“When I’m surrounded by concrete buildings like tall industrial boxes, my own physical presence feels so completely displaced,” says Janet Echelman. Her solution: huge, sinuous fiber sculptures strung between buildings high above the ground to serve as a “mediating piece,” she says, between us and our alienating urban spaces. The artist, 48, combines an ancient technology—knots—with modern polyethylene fiber that’s stronger than steel and dazzling computer-controlled lighting.
Echelman, a painter, turned to sculpture in 1997 when she traveled to India and her paints were lost in transit; she began making shapes with local fishermen’s nets. She has won renown for some 35 major projects in cities from Santa Monica to Singapore.
“I don’t take on a project unless it requires me to push the boundaries of my art,” Echelman says. In her studio, behind her house in the Boston suburb of Brookline, she often first plots out a project in paint. As it takes shape, designers in her studio use computers to virtually drape forms over 3-D images of city neighborhoods.
With Impatient Optimist (above, a prototype in testing, October 2013), Echelman sought to give physical form to the humanitarian mission of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; the work will be permanently installed on the foundation’s Seattle campus in early 2015.
Engineers help her design sculptures that can support their own weight and withstand local wind forces. Skies Painted with Unnumbered Sparks, suspended above Vancouver last March for the 30th-anniversary TED conference, was Echelman’s largest project to date, spanning 745 feet and using 145 miles of twine; a system created by artist Aaron Koblin allowed nighttime viewers to change the lighting with their mobile devices.
Coming in spring is Pulse, in Philadelphia, which she describes as “a live X-ray of the inner workings of a city.” That project, embedded in a plaza next to City Hall, will emit glowing curtains of mist tracing the movement of three subway lines underground. “People assume the city is unfolding as it must,” says Echelman. “But we have the ability to create a different environment. If that can be different, what else can be different?”