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Laserian 

Hiro Yamagata's art of optics

Wednesday, Feb 25 1998
Internationally known among commercial-art enthusiasts for his pop-inspired faunal and floral imagery, Japanese-born and -educated Hiro Yamagata is best known in the U.S. as the poster designer for the 1984, 1988, 1992 and 1996 Olympic Committees. (He's also designed commemorative stuff for the Air and Space Bicentennial, the U.S. Constitution's Bicentennial, the Centennial Celebration of the Eiffel Tower, the Bicentennial of the French Revolution - and painted Ronald Reagan's presidential portrait.) While artists such as Jeff Koons and Matthew Barney gained prominence in the '80s for spending more money on fabrication costs than sales would yield, and others like Jean Dubuffet began art careers later in life, Yamagata may be the rare artist who switched artistic gears 180 degrees at midlife and employs his wealth to investigate artistic practices considered beyond the means of most artists.

In 1997, one year shy of his 50th birthday, Yamagata produced "Eternity or What," an exhibit at Fred Hoffman Fine Art, which consisted of an enormous grid made up of nine sumptuous photographs of smoke, bacteria and fungus ranging in scale from 6 by 10 feet to 18 by 24 feet. The images' intense scale and ethereal subject matter sparked this viewer's imagination, evoking the birth of some star or the edge of an expanding universe. Considered in retrospect, those images of voluminous microcosms paved the way for a continued exploration of immersive environments that has culminated in Yamagata's current installation at Fred Hoffman.

Six months after that first show, Yamagata began transforming the same gallery space into "Element," a six-part series of environmental installations using theater lights, holographic effects and lasers. The common thread in both endeavors is Yamagata's desire to overwhelm the senses by transforming the "white cube" of the gallery into a spatially infinite site where the micro merges with the macro and the limits of the real are expended. There is some precedent for Yamagata's brand of future-forward experimentation. Artists such as Brian Eno, who use home-honed technology, have experimented with the possibility of merging their art with practical design to create immersive-environment thrill rides for tomorrow's techno-driven theme parks. How would it actually feel to be a jettisoning photon or a piercing beam of light or compressed inside an operating computer chip? Could such an environment effectively alter one's moods, with electronic pulses stimulating the nervous system to the point that emotions are modified via sensory perception? "Element" metaphorically asks the former question, and - rather amazingly - demonstrates the latter.

Yamagata first experimented with laser beams when he was invited to create an artistic atmosphere for the 1997 Governor's Ball, the Academy Awards' official after-party. "Element," which offers roller-coaster enthusiasts the opportunity to experience some future tech firsthand, takes off from this earlier laser venture. Linking light's metaphorical connotations of illumination to the actual life-engendering properties of electromagnetic radiation itself, the show focuses on light as a multidimensional entity. Recalling (but far exceeding in scale) Lucas Samaras' 8-by-10-by-8-foot Mirrored Room #2 from 1966, which invited the viewer to step inside and experience "infinity," Yamagata's 3,000-square-foot installation (designed in collaboration with Narduli/Grinstein Architects and the Fred Hoffman staff) appears at first to be perfectly suited for a music-free disco, with an undulating light show in the company of the faint hum of hundreds of motors and rotating lights (some evoking the sprinkling of fairy dust, others a droning refrigerator) that could easily perpetuate any dancer's gyrations.

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Aided by the laser's tendency to haphazardly bounce off the holographic walls (serious modifications of the system were necessary in order to prevent physical harm to the viewers), the installation's overall capacity to stimulate moods is commanded by a computer program that scripts the movements of all the installation's components. (In the process, the work demonstrates one of the primary 20th-century discoveries in physics, namely, light's simultaneous particle and wave aspects.) Here, photons present in the laser emphasize light's materiality (particle), while ordinary light sources, such as Intellabeams and flood lights, show off light's cyclical patterns (wave). Yamagata uses a white-light laser - so-called because its mixture of argon and krypton produces a whitish color of light - that, when dispersed through a prism, produces more than 13 discrete beams of different colors - essentially, a more detailed rainbow. Placed inside a laser projector, the laser propagates both beams of light and scanned images. According to Lasermedia's on-hand physicist Seiji Inatsugu, "The projector also feeds a number of fiber-optic cables that supply light to 10 remote projectors located at four corners of the room. Each of the remote projectors has one specific task, such as projecting graphic images, fan-shaped rays, nebulous patches of light, etc."

In addition to laser and remote projectors, 650 reflective cubes of varying sizes suspended from the ceiling and various light sources also play a role in creating the mood-altering atmospheres. Two ColorRay xenon lamps project a continuous lattice of bright white-light beams overhead. An Intellabeam controller operates four Intellabeam units placed in each of the room's corners and four 500-watt, tungsten-halogen floodlights, which occupy the middle of each wall. Intellabeam units, a type of theatrical lighting fixture, utilize moving mirrors that steer the light, dichroic color filters that change colors, and mechanical filters that render textures. Floodlights behind shower glass also emit white and yellow light.

Since opening on November 22, the exhibit has undergone various permutations every few weeks. The first segment presented a seven-and-a-half-minute medley of upcoming light theatrics. A few days after the winter solstice, the show switched to a very solemn five-minute segment, whose opening purple haze simulated the atmosphere of a blustery snowstorm. As if to coincide with the excitement of the new year, the 12-minute third segment offered a wildly frenetic tour of scattering beams and revolving lights, which generated the illusion of being struck by laser beams from all directions while traveling through infinite space. The current sixth segment incorporates a pair of strobe lights into the mix. Standing on the designated rubber walkway while casually inventorying the variable color distributions, depth of field, light textures and canned laser patterns (puddle, fiber-ray and ready-made test patterns) produced by laser-beam diffraction and the installation's numerous lighting devices, the viewer becomes acutely conscious of the physical effects caused by Yamagata's unusual combination of technologies. Still, considering the technical know-how of "Element," one wonders whether we are so conditioned by the effects of an ordinary disco ball as to be immune to the precision and detail of this elaborate piece. Artists have gained much by simplicity.

  • Hiro Yamagata's art of optics

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