Wood Street Galleries gets Electrified | Features | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Wood Street Galleries gets Electrified

Installations by Edwin van der Heide and Alexandre Burton might shock you — almost literally

Alexandre Burton's installation work "Impacts" (detail)
Alexandre Burton's installation work "Impacts" (detail)

The exhibition Electrified combines the work of Edwin van der Heide and Alexandre Burton, two artists working independently while employing as their primary material the same unexpected element: electricity. The exhibition is inspired by the legacy of Nicola Tesla (1856-1943), who went from fame and fortune to utter destitution during the course of his life. Tesla fell into obscurity after his death, but in recent decades has been rediscovered and acknowledged as a pioneer in the study and harnessing of power.

The Wood Street Galleries exhibition showcases two installation pieces as akin as they are different, and bound together through their innovation and complexity. Sound figures strongly in both works, present through a hum that may accelerate into a crackle of frequency vibrating constantly, or through a fusillade of eruptions. Both artworks require the existence of the viewer for their ignition, waiting in a state of hibernation when left to their own devices. And both can strike awe or terror.

Rotterdam-based van der Heide crafts with sound and space, consistently placing the viewer in the midst of his work rather than outside of it. His "Evolving Spark Network" is no exception. The title is actually simplistically self-explanatory. Eighty spark bridges are installed in an overhead grid. Alone, they rest dark and silent. When a viewer enters the gallery space, motion-sensors animate the piece, prompting a series of patterns in which one, some or all of the bridges counter with a bang and a flare. Depending on the number of people in the room and their movements within it, the ceiling could fire in an expansive volley or twinkle in centralized outbursts.

Working historically in digital technologies, Quebec-based composer and digital-instrument maker Alexandre Burton continues on the same road with "Impacts." Like "Evolving Spark Network," this work is dormant when solitary. Tesla coils await the presence of the viewer, who generates their response with her presence. The coils proceed to throw arcs in the viewer's direction; they crash into protective panes, captured lightning against glass. From a distance, the bolts are small and slight, but as the viewer gets closer, they convulse violently.

"Impacts" might be as at home in a science center as in a gallery space; it's a demonstration as much as an installation. "Evolving Spark Network" definitely belongs to the art world. The latter is a slow burn while the former is an explosive attack. But these two installations are similar beyond their use of charged particles: Both are capable of fomenting intense reactions. Some viewers will find experiencing one or the other a little disquieting. And a few viewers might feel one or both to be profoundly disturbing.

Electricity can be a mysterious force for those who do not work with it directly, and a lack of technical understanding can take it beyond mystery to menace. "Evolving Spark Network" is intended to evoke the communication of information, replicating the way our nerves send electrical impulses throughout our bodies. Rationally, as we read an artist's statement on the work or research the scientific principles that went into its construct, this makes perfect sense. We can admire the concept behind it from a place of safety and well-being, from another room.

But as the piece mimics our own communication, and our presence communicates with the piece directly above our heads, what we receive from it on a visceral level might overpower our appreciation for the intellectual element. As it explodes in pops and bursts, it might subtly suggest neural synapses. But our own neurons might perceive fireworks, which possess the potential for danger, or the blasting of weaponry, designed to be dangerous, making our hearts race, palms sweat, heads pound.

While "Evolving Spark Network" can provoke fight or flight based on its mimicry of man-made peril, with "Impacts," it's nature herself that unsettles. True, a pane of glass does separate us from the arcs thrown by the coils, containing the bolts and ensuring our safety. But because the intensity of each arc is either magnified into a tempest or lessened to nothing based on our proximity, there's no escaping the feeling that the force created is reaching out to get us. Because it is. "Evolving Spark Network" is an indiscriminate barrage, but the grasping tentacles of "Impacts" feel more personal.

But even if your comfort level is trampled, it's worth pushing through Electrified. Electricity is a force that we rely on daily but might not understand, and whose usage we take for granted. Our exposure to it in the context of a gallery exhibition will charge us.

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