High Voltage, Do Not Touch

The easiest kind of modern art to appreciate is the kind that if fun. A fun kind of modern art
By Amy B. Mcintosh

The easiest kind of modern art to appreciate is the kind that if fun. A fun kind of modern art is the kind that moves and creates different effects with each shift of position. But when the observer is the one who actually makes the piece of art move, you have the most fun kind of art of all.

Gaslight Phenomena, the exhibit of kinetic light sculpture by Alejandro Sina at the Institute of Contemporary Art until May 1, is just that kind of art. It is fun to be hypnotized by the pieces that whirl in intricate patterns, to touch the "Touch Bulbs" and to gaze at the gently swaying hanging pices.

Sina, a fellow at the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at MIT since 1973, has been experimenting with gas discharge light phenomena. In his sculpture he has managed to use his knowledge of chemistry and physics perhaps less usefully, but certainly more aesthetically, than his colleagues in the scientific departments of MIT.

Most of the 17 pices in the exhibit use some sort of glass rod filled with one of the "noble gasses" (you remember from chemistry: that's helium, argon, neon etc.). The chemistry teacher always called those the "inert" gasses, but Sina uses electronics to make the gas-filled rods move in all sorts of interesting ways.

In the darkened gallery, the gasses glow luminously in several different colors. Some of the pieces are eery enough to be in a science fiction movie. A whirring sound from the power supply competes with the flute music in the background.

Several large, swaying pieces hanging over the stairs create a dizzying effect as you go up to the gallery. Then a brief moment of fright rushes through you as you notice the sign on the railing saying "High Voltage, Do Not Touch" and you wonder what would have happened if you hadn't noticed the sign.

The hanging pieces are beautiful though. Sina had developed a special power supply that eliminates the need for the heavy wiring and the high-power transformers found in ordinary neon signs. This breakthrough has enabled Sina to create many effects previously unobtainable in kinetic art.

Time-exposure photographs of the hanging pieces inspired a series of work represented in the exhibit by three "Spinning Boxes." The rods in the boxes spin much, much faster than the hanging pieces resulting in whirling optical illusions in blues, greens, and golds.

Sina originally designed these works so observers could affect the changing patterns by turning a knob on the piece, but, unfortunately, in this exhibit the works have been computerized to show the maximum number of possible patterns.

Sina does believe in participatory art, though, and this exhibit includes four "Touch Bulbs." After the ominous "High Voltage" warnings, signs saying "Please Touch" are refreshing. At first, however, as you touch the bulb, feel a tingle in your hand, hear static, and see lightning-like rays jump out at your hand, the experience is scary.

Hands act as grounding agents on the glass bulbs, stimulating the jumping forked patterns. A bit of experimentation evokes fascinating shifts of light.

Unfortunately, the exhibit is not documented very well in the gallery. Tags by the works give their names and dates, but not the materials used in the construction.

Some of the technical questions are answered in a small flyer for sale at the desk, but if you are too cheap or too broke to buy the flyer, you might be hopelessly confused.

Sina satirically answers this problem. A sign on one piece says "Push button for artist's explanation of exhibit." The button activates a pair of false teeth that chatter noisily, interrupting the flute music and offering no help at all.

The most dramatic of Sina's work is too big for an indoor gallery, but two wall posters describe the pieces. Sina collaborated with Otto Pienento create two 300-foot fhelium-filled polyethylene arcs with 75 two-foot-long red neon rods. These works, entitled "Neon Rainbows," have set the groundwork for a future 3000-foot version.

Interaction with nature is especially important in the large-scale works. Sina is able to control the lights in the rainbows so he can synchronize the flashes with the swaying of the arcs.

The exhibit includes a scale model of a large work called "Neon Sky Event." "Event" is a perfect description of this piece: the 300-foot, bright orange version must be thrilling as it revolves in the night sky.

The ICA currently has two other exhibits in its galleries. Neither is as thrilling or as much fun as the Sina sculpture, but they are worth a look.

Sandi Slone, a faculty member of the Museum of Fine Arts, is exhibiting some recent acrylic paintings. Sporting such varied titles as "Thunderstruck," "Rondo," and "Stalking the Giants," the works all follow the same theme and differ basically only in color.

Each canvas is divided vertically into two unequal parts, and the paint builds up and bubbles along the uneven line where the two parts converge. The subtle blends and shifts in color are interesting, but the works are neither exciting nor disturbing.

The third exhibit of posters for Amnesty International is hung in the gallery's restaurant and is only visible at a distance to those uninterested in food.