A museum in San Antonio unveiled a six-month exhibit called Alternate Currents, which tapped five local artists to create a functional design using the basic, iconic A-19 incandescent light bulb as the starting point. The exhibit was also intended to bridge the gap between art and science in a way that could be easily understood by school-age children and adults alike. From the recycled CDs and aluminum cans to paper playfully fashioned pinata-style, the exhibit garnered a lot of attention.
By Patricia Hart McMillan
Professional designers of lighting fixtures are increasingly aware of the connection between art and science. The objects they create must maximize each of those elements in order to provide fixtures that look and function beautifully — even as styles and technology continually change.
When Patty Ortiz, curator at San Antonio’s Museo Guadalupe (housed within the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center), decided to mount an “Alternate Currents” exhibit with the idea of exploring that connection, she handed each of five local artists a single incandescent light bulb suspended on a long cord and gave them a simple directive: “Respond!”
Did Ortiz expect to be exhibiting five decorative lighting fixtures or five scientific works? Actually, she held no pre-conceived notions. Instead, she awaited the artists’ own interpretive inventions. In her own words, she took a risk.
Among the five responses, only two might be considered to be lighting fixtures. San Antonio pop artist Avi Avatos – who has famously adapted his love of piñatas to create functional festive items such as a wearable mariachi outfit and a babydoll dress as Halloween costumes – tried his hand at making a chandelier. Inspired by a piñata, perhaps a better name for his light bulb installation would be a “chandenata”or “pindalier.” Pastel-colored, carefully crafted tissue paper veils the light from the single bulb, casting a soft, gentle, romantic glow. Despite its playful aesthetic, no one would dare approach Avatos’ culturally referenced work as they would an actual piñata. (No bashing, please.)
San Antonio artist Anita Valencia – a former papermaker renowned for her large, fanciful installations in the shape of butterflies, clouds, and stars fashioned from discarded aluminum cans – was ready for the challenge. Continuing to use her favorite medium of hand-cutting delicate individual pieces from recycled cans, Valencia presented what resembles a decorative floor lamp sans shade, with a spiraling electric cord adorned with butterflies cut from aluminum cans holding the bulb upright. “Blossoms” of compact disks at the base reflect the light from the single bulb.
According to the museum’s educational director Orlando Graves Bolanos, “There was an educational aspect to this exhibit. We wanted children to come and see the connection between the art and science of light.” Part of the exhibit showed Benjamin Franklin’s experiment with the lightning bolt, while other segments discussed Thomas Edison’s invention of the light bulb and Nikola Tesla’s development of the alternator. “Young people could see the connection between an idea and the work to prove or develop that idea,” Bolanos says, adding, “They learned that developing ideas requires effort and often failures before success. Edison is an example.”
The Alternate Currents museum exhibit demonstrated to children and adults that when artists are handed even the simplest materials, there is no risk and the guaranteed results are surprise and delight.