Considered a pioneer, and ultimately a lifelong practitioner, of the Op, kinetic, and haptic art movements, which prioritized optical illusion, physical dynamism, and viewer participation, Jesús Rafael Soto believed that perception involves the entire body and not just the mind. This radical shift to revise the fundamentals of how an audience engages with art is embodied in his most successful and immersive works: the Pénétrables.
In an interview in 1970, Soto noted, “…with penetrables, my most recent creations, this participation [of the viewer] becomes tactile, even often auditory. Man interacts with his surroundings. Matter, time and space form a true trinity, and movement is the force which demonstrates the trinity.” As I enter the gallery, the piece is large: an oversized forest of thousands of translucent filaments hanging from the ceiling in a rectangular formation. I accept the artist’s invitation and I enter the dense, synthetic wilderness of plastic tubes that shimmer and shift in response to every movement. I am surprised immediately by how much my visual depth is impaired when I am even just a few rows in. The work is suddenly multisensory, an experience, and not just a concept as I initially perceived it to be.
The scale of the piece cannot be underscored, it nearly fills the entire room, leaving only a narrow path around the perimeter to enter and exit the piece as well as the space at large; though as the tendrils trail over bodies (including my own shoulders) as guests exit the work – this path is indiscriminately obliterated. As I exit and re-enter the piece several feet further from where I initially exited, I am hyperaware of my surroundings – the notions of space and place and passage are palpable. Soto has reminded me that true perception involves the entire body, not just my mind.
Soto used to say, “…. the world is in constant movement; therefore, an art that does not move, does not represent reality” and his life-sized works of art constructed from flexible nylon threads, create such an area where I can feel the vibration that exists in space. There is a sense of lightness in this luminous environment, I am surprised by the emotions it invokes - a sense of joy, of possibility, and of hope. I feel reminded by the change that is possible through even the smallest act of genuine interaction with the space around me. My mood, my demeanor, my engagement with others – all replaced by an easy calmness and willingness to acknowledge my liberation.
Through simple materials in a simple presentation, Soto offers a release from the routine of our lives and allows us (for a brief moment) to escape and to let go and to allow a new perspective to completely swallow us whole. Our space (a metaphor for many things) is reaching out, inviting us to be willing to submerge ourselves and come out different on the other side. Intoxicatingly, the succulent strands linger over us as we exit the work, returning to reality – all the while clinging to our bodies and pleading with us to want more, to be more. I only wish I could stay longer.
Pénétrable de Chicago is on view through March 8, 2015 in gallery 292 at the Art Institute of Chicago. One of only about 30 pénétrables produced by the Venezuelan artist, and on display for the first time since 1986, Pénétrable de Chicago is an excellent example of the artist’s signature environments. It shouldn’t be missed. For more, visit: www.artic.edu/exhibition/jes-s-rafael-soto-p-n-trable-de-chicago
Images from top to bottom (all images but final): Pénétrable de Chicago, 1971, plastic filaments and metal hanging hardware, 10.5 x 16.5 x 29.5 feet), image courtesy EMC; final image: Pénétrable de Chicago, 1971, plastic filaments and metal hanging hardware, 10.5 x 16.5 x 29.5 feet), image courtesy AIC