Walker Art Center

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The Oculus Inhabited
Elizabeth Simonson’s Biomorphic Instar

By Paul Schmelzer

Like some alien organism deep in the core of the machine it controls, artist Elizabeth Simonson’s biomorphic, bead-based sculptural installation is recessed into a 25-by-10-foot notch in the aluminum-clad ceiling just inside the Walker’s Hennepin Avenue entrance. The first commission for the space, which was dubbed the “oculus” by building architects Herzog and de Meuron, the complex and intricate work is intended to suggest biological forms.

“It’s called Instar,” a term Simonson says refers to “the stage that some kinds of plants and animals go through, animals like caterpillars, butterflies, and others that can metamorphosize themselves.”

The piece consists of three globes, viewable from below as well as from a window near the Walker’s second-floor restaurant, Gather, made using glass and plastic beads suspended by fishing line. All three orbs have 10 arms, but each is frozen in a different life stage, with only one making contact with the surrounding walls with all ten appendages.

“I perceive the piece transitioning from that end of the space,” says the Minneapolis-based artist, gesturing to the far wall of the notch, “to this, going from a weblike structure into a chrysalis and then moving on beyond that.”

The work represents something of a personal evolution for Simonson as well. A decade ago she was doing work that was “purely abstract, in terms of concepts,” she says. “But the structures and patterns I used in my work often referenced life forms by their very nature, so I started to embrace that idea of my work being little mini forms of life that have a beginning, middle, and end, based solely on how they were structured and organized.”

These early works tended to be monochromatic, dictated by the colors of the materials she used, including wire, masking tape, and foam rubber, but “I started working with beads a couple of years ago because I wanted to embrace this notion of life form and the cellular shape of the bead, and the fact that it came in multiple units.”

“The very nature of beads is to be colorful,” she added. “So I’ve embraced that, too. That’s been really exciting for me, because I’ve never done something this intensive with beads.”

Like cells or atoms in a DNA strand, beads carry on Simonson’s fascination with structures found in the natural world and earlier works that take their form from “algorithmic patterns and mathematical equations that play themselves out.”

Created over the course of several weeks and unveiled December 1, the piece is the first in an ongoing series of McKnight Foundation–funded commissions by Minnesota artists. Says project curator Siri Engberg, “The architecture of the Herzog & de Meuron building is filled with unexpected spaces, and we are interested in seeing how artists might respond to our invitation to animate them.”

When Simonson first saw the recess in the Walker ceiling and its positioning just a few feet from the glass walls facing Hennepin Avenue, she was reminded of a colossal fish tank, a metaphor not unrelated to her use of fishing line. And today she views her sculptures as its inhabitants: “In a way, I see these as creatures that are existing in a sea world aquarium.”

That’s not what others necessarily see. The most common comment she’s heard is, “I’ve never seen anything like this before,” which she takes as a compliment. But her favorite response came from a woman visiting the galleries: “Oh wow, it looks like a dream.”

Simonson’s reply, which undoubtedly had to do with the complexities of stringing tiny beads—around 140 pounds of them—on Trilene monofilament and hoisting them into the ceiling: “Well, there certainly have been some nightmarish moments in installing it! It’s been quite a challenge!”

View more photos of Elizabeth Simonson’s Instar.

Elizabeth Simonson, Instar (detail), 2011

Elizabeth Simonson, Instar, 2011, as viewed from the Hennepin Lobby

Elizabeth Simonson installing Instar, November 2011

Elizabeth Simonson, Instar (detail), 2011

Elizabeth Simonson and curator Siri Engberg view the piece in Simonson’s studio