Few people know that Utah is an art-hungry, art-friendly state. It sports the first state arts council, dating back to 1899, three short years after statehood; more pianos per capita than anywhere else; literary and performing arts and, more to the point here, visual arts. In 1985, the Utah State Legislature passed the Utah Percent-for-Art Act which designates 1% of construction costs of new and/or renovated state public buildings to be added to the project for the purpose of commissioning, maintaining and conserving site-specific art at, on, or in the facility. The collection includes a broad range of media from textiles and glass to stone and metal monumental works, and in the lobby of the Crocker Science Center it's art that moves in a compelling manner that may surprise you.
Created by Brooklyn-based Hypersonic, a collaborative studio blending art, design, engineering, technology and architecture to create sculpture and interactive experiences, "Life of Tree" is a kinetic sculpture that simulates a tree’s reflection in water. It's a metaphor for how all scientific theories are only a reflection of the underlying reality. "Depending on the distortions of our theories," write the artists, "the reality is seen more or less clearly." That's why the branch structure of the tree, made of 190 unique, 3D printed-out hollow pieces and separated into 24 slices composing the height of the tree, appears upside down. Plebian Design was a full partner with Hypersonic as well.
Is it a dead tree waiting for the sawmill or a fanciful Tinker Toy contraption right out of an animated film by Pixar?
It might appear as either, or both ... until it moves. That's when art meets science and the magic starts.
"I'm excited to bring Life of Tree back to life!," says contributing artist Bill Washabaugh who was on-hand this week astride a hydraulic cherry picker for the re-boot. "There is a whole group of people at campus who may have never known that it moves. It just needed a little (metaphorical) watering and pruning to keep it looking good."
Even a group of five-year-olds milling about from the summer camp Club U across the street can be seen oo-ing and awe-ing, necks craned upwards. And you can experience "Life of Tree" as well, in all its post-pandemic, fully animated glory. The sculpture was inspired by the biological tree of life and highlights the underlying connection between all parts of our natural world, linking patterns across seemingly disparate disciplines. Since the merger of the College of Science with the College of Mines & Earth Sciences, those STEM disciplines are even more disparate than ever, adding to biology, chemistry, physics and astronomy and mathematics, mining engineering, materials science engineering, geology and geophysics, and atmospheric sciences.
Really, the Crocker Science Center (CSC), with the mobile tree sculpture, is a temple of sorts. A temple of science. With the recent renovation and addition in 2017/18 to the George Thomas Building on Presidents Circle, the former Natural History Museum of Utah (and before that, the university's library) is filled with light thanks to a latticed glass ceiling between the old building and the new, glass walls and seemingly free-floating stairs over the atrium. It's like working in a fishbowl with images of faculty, staff and students reflected (though, this time, right-side up) in virtually every vertical space.
The building's design is to allow the public to witness in real time the research that students and their faculty mentors are doing, and the tree is this space's perfect — though at first, arguably, perplexing — complement. It's an argument for STEAM (science, technology, engineering, ART and math) rather than just STEM, something former Utah Governor Gary Herbert reiterated in February at the recent groundbreaking of the next phase of the Crocker, this time as a complex with the addition of the Applied Science Project immediately south of the CSC.
The movement of Life of Tree embodies the scientific principles of resonance and frequency response — how systems exhibit a wide range of responses across the vast scales of space and time — sometimes known, sometimes hidden, and sometimes completely unexpected. "When we started the project," explains Washabaugh, we searched for wind sensors around campus that we could tap into, so that we could use live wind data to inform the movement of the sculpture." In the end the team wasn't able to secure a stable enough source of local wind data, "so we decided to model some of the movements on the patterns we saw in some of the wind data that we found."
Life of Tree creates a reflection of the natural world that keeps our eyes open toward the unknown. According to the creators, the sculpture was inspired by past works including Alexander Calder’s tree-like sculptures, Natalie Jeremijenko’s Tree Logic, Andy Goldsworthy’s works, Janet Echelman’s fishnet structures and more historical references to the tree of life and the motions of mass-spring systems.
But you don't need to know a lot about the context, history and inspiration of Life of Tree to enjoy it. It's an experience that you have to find yourself in.
So ... take a break from class and visit the Life of Tree in the Crocker Science Center. Grab a cup-a-joe at the adjacent Two Creek Coffee, take a seat in one of the three upholstered vantage points, and relax. If it's not presenting its graceful, ecstatic moves immediately, wait a bit.
Your anticipation will not be left flapping in the wind.
By David Pace
You can read more about the sculpture and its creators here.
You can learn more about the buildings, both historic and new, of the science campus at the University of Utah on the College of Science website.