Public Art Austin / Sxsw
Self-reflection in a non-reflective space: Simon Heijdens’ Silent Room
by Asa Hursh
It looks sort of like a rest note. That black horizontal rectangle that sits on the middle line of the musical staff. Well, that’s the two-dimensional abstracted version of this anyway. This is actually a forty foot long horizontal black box that you can walk into and momentarily erase everything else, the festival, the music, the crowds, the pitches, the inspiration, and instead, simply be alone with yourself. That’s the idea behind thirty-seven year old Dutch artist Simon Heijdens’ artwork [originally commissioned by SXSW], titled Silent Room.
Functionally the work is an anechoic chamber constructed with the aid of the University of Texas at Austin’s Department of Acoustic Engineer- ing and specifically designed to cancel out, by absorption, all sound, either emanating from inside or out of the box and producing negative decibel levels. Additionally, alone inside the room, you’re reduced to black and white as the narrow band lighting removes every color leaving a completely monochromic space, limiting that sense as well. The resulting intent is to provide “a black hole within the festival” in which one can pause, rest, self-reflect, and snap into introversion in what is otherwise a wildly extroverted week of activities. Silent Room is an almost un-Instagramable art work. It’s a literal void. And it is only completed by the viewer’s human reaction and reflection of an entirely human experience.
Simon Heijdens is credentialed and without question respected by those within the art world – he’s in the permanent collections of MoMA New York, the Art Institute of Chicago, Boijmans van Beunin- gen Museum Rotterdam, and the Victoria & Albert Museum London among others. But his typical medium is atypical, he constructs new technologies, and most-often acts as the “lead and sole technologist” on his team. I asked him how that same art world has viewed his use of technology, to which he replied that “the art world holds a very conservative attitude toward technology.” He continued and justified the point, explaining that “there is nothing interesting about technology; it’s what you do with it and how it can reflect or enhance our own human experience that is interesting.” In the end the artist equated his process to “creating both the tv and the media playing on it.”
Heijdens’ best known works, especially to American audiences, are Shade and Lightweeds. Both pieces are grounded in technology, but use it to produce dazzling almost sublime imagery. Light- weeds is “a living digital organism growing onto an indoor space, through which the space regains the natural timeline that it has walled out.” Plant silhouettes appear as projections on walls and grow at variable rates depending on site specific real-time data of actual sunshine, rain, and wind. Similarly, Shade, is an ever-changing window skin that blocks or transmits light depending on real-time actual conditions resulting in random kaleidoscopic outputs.
I asked Heijdens’ about this conversation that he seems to be creating within his work between technology, contemporary society, and nature. He explained that the goal behind these works is to “amplify the otherwise hidden character of a space, to provide a medium that reveals the inherent beauty.” But it’s not about highlighting nature or plants or the environment per se. When we bore down on it, the natural ecosystem that he mines is there to provide constant and random inputs for each project. The project itself acts as a function or in his words an “amplifier,” in order to create the output, the final viewer experience. Ultimately, there’s an equation happening here with each piece.
If we take this equation and relate it back to Silent Room, the end resulting output is the same as in the other works, in that, the viewer experience completes the work. But this is a closed circuit. The ecosystem input is also that same viewer / participant receives the output as opposed to some real- time external data input. To which Heijdens admits, “The room is only as interesting as the person in it.” Here’s to hoping that you find it pretty darn interesting.