The gravity-defying rope sculptures of Janet Echelman are nothing short of awe inducing. Hovering gracefully in the sky while weighing upwards of one ton, they're engineering marvels as much as artistic expressions. Her studio's latest project, installed this month over London's bustling Oxford Circus, is a meditation on the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan.
The piece is dubbed 1.8 after the number of milliseconds the earthquake trimmed off of each day on Earth. Geologists say that the seismic activity was so strong that it shifted the planet's mass and caused faster rotation, hence shorter days. Echelman previously explored catastrophic events in her sculpture 1.26, which was based on the 2010 earthquake and tsunami in Chile. After reading about how the natural disaster resulted in shortened days, she used the data as a jumping off point to show how it impacted every person on Earth.
1.8 is composed of 77 miles of engineered polyethylene that's 15 times stronger than steel. Echelman's team tied half a million knots and wove the fiber on looms to achieve the undulating jellyfish-like form, which is actually based on the tsunami’s wave heights as it rippled across the Pacific Ocean. Like 1.26, this piece riffs on a vibrant NOAA chart of the wave's intensity. While the earthquake data sets from Chile and Japan inspired this "mini series" of sculptures, natural phenomena are a common theme in Echelman's work, like a recent installation in Seattle that emulates the changing sky.
At 100 feet long and 45 feet wide, the piece—which hangs 180 feet above the street—is massive. But viewers below can connect directly to the installation, and even control it, thanks to a web app that Echelman worked on with ArtAV. Using the app, spectators can pick the prismatic colors and patterns, mimicking rippling water, which are projected onto the piece. Echelman has explored interactivity as a way to engage people with the artwork on a deeper level before, beginning in 2014 with an installation that lets visitors "choreograph" the piece using their phones.
Echelman calls the installation a "physical manifestation of interconnectedness." Watching the morphing lights brings you into a shared moment with the person standing next to you and invites contemplation about how we're joined by experience—it's the perfect embodiment of an evocative public artwork.