temporary work is really designed to go in any landscape in anyplace. It's all very modular in the sense that I can change any installation so it's unique. But really the soul of the piece is to be able to in the same year go to Bahrain, go to Hong Kong, go to Oklahoma, go to London. Each installation is slightly different and on different landscapes ... but really that's the goal of that piece is to be able to move around the world and meet different communities," she said.
"Every single exhibition I watch I see different things that I've never seen before. And that's the joy. That's the art ... is all of these people all the sudden smiling and doing different things and exploring different things in a park in a way that they might not have ever done in that park."
Wherever she takes her lighted sculptures, she said the children who interact with them devise all sorts of games, from hopscotch to Simon Says.
"The games can be different all over the world, but what is fascinating to me is kids create games immediately. ... It's one of the very first things that they do," she said.
"I've never wanted my work to be behind a gated fence. I don't want it to ticketed. I want everyone to be able to walk up to it ... and you can play around on different parts. You can interact with one section while someone is interacting with another section really far away. You don't have to stand in a line and take turns. It's really designed for this kind of larger collaborative play experience."
Due to the coronavirus outbreak, the internationally renowned new media and interactive sculptor wasn't able to travel to Oklahoma for the installation of "Aqueous," which was originally slated for April but pushed to August because of the pandemic.
"For me not to have been out there for an exhibit of this size is actually pretty painful to be honest," Lewin said. "I usually actually always come in regardless because I actually tune and change a lot of the interface and colors onsite before the exhibition. I was able to do that kind of remotely, but it's been very challenging to deal with these very dynamic sculptures that require really calibrating them to the local site from a distance. I'm learning how to do that, but that's something I think that has been, for me, the hardest part about COVID."
Although she won't be there in person, Oklahoma Contemporary’s Thursday Night Late series will feature a 7 p.m. streaming talk with Lewin at www.facebook.com/OklahomaContemporary.
"Often her works, though fun and engaging, also have a lot of thought and theory built into them," Davis said. "Her studio has cranked out a number of dynamic, really interesting and engaging works - with 'Aqueous' being one of them - and we're thrilled that she was able to redesign the layout so we're presenting a unique orientation of the sculpture in Campbell Art Park."
"Aqueous" will be on view at Campbell Art Park, adjacent to Oklahoma Contemporary's new home, through Oct. 19. The nonprofit multidisciplinary art center started last month offering limited public access to the interior of its new home. Five people are allowed to enter the building every half-hour, advance reservations are required, and masks must be worn by everyone older than 3.
That means visitors can see the rest of "Bright Golden Haze," which features an array of works by nationally and internationally renowned artists and has been extended through Jan. 4.
With its title taken from the first lyric in the iconic musical "Oklahoma!," "Bright Golden Haze" spotlights contemporary works exploring the medium and manifestations of light, which means Lewin's "Aqueous" is an ideal fit.
"I grew up in a place in Hawaii actually halfway up a volcano, and it's a place where the clouds would come in at eye level almost every day. You'd have these incredible lighting effects with like streams of light coming through the clouds reflecting out over the Pacific Ocean. It resembles so much the colors and the patterns and the luminosity and the reflective quality of my work," Lewin said.
"I think I spent so much of my childhood just staring out at this reflective beautiful ocean with these epic light effects that there's just no way as an artist I wasn't going to bring that into my work. Even to this day when I take a picture of something that inspires me for a new sculpture, it's a natural environment with natural lighting: It's light coming through the trees, it's light reflecting off a pond, it's a cloud in the sky. ... And then I want to use that to make people dance. ... It feels like the most natural thing I know."
Jen Lewin's "Aqueous"
When: Through Oct. 19.
Where: Campbell Art Park, 1146 N Broadway Ave., adjacent to the new Oklahoma Contemporary Arts Center.
Online artist talk: 7 p.m. Thursday at www.facebook.com/OklahomaContemporary.