Light as a feather

A spectacular urban installation provides visual inspiration as well as posing questions on the way materials can influence the spaces we inhabit.

Janet Echelman is an artist whose work falls into categories as diverse as urban artwork, multi-coloured clouds and a materials’ research laboratory. Her most recent work is now opening in Vancouver.

It consists of a vast knotted net, made using some 230 km of high-performance polymer fibre. The installation covers an area of around 34,000m2 over a plaza in downtown Vancouver. Still, using this lightweight, braided fibre means that the whole net only weighs 1,500 kg. This means the fibre used is effectively 15 times as strong as steel.

The material is made using a patented, gel-spinning process. The resulting fibre is highly resistant to chemicals and ultraviolet light.

The floating sculpture, ‘Skies Painted with Unnumbered Sparks’, fades into the bright sky during the day. At night, the story is different. Lights projected onto the netted shape provide stunning visuals. These are interactively altered by passers-by, who can inform the sculpture using apps on their smartphones.

More material activity is provided by nature. As the network is so light, it responds to every change in wind direction. The artist has called the effect ‘breathing’, as the air-sculpture moves gently in the air, light as a feather but immensely strong.

Raindrops and dew add further visual effects to a piece of materials’ exploration that is already rich in texture and colour. This is increased due to the braided fabric used in the ropes, which catches and reflects light from all possible angles. It also shimmers as the sculpture changes shape.

To optimise the design, Echelman worked with architectural software studio Autodesk, who built custom 3D software to model and test the work before construction. The result is a complex 3D net that can withstand wind gusts of up to 150km/h.

This piece, spanning 225m by 150m and a height of over 50m, is the largest work of its kind in the world. Questions have been raised over environmental concerns, such as whether birds would be in danger. However, the designer states that the nets used are made of thicker rope with wider net openings than those used to entrap flying creatures.

Whether this results in a bird-free installation remains to be seen. But it is clear that this gorgeously built and lit installation will cause everyone to look up to the skies and the unnumbered sparks within.


More on the installation is here. Read about the designer on her website.

All images (c) Ema Peter – Studio Echelman.