“Sphere Packing: Bach” is the pinnacle piece in Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s show. It’s a series of sculptures viewers can enter; inside are 1,128 loudspeakers, each of which plays one of Johann Sebastian Bach’s compositions. (Photo by Mariana Yañe/Courtesy Rafael Lozano/Artists Rights Society)

“Sphere Packing: Bach” is the pinnacle piece in Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s show. It’s a series of sculptures viewers can enter; inside are 1,128 loudspeakers, each of which plays one of Johann Sebastian Bach’s compositions. (Photo by Mariana Yañe/Courtesy Rafael Lozano/Artists Rights Society)

Lozano-Hemmer’s ‘Unstable Presence’ is for multimedia and music lovers, even techies

At SFMOMA, Mexico City-born artist works with cutting-edge technology

Poetic, political, philosophical, and both cool and geeky, an exhibition of recent work by media artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer has opened in San Francisco. Notable for creating large-scale, technology-filled installations that involve the architecture and history of public space, and for making such artwork far more compelling than it sounds, Lozano-Hemmer explores the transitory and ephemeral aspects of existence in his new show, “Unstable Presence.” It’s modest in size, but substantial in impact.

Presented by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Musee d’art contemporain de Montreal and curated by SFMOMA’s Rudolf Frieling and MAC Montreal’s Lesley Johnstone, the exhibit runs at SFMOMA through March 6.

On view are seven installations by the Mexico City–born, Montreal-based Lozano-Hemmer, who has a degree in physical chemistry and a team of creative colleagues (fellow technology nerds, he says) he closely collaborates with.

He calls his works “anti-monuments” — they convey impermanence, turbulence and uncertainty.

In “Unstable Presence,” Lozano-Hemmer explores atmosphere and our impact on the space we occupy. He gives form to the ephemeral, invites us to inhale history and poetry, and addresses dark as well as beneficial aspects of technology and human contact.

Frieling describes Lozano-Hemmer as an artist whose projects reflect the museum’s aim “to be critical without neglecting the desire for unique artistic experiences.”

“For us here in the Bay Area, an artist working primarily with cutting-edge technology without being a techno-optimist is of prime importance given our proximity and almost daily exposure to mind-numbing media applications and experiences,” Frieling says of Lozano-Hemmer.

The exhibit has been scaled down from a larger presentation to meet COVID-19 safety guidelines.

“The goal was to select works from the larger survey show that would resonate strongly with each other,” Frieling says. “I was able to work with the reduced footprint and place seven installations that address voice, text, sound and music in a playful dialogue between material and immaterial forms of sculpture.”

Upon exiting the elevator, on floor seven, we encounter “33 Questions Per Minute” (2000), an installation in which computer-generated questions, made up of randomly selected words and sometimes sounding ridiculous, stream forward at the digital-age speed the title indicates. Additional elements include public participation and political purpose — frequent aspects of the artist’s work. Viewers can insert their own questions, via computer, into the flow. Authorities won’t be able to determine whether sentiments of which they disapprove have been written by an individual or a machine.

“Cardinal Directions” (2010), reflecting the artist’s concerns about surveillance, contains a monitor featuring an excerpt from Chilean poet Vicente Huidobro’s “Altazor.” The sculpture faces viewers as they walk around it, interacting with one person at a time.

“It’s a simple kinetic object similar to a periscope, but it asks you to walk the walk and follow its circular movement,” Frieling explains. “Only when you do that, you will be pulled into a fundamental paradox, which I can’t reveal here. It is not the most challenging or most ambitious work in the show, but it’s like the perfect signal: Expect the unexpected.”

For the uniquely conceptual “Babbage Nanopamphlets” (2015), 2 million nanopamphlets, each 150 atoms thick, were printed in elemental gold. They contain text from computer pioneer Charles Babbage’s treatise asserting that the atmosphere contains everything ever spoken and that we potentially could “rewind” the motion of air molecules to re-create all things ever uttered. Riding on that wavelength, Lozano-Hemmer came up with the idea of releasing a massive number of microscopic gold leaflets into the museum’s ventilation system (this poses no health risk), potentially to be inhaled by visitors.

In “Volute 1: Au Clair de la Lune” (2016), Lozano-Hemmer pays homage to the first recording of a human voice (in 1860), and makes the immaterial physical, by having created the first 3D-printed “speech bubble.” Made of polymer and cast in aluminum, the cloudlike sculpture embodies the vocalization of “Au Clair de la Lune,” the same words uttered in the 1860 recording.

Most-mesmerizing-installation honors go to “Call on Water,” a fountain project in which ultrasonic atomizers, installed under a reflecting pool, create vapor in the form of poetry by Octavio Paz. Paz suggested that poetry, when recited, becomes part of the atmosphere and can be breathed in. The vapor text materializes slowly in this work, challenging contemporary attention spans but eventually captivating us.

The sonic knockout “Sphere Packing: Bach” is the pinnacle piece in a series of sculptures viewers can enter. Inside are 1,128 loudspeakers, each of which plays one of Johann Sebastian Bach’s compositions.

Frieling elaborates: “We listen to the cacophonies of 1,128 compositions by Bach, the German composer’s entire body of music, all at once and then experience the dynamics of shutting it all gradually down to a single composition. I don’t think you’ve heard Bach like this ever before.”

“Voz Alta and Prototype” revisits a 2008 Lozano-Hemmer project, which commemorated the 40th anniversary of the 1968 massacre, by government forces, of hundreds of protesting students in Tlatelolco, Mexico City. The 2008 “anti-monument,” presented at the massacre site, included live testimonies, poetry, political statements and performances. A megaphone amplified these voices while a searchlight converted them into light and transmitted them onto a government building and into the sky. They also aired on FM radio.

Lozano-Hemmer’s current installation includes a modified megaphone, a small xenon searchlight, a transistor radio, a documentary, archival recordings and a public-participatory element. Foremost, it aims to remind us that massacres still occur in the world.

Noting how this project has given people a way to speak out, Lozano-Hemmer cites “Voz Alta and Prototype” as his favorite piece in the exhibit.

You cannot rush through “Unstable Presence.” Every piece should be experienced fully.

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer talks about “Unstable Presence”

Examiner: It’s an honor to have “Unstable Presence” in San Francisco. Please talk about the experience of condensing the exhibition to its seven-piece COVID-era-friendly version. The show feels full and substantial, not abridged or minor.

RLH: Due to COVID, the exhibition was reduced in scale but not in scope — the pieces on view represent many different facets of my practice, such as sound sculpture, public art, digital fountains, historiography and applied scientific research. I like the work being unstable and present across many disciplines! I am thankful SFMOMA persevered with the show … and they produced a lovely catalog that presents other pieces if people want more.

Examiner: Can you talk about your use of poetry and music in your work?

RLH: Poetry and music are often starting points for my work: they are potent concentrates, platforms, catalysts, which vary with and affect our brain’s plasticity. But I am also creating in relation to philosophy, history, data visualization, math.… Basically my practice is parasitic at its worst and symbiotic at its best.

Examiner: The idea of breathing in poetry or visualizing Bach gives the exhibit an uplifting aspect that contrasts with the darker subjects, like massacres and surveillance. Do you view the exhibition as conveying hope?

RLH: I do view the exhibition as conveying hope, not inherently by the individual pieces but just in the action of bringing people together to share a moment. The darker subjects in my view are also hopeful, because confronting or revealing historical injustice or Orwellian surveillance is somewhat empowering.

Examiner: How do your science background and artistic visions work in tandem?

RLH: I disagree with people who say we are living in a new Renaissance where art and science go hand in hand. Science by definition is a constant search for essential formulas, for predictability, for answers — a scientist wants to describe and understand phenomena in the simplest possible terms. Art on the same hand, but in a different vein, also wants to understand phenomena but it does this by asking questions, by using allegory, metaphor, ambiguity, humor, alterity, seduction, and many other tools that complexify. Artists adore perplexity. Having said this, it’s clear that there are intersections, such as the desire to experiment, which is widespread among scientists and artists.

Examiner: You have said that “Voz Alta and Prototype” is your favorite piece. Can you describe the effect that this project has had in Mexico? How aware are young Mexicans today of massacres committed by government?

RLH: “Voz Alta” is my favorite piece, not for anything I did, but rather because of the way that survivors, activists, poets, students, and the general public used the platform to amplify their voice and speak their mind. As can be seen in the documentary, the participation was very moving and urgent. Most Mexicans today are aware of the Tlatelolco massacre, but for decades it was a taboo subject. There have been many other massacres, committed by corrupt governments, narcos, landowners and paramilitary groups, that remain unmourned; most people are aware, and art can sometimes help reveal, denounce, and mourn them.

IF YOU GO: Unstable Presence

Where: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 151 Third St., S.F.

When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday and Friday-Sunday; 1 to 8 p.m. Thursday; closed Tuesday and Wednesday; through March 6

Admission: $19 to $25; free for ages 18 and under

Contact: (415) 357-4000, sfmoma.org

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