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Installation artist Jen Lewin speaks about her Burning Man project and the art practice

The American artist is presenting a new 8000 square foot interactive sculpture at Burning Man 2022, that utilises reclaimed plastic and sets the stage for climate responsive art.

by Sukanya DebPublished on : Aug 31, 2022

Responding to the ongoing environmental crisis and climate change, Brooklyn, New York-based artist and engineer Jen Lewin is presenting a new work titled The Last Ocean at Burning Man 2022 in Black Rock City, Nevada, United States. Having spent over 10 years building the work and perfecting the fabrication process through researching material and building on technology, the 8000 square foot interactive ground-based sculpture aims to be reminiscent of a “field of fractured ice”, inspired by the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica. Speaking to the research that was required in order to bring this sculpture installation to life, the American installation artist says, “The Last Ocean is made entirely out of reclaimed plastic trash that would otherwise be found on a beach or on a waterway heading to the ocean. All different kinds of plastic were ground down to create this sculpture art. The reason why I have taken so long to realise it, despite having conceptualised it 10 years ago, is that I wanted the work to be climate positive and climate responsible. It took ten years for my team to figure out how to make this work as well.”

Lewin gestures to the scale of her production, using the example of The Last Ocean, and the amount of research that is required to realise her interactive works, “There were almost two years of trying to figure out how we could cast the large forms of The Last Ocean, taking all the plastic trash. The plastic trash is imperfect, there are different kinds of plastics that need to be melted down at different levels. There was a lot of research and experimentation that went into getting something as simple as a single top. And that’s only one of a hundred components that go into the creation of the platform. With this work, I was also rebuilding all of my circuit boards. I write all of the software in-house, so every few years I need to update everything. It also involved taking in all the last 20 years of learning that I have, and taking that forward and really changing, shifting and adapting based on what has been successful. We [Jen Lewin Studio] are really driven towards projects that involve a lot of problem-solving and thinking outside the box.”

The Last Ocean and Ursa Minor | Last Ocean | Jen Lewin | STIRworld
The Last Ocean, wide angle view Image: Matt Emmi; Courtesy of Jen Lewin Studio

Trained in architecture and interactive design, Lewin finds her practice at the intersection between art, nature and technology. Over the span of almost 30 years in the sphere of artistic production, the installation artist has spent much of the time researching and experimenting with technology that is at the core of the proposal of interactivity in public space. The deployment of technology into public space highlights the ways that it is intercepting and informing everyday life. Motion sensors, surveillance cameras, touch screens and other responsive forms of technological interjections also denote a new sense of public space. However, with the introduction of large-scale interactive light sculptures that are activated in the interaction between light, form and touch, Lewin attempts to incorporate a new set of publics that is unified through a sense of curiosity and play.  

The Aurora, 2021, Interactive installation sculpture, Jen Lewin | The Aurora| Jen Lewin| STIRworld
The Aurora, 2021, interactive installation sculpture Image: Courtesy of Jen Lewin Studio

In conversation with STIR, Lewin speaks about specific phenomena or moments in nature that she attempts to capture, reconstruct and revitalise through technology, finding inspiration in natural forms. “I am almost entirely inspired by natural forms, which I think is interesting because my work is largely on the synthetic side, where you are looking at these glowing LED light sculptures or platforms. But the core, root inspiration always comes from some moment in nature,” she says. Lewin goes on to give the example of witnessing mesmerising natural lighting phenomenons, describing a snowmobiling trip to Minnesota with her husband, where they saw a spectacular sunset reflected over a frozen lake. This became the inspiration behind the 30-foot tall permanent sculpture titled The Aurora at Terminal 1 of the Minneapolis-Saint Paul Airport. 

Drone captured image, The Last Ocean, Installation art at Burning Man 2022  | Jen Lewin| STIRworld
Drone captured image, The Last Ocean, Installation art at Burning Man 2022 Image: Matt Emmi, Courtesy of Jen Lewin

The Aurora is realised as a large-scale steel and glass sculpture that changes colours on the basis of gesture. Besides this it is also linked to live weather data from the city. When the viewer moves around it, the large scale installation art senses their movement and transforms the gestures into light forms. If the colours are received as blue and white, it might be raining outside. Spring and summer colour palettes are also incorporated into the mix. The sculpture stands tall, across two floors, through the circular, ambulatory pauses in the floor, in the form of a swirl. Over 10 thousand LED lights are used in this sculpture, making for a spectacle that engages the public, and an interactive performativity that seeks to remove the distinction between artwork and audience.

Speaking on the element of interactivity being a core part of her artistic output, Lewin responds, “My focus in my art practice is to create highly engaging, participatory artwork that allows for dynamic levels of participation. I am not interested in making work where everyone lines up and takes turns to press a button. I am interested in works where a hundred people can play within the work at the same time, and each have a really beautiful, meaningful experience of the artwork on their own but within this sort of community experience together.”

The Last Ocean installation during Sunset | Jen Lewin| STIRworld
The Last Ocean installation during the sunset Image: Matt Emmi; Courtesy of Jen Lewin

The idea of community is something that the sculptor speaks about, and the combination of playful interactivity of light, abstract forms and touch with the scale of the works allows for a large number of people to experience the visual art together or apart. When one probes into what a complex set of variables and shared systems through knowledge and ritual that the idea of community could comprise of, however, the gesture of presenting a moment of ‘togetherness’ through common play attempts to slice through time-space.

The Last Ocean at Burning Man 2022 | Jen Lewin| STIRworld
The Last Ocean at Burning Man 2022 Image: Matt Emmi; Courtesy of Jen Lewin
The Last Ocean at Burning Man 2022 Video: Matt Emmi; Courtesy of Jen Lewin

The Burning Man festival runs in the Nevada desert from August 28-September 5, 2022.  

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