They appear to hover in the air – like strange nebulae or giant, brilliant-colored amoebae – or ghosts – captivating to the eye yet strangely ethereal. When we think of sculpture we might tend to imagine solid, unmoving objects, but Janet Echelman specializes in ‘living’ sculptures; enormous suspended artworks that seem to breathe, often animated by air currents – so that such elemental forces themselves become integral to the artworks.
To create her big and billowing yet at the same time (relatively at least!) lightweight sculptures, Echelman uses a netting technique that was inspired by her experience of watching fisherman in India when she was there working on a Fulbright scholarship in 1996-97.
However, she doesn't just use any old netting. Instead, as she explains, these are “high tech fibers, some which are 15 times stronger than steel pound for pound.” Delicate as some of the sculptures might look, they’re built to hold up against hurricane-force winds.
The scale of Echelman’s work is monumental. One of her most famous public art sculptures is “Her Secret is Patience” (which might well refer to the care the artist takes in creating her art!). Installed in the Phoenix Civic Space Park in 2009 and standing around 145 feet tall, the beautiful floating net was inspired by Arizona's massive cloud formations – which can bring strong winds and lightning – and also by the blossom of the Saguaro cactus, the state flower.
Having already embarked on the sculptural path that has led her to where she is now, in 1998 Echelman began to add Lithuanian lace patterning to her pieces, after she discovered that the knotting method used in the craft was very similar to that seen in the traditional Indian fisherman’s netting that first inspired her.
Human influences aside, tellingly (in Boston Magazine) Echelman has been quoted as saying: "My strategy is to let my work be choreographed by nature." There’s certainly something elemental about her sculptures as they ripple and swell in the wind, interacting with such environmental forces as well as the urban and cultural spaces they occupy.
How does the artist create such a rich visual aesthetic? In some of her sculptures, different colors – violets and blues, for example – are incorporated into the very fibers of the netting, while in others a system of lights playing over the pieces subtly changes their colors over time. Either way – and whether by night or day – the sculptures look truly spectacular.
Echelman’s 75,000-square-foot piece "Water Sky Garden" debuted at the Vancouver Winter Olympics in 2010, and was placed right outside the Olympic Oval, where the speed-skating events were held. Concerned with representing the large immigrant community in the area, Echelman figured an Asian theme into the design, evident in the shape of the boardwalk, which alludes to the Dragon Dance. The floating artwork itself can also be seen to relate symbolically to the traditional net fishing practices of the local First Nations Musqueam Band.
Although Echelman is best known for her outdoor sculptures, she does occasionally create pieces for indoor contexts – such the one pictured here, situated in Terminal 2 of the San Francisco airport.
Installed in Portugal in 2005, "She Changes" was the first permanent public piece of its kind for Echelman. Critic Robert C. Morgan has said of the sculpture: "Undulating magically in the salt air overlooking the Atlantic, the piece is enormous in scale, a real spectacle, with a 20-ton, steel-rimmed circle suspended by cables connecting to three diagonally placed poles that extend anywhere from 25 to 50 meters in height." Again, there is a maritime connection, with the piece intended to refer to the local fishing and oceangoing trade.
When asked for an example of how her sculpture communicates in an interview with CNN, Echelman said: "I believe people can have a profound experience by being surrounded by something beautiful – that's what I aim for. My sculpture is about the way you feel when you're standing under it and inside it. It's experiential art. That's why I love the large outdoor format, because you can feel yourself being pulled into a billowing soft porous form. The sculptures make me feel protected and at the same time connected to limitless sky."
Although it ties together two parts of the Dutch maritime city of Rotterdam – its Cruise Terminal and its Port – Echelman’s “Target Swooping V” is far from static. As with her other pieces, motion seems intrinsic to the work. The sculpture’s shape alters when weather such as snow and wind encounters it, and it also makes a sound in blustery conditions.
Echelman talked about this next sculpture – named "1.26" – in an interview with CNN. She explained: "The city of Denver and its 2010 Biennial of the Americas asked me to represent the 35 nations of the Western Hemisphere and their interconnectedness in a sculpture. The tragic earthquake had just occurred in Chile, and I read an article by a NASA scientist that measured the effects of the earthquake. I was fascinated that it shortened the length of the entire earth's day. Learning that a physical event in one part of the world could affect time for everyone on the planet became the catalyst for the artwork."
Echelman continued: "Using NOAA's tsunami wave-height data, my studio created a three-dimensional model of the tsunami's amplitude rippling across the ocean. This inspired my sculptural form for the sculpture titled "1.26," which refers to the microseconds by which the earth's day was shortened."
Grand themes reflected in these imposing yet also ephemeral-seeming sculptures that set our thoughts in motion.
After graduating from college, Janet Echelman moved to Hong Kong, where she studied Chinese calligraphy and painting. She later moved to Indonesia, and again learned about local crafts, this time traditional textile methods. After seven years as Artist-in-Residence at Harvard University, she went to lecture in India, where her key inspiration struck. Her net sculptures have appeared in cities worldwide, and she regularly collaborates with various other specialists – from engineers and architects to designers and fabricators – to bring her pieces to life.