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Janet Echelman: Making the Ephemeral Eternal

Updated: Sep 28, 2021

Sculpture, Architecture, Urban Design, Material Science, Structural & Aeronautical Engineering, and Computer Science (1) all play a part in the production of Janet Echelman’s floating art pieces. Echelman is a sculptor who seeks to transform the urban environment by using her large-scale art works to bring in colour, light and fluidity to cities. Echelman has received various awards and honours for her work, and was nominated an Architectural Digest Innovator for "changing the very essence of urban spaces." Always looking for a new challenge, Echelman has created some of the largest soft sculptures in the world, and has definitely changed the essence of many urban spaces.

After having received her undergraduate degree from Harvard, Echelman traveled to Hong Kong to learn Chinese Calligraphy and later spent five years living in Bali where she painted extensively. During a trip to India in 1997, her inks which she had shipped never arrived, so in a search for new materials to make her art, Echelman discovered the fishing net. The way on which the net moved with the wind when held up amazed her, so she began her exploration with the fishing net. Learning and working with local fishermen, she learned the ancient tradition of fishnet making and from there developed her first floating sculpture. There are many techniques used by fishermen to create strong nets, such as the knotting and dyeing of the fibres. In the Northeast of Brazil, fishermen use the bark of a mangrove tree called Mangue Spateiro to dye their nets, which creates a wax-like barrier around the net’s fibres, making it water-resistant. With the help of fishermen, she made a net with one and a half million tied knots, which was then used for a larger sculpture.

Mangue Sapateiro in Galinhos, Rio Grande do Norte, Brazil

Bit by bit, Echelman began expanding her ideas of what she could do with the nets, and in Porto, Portugal that she was commissioned to make her first permanent large net sculpture. She Changes is a public art piece made to symbolize the city's fishing and industrial past. It was “credited as the first permanent, monumental public sculpture to use an entirely soft and flexible set of membranes moving fluidly in wind” (2). The piece has a 20-ton steel ring that supports the braided net structure that was made using fishnet-making machines. When referring to this piece she later said “as I watched the wind’s choreography unfold, I felt sheltered and at the same time connected to the limitless sky. My life was not going to be the same.” (3) From then on, Echelman has produced several permanent and temporary pieces for cities all around the world.

Her aim is not only to make public art pieces that will modify the urban scenarios, but also to work collaboratively ­– something Echelman has done from the beginning of her work with nets. It can be extremely challenging to design and make organic pieces that are delicate and intricate but can also endure intense weather conditions. Apart from working with architects, designers and artists, she also seeks contributions from “programmers, […] lacemakers, acoustical engineers, and an aeronautical expert, not to mention NASA scientists'' (4). She has also worked with digital artist Aaron Koblin, who created an online platform that allows people to control the lights projected onto the art pieces through their cell phones. By doing this, her works became even more integrated into the city life and even more personalized to each individual citizen.

Her mesmerizing fibre sculptures are now made with Spectra, which is “an ultra­ high molecular weight polyethylene fiber ‘fifteen times stronger than steel'” (5). They are therefore weather resistant - able to withstand a hurricane - and lightweight enough to be suspended from existing buildings. Through this innovative way of sculpting with fibres, Echelman created what she wished for: “the spaces I want to be in are nurturing and soft and saturated with color” (5). By joining ancient traditions with modern technology Echelman has shown how strong and eternal something as light and ephemeral as a fibre can be.

Footnotes and Links

Giovanna Pedrinola is an artist born in São Paulo, Brazil and currently living in New York City. Her most recent mixed media works explore connections between the physical body and the subconscious mind in an attempt to comprehend our existence. This combined with her fascination of ancient traditions, architecture, dance, music, textiles, rituals, and cosmology, generates a continuous research currently archived as text and images.

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