TRANSFORMING ARCHITECTURE WITH THE COLORS OF SUNLIGHT
“The rainbow is a very deep memory for humans. It has been coded into our genetic material over millions of years. Seeing a rainbow restores our connection to Nature – it restores our physical and psychic functions.”
Dr Jonas Salk, creator of the first polio vaccine
We sometimes walk through cities without realizing what is happening around us, absorbed in our thoughts. We even deliberately ignore the streets and the buildings we walk past, preferring not to see them, especially those in deprived areas. The urban environment can look chaotic, alienating and miserable, expressing the social problems of our time.
The American artist Peter Erskine creates interventions to break the monotony of contemporary cities – where ancient ruins are sometimes engulfed by modern corporate buildings – by casting the colors of sunlight onto architectural and urban surfaces to engage the passers-by in a more humane experience of the urban environment. By using prisms and mirrors, Erskine spreads ordinary white sunlight into the colors of the solar spectrum.
Invited by the City of Rome to create “New light on Rome” in 2000, Erskine flooded arches and columns, in five ancient Roman architectural masterpieces, with rainbows generated by reflecting and refracting sunlight, thus using a zero-energy or zero-carbon lighting technology. The Roman historical remains became the theatre for his performative installations – products of a deep understanding of the principles of physics and human perception- which continuously changed with the hours and seasons while interacting with both the visitors and the urban settings.
After Erskine graduated from Yale in 1963, he was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship and traveled to India, where he was fascinated by the play of light on the relief surfaces of classical Indian sculpture. That experience changed the course of his life and inspired him to use sunlight as a medium. Eager to learn as much as possible about the properties and the effects of sunlight, he has taught himself about optics, spectroscopy, colour vision and photosynthesis. In an Erskine installation, sunlight is the medium, subject matter and energy source of the art.
Since the 90’s Erskine has been producing art by manipulating sunlight to make people aware of its essential importance. “I want to show how dependent we are on nature, and primarily on sunlight: humans, like all life, are solar powered”, he says.
In 1992 Erskine created his first “Secrets of the Sun: Millennial Meditations (S.O.S.)” installation in the ancient Roman Forum, with a live sound installation by Bruce Odland and Sam Auinger. S.O.S. later traveled to Berlin and Los Angeles. “Secrets of the Sun” is about the beauty and dangers of sunlight. The beauty of the rainbow and the horrors of global warming, ozone depletion and mass species extinction. Erskine says that S.O.S. is a meditation on the idea that what we thought was the road to progress, may in fact be the road to doom. “But,” he says, “The solar spectrum is incredibly beautiful, and, as in Mozart’s requiem, where we are able to face death because we are immersed in beautiful music, I leverage the rainbow’s beauty to hold viewers’ minds open as they confront the environmental horrors presented in S.O.S. Drenched in the beauty of the rainbow people can process scary information that would otherwise cause them to go into more denial – which only makes the environmental crisis worse.”
By combining the most ancient medium – sunlight – with new technologies such as computer controlled heliostats and laser-cut prismatic films, Erskine’s work inspires a sense of wonder. It stimulates people’s perception of urban architecture, turning the grayish spaces defined by Marc Augé as “non-places” into colorful and engaging spaces we delight in experiencing and exploring. In fact, commissioned by the Italian State Railway, Erskine transformed people’s perception of the stations Rome Termini, Florence Santa Maria Novella and Milan Central as well as 30 EuroStar high speed trains running between Rome and Milan, which resulted in “Cromos, a project at a vast geographic scale. However, in line with Mies van der Rohe’s principle of “less is more”, the total weight of the materials employed was less than 150 kilograms and they have all been reused by the artist.
In the California desert, Erskine created “Healing Light”, an indoor and outdoor solar powered, solar spectrum installation in the lobby and garden of the Eisenhower Lucy Curci Cancer Center. In recorded interviews, Cancer Center patients and medical staff corroborated Dr Salk’s understanding of the healing powers of the rainbow in the “Healing Light “ artwork.
Peter Erskine is not only an exceptional artist with a deep scientific knowledge. What mostly impresses when listening to him is that his approach to every new project seems much more architectural than many contemporary archistars’. In fact, rather than “imposing” his creations he “listens” to the context: he goes to the designated location, explores the site and asks people about their lives and their use of the buildings before coming up with an idea. “I want to connect with the history and spirit of the place”, he says. Then he plays with the existing architecture involving its surfaces, whether they are solid brick walls or they include windows, curtain walls and perforated screens. His art is about sunlight, from sunlight and with sunlight, evoking the beauty of the rainbow as well as the danger of global warming with minimal, yet highly effective gestures. “Elegance is doing the least and making the most out of it”, he says.
In 1989 Peter Erskine created a new Solar Spectrum Environmental Art medium called Secrets of the Sun: Millennial Meditations (S.O.S.). S.O.S. is about the beauty and dangers of Sunlight: the beauty of the rainbow and the horrors of global warming, ozone depletion and mass species extinction. Like the rainbow, this new art medium has universal appeal. In addition to permanent installations in six countries, Erskine has exhibited this art internationally in the ancient Roman Forum, Berlin’s Kongresshalle, and Los Angeles’ historic Union Station. His art has received broad coverage in the global media, including seven magazine cover stories in four languages, over 150 articles in magazines and newspapers, and six global satellite broadcasts. TV and radio stories featuring Erskineʼs art have been broadcast in over 150 countries.
Other videos about Peter Erskine‘s art: