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Artist Sarah Meyohas is an intellectually curious creator. Straddling the worlds of art and business, she focuses on cogent topics like value, meaning, cultural influence, and networks of information by using big data, infinite reflection, and digital representation to explore and showcase her findings. Last year at Red Bull Arts New York, her two-floor exhibition “Cloud of Petals” (on view from October 12 to December 10, 2017) showed us just that.
The show started with a 2016 visit to Eero Saarinen’s abandoned Bell Labs in New Jersey. Originally constructed in 1962, it was a site for groundbreaking technology research and testing. Meyohas arrived with 10,000 roses, 16 men hired from a temporary agency, and a film crew. There for four days, she had the men pluck 100,000 rose petals, setting aside the most beautiful to be pressed. Embedded with the workers’ subjectivity, the rose petals were turned into a data set for an artificial intelligence algorithm capable of creating petals that would live on forever through computer-generated representation. The infinite cloud of petals was made up of four self-illuminating installations: a 30-minute film, a mosaic of the 3,289 “most beautiful” petals, four sculptures made of infinity mirrors and salvaged walls from Bell Labs, and a virtual reality experience with various simulations.
We met with Meyohas at Red Bull Arts New York to discuss the subjectivity of beauty, the sublimeness of data, and ultimately, love.
WHITEWALL: What drew you to Bell Labs? What’s interesting about the space?
SARAH MEYOHAS: It’s a carcass of what it once was. It was amazing because it’s grandiose. The expansiveness, the atrium, is so symbolic of how Bell Labs thought. It’s not an efficient use of two million square feet, and this physical space in the middle of New Jersey represented the fact that they are the ones that made space obsolete. You don’t need these corporate, pastoral, giant headquarters anymore. They innovated themselves out of there. So I thought it was an overly potent space.
In conjunction, I had been thinking about petals and pixels and flowers, and how flowers relate to death and desire. That project to me with the rose petals was something I had in the back of my head, but it felt like it wasn’t complete. I realized the labor element, the process of it, was just as interesting. The marriage of the two was where I thought the conviction was.
WW: The 3,289 “most beautiful” petals were chosen by men. Why did you specifically hire men to do this job?
SM: This type of manual labor is done mostly by women, so I wasn’t interested in having women do this. Also, our conceptions of beauty are usually driven by what men think is beautiful, so would it really make sense for women to do this? Roses are already feminine. And here, they’re being destroyed. It didn’t feel right for women to choose the most beautiful. They’re all beautiful. It’s also kind of funny to ask men, “Which one is the most beautiful?” It’s asking just as much about subjectivity as it’s asking about beauty.
WW: The sculptures feature salvaged steel walls from Bell Labs. Why was it important to include these?
SM: The building itself is all mirrored glass, so it’s like this giant mirror box. This is kind of the inversion of that, visually.
Also, who knows what has passed through these wires? I’ve always been attracted to what this stuff looks like visually. It also alludes to virtual space. They’re reliquaries. These things are the relics of the space and of the performance. With these pieces, you don’t see yourself, and I want that. I am so sick and tired of mirrored things where you have yourself staring back at you constantly. I prefer to take you out of that and see everything reflected in front of you other than yourself. And in the space of yourself—the void.
WW: The void is certainly felt in the virtual reality experience as well. For your first VR project, what did you want it to be like?
SM: I wanted it to be a cloud of petals, and for it to be a bit like a game. It functions narratively. “Why did these workers pick and photograph all of these petals? Why did I learn to generate petals forever? What do I do with all of them?” The other side is how it functions as it relates to the machine learning. There’s a latent space, and I found that really enticing. I like to make things that are really profound—something that’s sublime. The sublimeness has to do with vastness. I could have gotten the ability to generate the petals with 5,000 roses, but it was about 10,000 roses and 100,000 petals. Data is big, and it’s so big it’s sublime. There’s literally a digital space in multiple dimensions where every point is like a petal. How do you even represent that?
Technology opens new worlds, and it allows you to see things in new ways and experience more things. In VR, we are literally gaze-activating petals, and you come across the rules yourself. You can’t do that in Central Park. It changes the way you see things, but it also makes you question who the petals are for, and you think about scent and touch.
WW: Art and digital technology are merging more now than ever. What do you think about that for artists?
SM: I think digital technology is so suited for artists to work with, especially when they’re early. Not a lot of people have VR at home. Nobody really knows what to do with it yet, so artists are really good at sensing and pushing. They’re experimental. It’s actually well suited for artists; the only problem is that it’s really technical.
WW: You mentioned that this exhibition questions where we locate meaning. Where do you personally locate meaning?
SM: Where I try to find meaning goes back to value. I try to find value and create things of value—things that aren’t just of economic value, but that are sort of human and powerful.
It’s like money, the dollar. Before that, it was gold. There’s nothing closer than gold and art, and it was actually the cultural value of gold that made it become economically valuable. That analogy was about finance, but this is about big data. Today, the way we ascribe economic values to our company is, “What data do they have?”
Value and meaning are related. It’s not just economic value; it’s about moral value, and how all of those things intersect. Value is almost more important than art with a capital “A.”
WW: What is one takeaway from this exhibition you want viewers to have?
SM: I know this sounds super-corny, but love. Love is at the root of so many things. There’s also so much anxiety in the world right now. We are the most anxious generation ever, where the future doesn’t look as bright, even though it might be. There is something about love. It’s grand. And sometimes the world becomes siloed, and you are kind of sucked in and isolated in big cities.