Web Design: Jimenez Lai’s interactive “Point Clouds” explores the tension between the individual and the system

image courtesy of Jimenez Lai

image courtesy of Jimenez Lai

A tangled white web fills the main room of Extension Gallery, stretching from the floor to the upper walls of the two-story space. Intimidating in its sheer scale, the web’s shiny new playground-equipment look also feels inviting–though one wonders if the invitation is of the “come into my parlor” variety. The web–or jungle, or jungle gym–is built out of PVC pipes strung together with bungee cords connected by glow-in-the dark lacrosse balls. Unlike a spider web, it lacks all symmetry: the confusion of connections and shapes formed by the criss-crossing threads frustrates any expectation of order.

This is “Point Clouds,” an exhibit by Jimenez Lai, an artist of architecture, creator of comics, and clinical assistant professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago. The title refers to a digital means of three-dimensional modeling that uses a set of points to depict an object’s surface. “In a way it’s a kind of frame that morphs with interaction,” says Lai. “If the points are manipulated, the model changes.”

In keeping with the piece’s resemblance to a jungle gym and, from some angles, a swing or monkey bars, Lai invites viewers to treat it like “a playground game.” You can push or pull the pipes to contort the structure, suggesting the individual’s potential to influence the “system.” Seeing the piece as an all-encompassing system accentuates the grim implications of entrapment in the spider’s web. But its interactive quality lends it a playful aspect, as well as a greater interest. As Lai mentions in his artistic statement, the piece’s very pliability is what makes it so complex. Every connection point–every lacrosse ball–marks a series of possibilities, open to manipulation by any participant. The system in question could be as broad as society or as specific as a building or a body.

Indeed, the interplay between the industrial and the organic is a prominent feature of “Point Clouds.” Its materials–chosen for their “tension and compression properties,” according to Lai–recall unfinished ceilings and plumbing systems, while its shape evokes haphazard, vine-like growth. Lai cites an interest in the work of D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, a biologist and mathematician whose writing on evolution synthesizes two apparently disparate disciplines in a similar way.

The overlap between art and architecture is the focus of Pilsen’s Extension Gallery, which calls itself “a forum for testing new thought and practice in architecture.” It is an appropriate venue for Lai’s work, which both explores these commonalities and adds to the mix one of Lai’s first loves: comics. On the gallery’s second floor wall are a series of black and white panels depicting a future in which skyscrapers extend into the troposphere. From Burj Dubai in 2009 to New York’s aptly named Tower of Babel in 2200, the “figure-ground relationship” is gradually reversed–until, as he writes, “architecture has become the city.” Drawn with the spare, ordered precision of a blueprint, it is in itself a clever reversal of the classic utopian vision of the architectural future.

Lai claims to intend no connection between the comics and the main exhibit, but he does see a general link between comics and architecture. “It’s about making up a story,” he explains. “Comics always tell a story in a convincing way by throwing a lot of different types of drawings together, so that the output of drawing is an object. Architects make up a lot of fake stuff whenever they present a project–before it can be a reality, it’s all kind of awry, and they just need to draw it in a convincing way.”

In its multitude of possible configurations, “Point Clouds” comments on both the architectural blueprint and the comic book panel. Lai compares its unseen potential to “the way that a single frame of a comic book page performs beyond its borders.” Of its relation to architecture, he says, “There are many possibilities that are drawn but not built. This is an analog example of possibilities.”

Lai grew up reading Japanese manga, and his interest in art preceded his interest in architecture. “I find it fascinating that a profession can be based on deception–that people can make a culture by lying with drawings,” Lai says, describing how he came to feature architecture in his work. One of his latest and largest projects was “Phalanstery Module,” an installation last spring at Materials & Applications gallery in Los Angeles. Designed for a zero-gravity environment, it was a constantly rotating structure whose ceiling and walls functioned as the different rooms of a house.

Lai is also participating in a group exhibition about museums at Columbia University’s Studio-X. For now, though, Chicago is his home base: He moved to Pilsen last August, drawn by the city’s art and architectural cultures. “I think Chicago is burdened by its history,” Lai says. “But if we can find a big enough group of young people, we can converse with that history– we can look forward to something new or something else based on what our city really promises.”

Extension Gallery, 1835 S. Halsted. Through March 14. Thursday-Saturday, noon-5pm. extensiongallery.org