Melding aspects of computer animation, video art, abstract painting, structuralist cinema, and architecture, Jennifer Steinkamp creates ravishing abstract and figurative projections that reside in the realm between the physical and the virtual. Technology plays a major role in her art, however it never takes precedence over the desired aesthetic effect-her computer is the equivalent of oil paint, palette, and brushes. Inspired by the work of light-and-space artists such as James Turrell and Robert Irwin, she strives to erase the boundary between viewer and object, constructing environments that defy materiality, encouraging total immersion. These installations acknowledge the human body by creating disorienting effects, manipulating the senses, overwhelming with movement, effecting a range of responses from delight and awe to something bordering on vertigo. Steinkamp explores the nature of human sensory experience through her phenomenological installations, using light, motion, and sound to dematerialize and activate space.
Born in 1958 in Denver, Colorado, Steinkamp was raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She attended the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, for both undergraduate and graduate work, earning her B.F.A. in 1989 and her M.F.A. in 1991. Her interest in light and projection began in a class taught by Gene Youngblood, author of Expanded Cinema (1970), who introduced Steinkamp to the work of animators such as Ed Emshwiller and Oskar Fischinger, the latter best known for working with Disney on Fantasia.1 Inspired by the visual music created by her predecessors, she began making her own films, working with computers, taking classes, and studying on the job at various companies where she had access to high-end equipment. For her undergraduate thesis, she created a multiple-site work titled Gender Specific (1989), in which abstract animation projections were screened simultaneously at two locations. This early work both established Steinkamp's future direction and subtly proclaimed the artist's deep interest in issues of feminism. Says Steinkamp, "My site-specific installations set up complex relationships between the viewer and the viewed. With the environments I create, the relationship between viewing subject and art object is recast. My work engages with the spatial politics of vision. It breaks down standard-often male coded-modes of seeing to create a more open physical state of pleasure that includes all genders."2
Since 1989, Steinkamp's work has consistently featured abstract imagery that often mimics natural phenomena such as gravity, turbulence, and wind. In 2003, she made a foray into representation with Eye Catching, a site-specific installation in the ancient Yerebatan Cistern, created as part of Turkey's Istanbul Biennial. Three computer-animated trees form the basis of this work, which directly preceded the San Jose Museum of Art's related work, Fly to Mars, 1 (2004). Fly to Mars, 1 is a computer-animated projection of a tree alive with movement. Cycling through the four seasons, the tree's foliage shifts from flowering in spring, abundant greenery in summer, warm russet in fall, and bare branches in winter. Simultaneously, the tree makes a ninety-degree twist from side to side within the space of a single season, while the branches bow down and then shoot upwards, as though attempting to break free from the earth's gravity and take flight into the cosmos. Fly to Mars, 1 provides the illusion of a three-dimensional living object, one that is hyperanimated and seemingly strong-willed, aspiring to leave behind the here-and-now-an interpretation supported by the artwork's whimsical title. Fly to Mars, 1 contains a touch of autobiography, as the artist has consistently pushed beyond the limitations of her genre, imagining new and uncharted territories ripe for exploration, with technology in her service.
Steinkamp's sense of inclusiveness is integral to understanding her work, which grows out of a deep respect for viewers. She has exhibited her work in unlikely venues-a Las Vegas pedestrian area, a sports arena, two U2 rock concerts, on the set of a Wagner opera-revealing her willingness to venture beyond the art world, bringing her fantastic imagery to new audiences. Steinkamp's work provides a non-narrative, visceral experience, often quietly imprinted with her own political belief system. She transforms three-dimensional computer graphics-normally used for games and special effects-into resoundingly beautiful, thoughtful works of art, experienced not simply with the eyes, but by all the senses. -J.N.
1. Holly Willis, A conversation with Jennifer Steinkamp, artist, Artweek 97, October 1998, 16.
2. Jennifer Steinkamp, My Only Sunshine: [Experiments with Light, Space, Sound and Motion] (San Francisco: Leonardo/MIT Press, April 2001), 101.