String Theory: “Unseen Current” ties up Extension Gallery

A wave floats in suspended animation above the main floor, filling the gallery, stretching from wall to wall, and nearly from floor to ceiling. It has a sculptural surface and its volume is most immediately impressive. Viewed from the gallery doorway, the wave appears both solid and ethereal; its undulating shape has definite edges, layering blue edges of the wave and the orange ripples behind these edges, all against the white walls of the gallery. At a certain point, the surface dissolves into a fog of blue and orange string. The wave itself is composed of empty air, shaped by six thousand orange and blue strings, delicately spanning an abyss created by two hanging sheets. This cloud-like wave of string, titled “Unseen Current,” is the new architectural installation at Extension Gallery, designed by Ball-Nogues Studio.

Ball-Nogues Studio, based out of Los Angeles, is the award-winning collaborative effort of Benjamin Ball and Gaston Nogues, both graduates of the Southern California Institute of Architecture. Ball-Nogues’s work employs the use of site-specific installations, often using repeated modular forms to shape the space in which viewers interact with its work. Previous works include “Rip Curl Canyon” (2006) at Rice Gallery in Houston, Texas, a walk-through canyon valley with soft cardboard walls, and “Liquid Sky” (2007), an installation at New York City’s P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, for which Ball-Nogues won the Museum of Modern Art/P.S.1’s Young Architects Program contest and a United States Artists Target Fellowship.

Every string of “Unseen Current” ripples in the warm April breeze as the Extension Gallery’s door remains wide open for visitors. The strings catch light, like a glinting school of fish, a startlingly organic impression for a work so forthright about its constructed nature. Photographs on the rear wall of the Extension Gallery document the piece’s installation by a team of volunteers. Over the course of a week, volunteers spooled out and cut the strings to the precise length specified by Ball-Nogues, and attached each string to a marked location on two parallel hanging screens. The strings were arranged in vertical columns and spaced horizontally; the twists of the wave were created by attaching one end of the string higher or lower than the other to modify the location of the string’s curve, and the depth of the curve was determined by the tautness of each string. Ball-Nogues used computer modeling software in their design process to determine the length and exact spatial location of each string in the wave. Just as the beauty of living things may be reduced to mathematical patterns of fractals and the Fibonacci sequence, the organic fluidity of “Unseen Current” is actually due to the mathematical and structural principles governing its form.

“People come in and say it’s like walking in a drawing, like walking in a cloud,” says Paula Palombo, one of the Extension Gallery’s founders. The union of architectural precision of form and artistic fluidity embodies the driving concept of the Extension Gallery, one of the few architecture galleries in the world that specializes in site-specific installations, instead of prints and models of buildings. With smaller site-specific works, such as those usually exhibited at the Extension Gallery, says Palombo, the designers can “take their thoughts about architecture at that moment and put them into form.” Not every piece must stand for decades like a building does. “Unseen Current,” which was designed for the specific dimensions of the gallery’s room, is a transient form, like the wave it captures. Hanging in air, the piece’s physical construction is inherently unstable. And at the Extension Gallery, “the space becomes the canvas.”

The gallery has been a working canvas for six different works since its opening in November 2006. Previous installations have included nested rooms-within-rooms, mountains of aluminum barnacles, and other works that use the gallery walls themselves as the limits of their frames. Artists often start with a statement, Palombo says, but architects must first consider physical space. When the two principles–of an artist’s statement and the consideration of the gallery’s space–come together in Extension Gallery projects, results can surprise visitors who are unaccustomed to the power of empty space. Palombo remembers the highly emotional reactions of some visitors to last summer’s installation by Phillipe Rahm, “The Descent,” a series of climate-controlled rooms that were nested like Russian dolls. After stepping into the enclosed installation in the center of the gallery, some patrons charged outside with sudden attacks of claustrophobia, while others emerged more slowly, amazed at the affective powers of the environment. When the gallery commissions architects to design pieces for the site, says Palombo, “it’s very important that the space be transformed.” Ball-Nogues’s “Unseen Current,” saturating the room with gold and blue, seems to do more than merely transform the space; it transforms the very air contained in the gallery itself.